Brilliant TD falls short in the big job of party leader

Sinn Féin leaders Michelle O’Neill (left) and Mary Lou McDonald. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The continuing abstentionist policy in Westminster combined with the failure of Sinn Féin and the DUP to re-establish the Stormont Assembly have opened McDonald and her party to widespread criticism, writes Daniel McConnell

There I was on Thursday in RTÉ’s television studio waiting to go live.

I was appearing on the station’s programme Leaders’ Questions alongside Conor McMorrow of RTÉ’s political staff and host Sharon Ní Bheoláin.

The political guest was Kathleen Funchion of Sinn Féin, who was the last to arrive into the studio.

Ahead of the day’s Dáil business, the panel had about 10 minutes of discussion which centred on Sinn Féin’s motion of no confidence in Health Minister Simon Harris the previous night.

Our host put it to Ms Funchion, a TD for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, that the party’s motion tabled at a time of intense Brexit uncertainty was reckless and dangerous in the extreme.

In response, Ms Funchion said the party brought forward the motion because there are so many issues in health.

Sinn Féin's Kathleen Funchion
Sinn Féin's Kathleen Funchion

Asked, are there reasons to bring a Government down at such a crucial stage?

Her extraordinary response was telling as to the real thinking within Sinn Féin: “Yes, it is reason to bring… it was made clear by the Taoiseach he wouldn’t have an election before Brexit. You can’t put everything on hold because of Brexit. I don’t think we need to have a general election now.

“Following Brexit, we should have an election. Nobody wants to see an election between now and 29th March… they need to go, maybe it will be in June or September or October,” she continued.

So, her party tabled the motion of no confidence in the knowledge it would not succeed but did it anyway.

She said nobody, even in Sinn Féin, wants an election yet because of Brexit, but the whole purpose of a no-confidence motion is to seek to bring a minister and, or their government, down.

The motion of no confidence in Harris was Sinn Féin’s sixth time since 2016 to do so against a member of the Government. None were successful and Ní Bheolin put it to Ms Funchion that her party was “trigger happy” (as accused by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar), a charge which the deputy somewhat meekly denied.

The inconsistency of her party’s position was laid bare and if you needed a reason to see why Sinn Féin remains unfit for office, then this week was it.

But, aside from the shambolic scenes in the Dáil, a far more serious development occurred which shows that Sinn Féin, under Mary Lou McDonald, is behaving in a most reckless manner.

I am talking about her incredibly ill-judged and incendiary comments about the PSNI.

The party leader sparked outrage when she said she did not think any of the PSNI’s current police commanders should be handed the top role when George Hamilton steps down in June.

The remarks sparked criticism from political rivals and were labelled “offensive” by the Police Federation for Northern Ireland which represents rank and file officers.

Hamilton’s successor will be appointed by the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the PSNI’s oversight body. A Sinn Féin member will be on the panel which makes the decision.

“On the issue of the chief constable I have no role in the appointment of a chief constable,” Ms McDonald said. “I was asked could I identify someone from the senior team who I thought ought to be chief (constable) and the truth is I can’t.

Be clear on this, I am not going to decide who the chief constable is. Yes, we make appointments to the Policing Board and when people are appointed to the Policing Board they act in accordance with the statutory scheme, the rules and regulations — the letter of them.

“And I would expect and insist that any Sinn Féin appointee behaves in that manner.”

A day after she made her comments, a defiant Ms McDonald refused to apologise for saying Northern Ireland’s retiring police chief constable should be succeeded by someone from outside the force. After meeting with senior officers to discuss a controversy surrounding Police ombudsman legacy files, Ms McDonald refused to retract the comments saying “there’s nothing to apologise for”.

She dismissed the controversy as “political huffing and puffing”.

Her comments reflect a growing sense that she is not coping well with the top job, having been a highly effective force as Gerry Adams’ number two. Her tenure as leader has been blighted by misstep after misstep, most notably the party’s disastrous showing in the presidential election in October.

Having forced the need to have an election, the party then bizarrely delayed to announce its candidate Liadh Ní Riada until September last. Her campaign never took hold and ultimately failed to attract half of the party’s core vote.

Ms McDonald had to distance herself from comments her candidate made about wearing the poppy on Armistice Sunday, saying “republicans don’t wear poppies”.

The continuing abstentionist policy in Westminster combined with the failure of Sinn Fein and the DUP to re-establish the Stormont Assembly have opened McDonald and her party to widespread criticism.

Such criticism should not be exclusively directed at Sinn Féin but the party does certainly deserve its fair share of it.

“The only political voice from Northern Ireland heard at Westminster is that of the DUP and we all know how it feels about a hard border and Brexit,” Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly sharply stated in the no-confidence motion debate.

Due to Sinn Féin, the people of Northern Ireland have no directly elected political voice in Belfast. Now, weeks before the Brexit deadline, Sinn Féin would like to complete the hat trick and collapse the Dáil also, taking Ireland away from the EU table while aspects of its future are being negotiated. This is Sinn Féin’s choice, on which it should be judged.

His colleague Billy Kelleher didn’t hold back either: “Sinn Féin is just a party of opportunism. Brexit is five weeks away, and this State could potentially face a catastrophic event and all Sinn Féin is interested in is having political chaos across the island because it thrives on it and has consistently promoted that anarchist-type view.

“Let me be very clear: when Sinn Féin deputies advocate for their constituents and the concerns of their constituents… they should also accept that they have failed to advocate for the people in Northern Ireland when they stood for an Assembly election and then pulled down the Assembly. They are a shameful bunch of hypocrites.”

These two failures coupled with a continued drip of resignations from the party by disillusioned councillors have furthered undermined Ms McDonald’s previously unassailable position.

Her comments about the PSNI led one to conclude that she is not in control of her party and said such things to appease the hardline brigade of West Belfast, who many believe still really pull the strings.

Ms McDonald has made it clear she wants to lead her party into Government, but her march to the centre ground appears to have been abandoned given a backlash internally.

Now she appears to be consolidating her hardline base and the two positions are not compatible.

Like Brian Cowen, Michael McDowell and even Gordon Brown before her, she is simply the latest example of someone who excelled as a deputy but who fell short when in the big job.

It is, of course, far too early to make a complete assessment of her as she is still electorally untested but, at the very least, it is safe to say all is not going according to plan.

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