Can Mary Lou whip Sinn Féin into shape after recent election losses?

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald TD pictured at the count centre for Ireland South in Nemo Rangers, Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

It will be a pity if Mary Lou McDonald does not pull Sinn Féin together, or if her effort to do so is hampered by those in the party who think they know better than she does. Mary Lou has a lot to offer. She is bright, articulate, funny, and likeable. These are all important in the political game.

That she leads such a macho outfit makes her all the more intriguing. She has much more to give, but only if she has, as she said herself, “the cop-on and humility” to learn the lessons of the recent electoral drubbings — local, European, and presidential.

When she made that statement, about learning from these experiences, she used the term “we”, adding that the party needed to muster its collective strength and move forward. More so than in any other political party, the baggage that comes with being the leader of Sinn Féin must make the job more difficult.

It was not easy to watch her on the weekend of the recent election counts. Clearly nursing a cold and sounding hoarse, she looked and sounded like a beaten docket. She was doing what political leaders have to do when they’ve had a roasting from the electorate (159 council seats down to 81): explain herself. This was even before Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada lost their European seats.

But Mary Lou has owned the losses and has not attempted to spin her way out of it. It’s still surprising, though, to hear party representatives, such as Eoin Ó Broin, not a man known for his on-air humility, say “yes, pretty much”, when told it really had been a disastrous result for his party.

One of the issues for the party on voting day was the low turnout in some of their areas of key support, plus some boundary changes. They also had an exceptionally good outing at the last local and European elections, in 2014, riding a wave of public anger about the water charges.

There has been an argument that people were not “cross enough” about particular issues to come out and vote against the Government this time. And it can seem that while Sinn Féin excel at the politics of protest and outrage, they wouldn’t be able to butter any bread for you when it comes to the actual business of doing something constructive.

This has been an Achilles’ heel of Mary Lou’s. There has been lots of Sinn Fein noise and threatening of motions of no-confidence against government ministers. To be fair, in particular instances, such as the Government’s failure on homelessness, the moves against Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy are justified.

But looked at in the round, the party seems to be presenting to the public one neverending, in-your-face protest. This time last year, with the CervicalCheck controversy, we had a perfect example of how hyperbolic Mary Lou herself can be. There was so much material there for a politician to go on.

Being cynical, you might say it was particularly an opportunity for a female leader to show additional empathy and understanding, especially given how so many of her male counterparts were running around in a panic. But Mary Lou chose to push this to the limits and beyond.

In doing so, she added to the huge panic by spreading inaccurate information and stating that women’s lives had been “put in jeopardy by the HSE withholding information on false negative smears with the women”.

This was not true and it showed very poor judgement on her part to say it. Nor did she accept her bad judgement, when it was subsequently pointed out in the Scally Report.

Far too much of the reporting on Sinn Féin of late has been negative. There has been a shortage of material supplied, which has combined to make it look gaffe-prone and oftentimes offensive, such as the infamous Kingsmill bread episode.

Just this week, Maurice Quinlivan TD, the party’s jobs, enterprise, and innovation spokesman, settled an unfair dismissal case with a former parliamentary assistant.

He did win the case at its first hearing at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), last year, but Mary Roche had appealed the WRC decision to dismiss her claims. Then, far more importantly, there is the ongoing political standoff in the North.

Of course, all of the speculation about the additional internal difficulties that must come with being Sinn Fein leader can only be that, speculation — because while Sinn Fein members have certainly become more open than they used to be, when speaking privately, there can still be a cult-like adherence to the party line.

All the time, in the background, and never acknowledged, is the shadowy presence of those over the border, whom we suspect still hold significant power. In other words, Mary Lou is not really her own woman.

Who really knows what goes on, and who ultimately holds the whip hand?

Hearing Mary Lou sounding straight up and truthful about the election results is not just refreshing because she chose not to dissemble, but also because, all too often, when she speaks on certain issues, there is the sense of the other, unseen, shadowy presence, of the metaphorical hand on her shoulder.

This “presence” must also take responsibility for where the party has ended up. Mary Lou has been more than a year in the job and difficulties such as the allegations of bullying and handling of sex abuse allegations occurred front and centre on the watch of the party’s former leader, Gerry Adams.

Even without any of those complications, it was never, ever going to be easy to take over from such a figure as Adams, who was almost mythical to some.

If she is to fulfil her undoubted potential as a party leader, Mary Lou must stand on her own two feet and apply her intelligence and common sense in choosing a direction for Sinn Féin.

There have been slight changes of direction in recent years, more to the left, further towards the centre, sometimes in between. All the time, the edge of past violence clings to the party’s coattails. Mary Lou should look on this crisis as an opportunity.

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