Mary Lou’s leadership brought into sharp focus

More damaging to Mary Lou’s leadership than the loss of Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín was the incredibly poor showing of Liadh Ní Riada in the presidential election. Several party figures

have conceded that they got it badly wrong, writes Daniel McConnell

Picture: Garrett White / Collins Photo Agency
Picture: Garrett White / Collins Photo Agency

POOR Mary Lou, she just can’t catch a break.

Last Tuesday was, without question, her toughest day in the office since becoming leader — and has left many beginning to wonder about her capacity to lead.

It began with the Sinn Féin president being accused by former Fianna Fáil minister, Mary Hanafin, of being a bully over a row about seating arrangements in the Dáil for an event to mark women’s contribution to politics in the past 100 years.

Front row seating for the photograph was allocated for serving and former cabinet ministers. Former president of Ireland and former senator, Mary Robinson, was also allocated a seat in the front.

The story goes that right before the off, with most others in place, Mary Lou arrived and headed for her usual pew, the leader’s seat, only to find it inhabited by Hanafin, who lost her seat in 2011.

Despite having not served in government and despite being told that the seating arrangement differed from normal sittings of the Dáil, Mary Lou was not for turning.

“Who gave you permission to sit there?” asked Mary Lou, who insisted it was her seat and she wanted to sit in it. Ten minutes later, amid some very awkward conversations and cajoling, the stand-off continued.

Eventually, Hanafin relented and found a seat elsewhere and the photograph was taken.

“I did the gracious thing and moved when the usher asked me. I didn’t want to make a scene or make the situation any more difficult for the staff,” Hanafin told the Irish Times. She described McDonald’s actions as “bullying, pure and simple. Nobody has a permanent seat in the House. You are only sitting in there for as long as the voters decide to keep you there. It’s not yours for life. We all learn that in the end.”

Mary Hanafin
Mary Hanafin

A short time later, McDonald was again in the wars during leaders’ questions. When she sought to highlight the controversial decision by the Revenue Commissioners to axe flat rate expenses from January 1, she found herself on the receiving end of a double-barrelled attack from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He accused McDonald of “rank hypocrisy” after missing the presidential inauguration on November 11 to attend a $400 plate dinner in New York.

McDonald sought to highlight pending changes to how unvouched expenses are treated by the Revenue Commissioners, saying this would impact some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. She compared the planned clampdown to the soft treatment given to the super wealthy by Fine Gael in office.

McDonald raised Varadkar’s árd fheis promise to deliver five years of income tax cuts if re-elected and contrasted it with the decision to cut entitlements for flat rate expenses. This is “a few bob that workers claim to cover the cost of equipment” such as tools, uniforms, stationery, she said.

In response, Varadkar went on the attack, saying McDonald sought to skip the swearing-in of President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle to attend a Sinn Féin fundraising dinner in the United States. He accused McDonald of “hobnobbing with the super-rich at a $400-a-place lunch for your super-rich supporters”.

The Taoiseach also accused McDonald and her party of telling “porkies” about its own salaries “for years and years and years” and slammed “hypocrisy” over Sinn Féin claiming to care about those on lower pay. “We are clamping down on tax breaks left, right and centre,” he said.

His attack on her was not that surprising, as the two have previous, but what was surprising was the lameness of her response. There was no witty comeback, which we would expect. No devastating quip about posh boys, as she has been known to do in the past.

It was as if the earlier incident had used up all her head space — but it was an illustration that she is not indestructible.

Then her day was completed by a fraught and difficult meeting with former IRA abuse victim and Labour Senator, Mairia Cahill. The two women spoke for more than 90 minutes and Cahill made no bones about letting it be known how disappointing the encounter was, describing many of Mary Lou’s responses as “bullshit”.

But if that was just one day, Mary Lou has been in the wars recently.

The loss of Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín was unnecessary and avoidable, especially when he made it clear that his views on abortion had been tolerated within the party under Gerry Adams.

Part of the 2011 intake, Tóibín is a clever operator and a well-respected TD. Articulate and convincing, Tóibín’s loss was a blow to McDonald’s standing as leader.

But more damaging was the incredibly poor showing of Liadh ní Riada in the presidential election.

I have consistently been of the view that the party never expected to win the race, given how late they announced her candidacy, having been the ones who essentially forced the contest.

Surely, having insisted the position be subject to an election, you enter to win it.

Several party figures have conceded they got it badly wrong. They say ní Riada was the wrong candidate; did not have sufficient profile to be parachuted in so late; and her campaign never got going. She never recovered from her U-turn on the HPV vaccine and her brave comments about wearing the Poppy on Armistice Day clearly did not go down well among her own.

McDonald herself had to distance herself from the comments by saying: “I don’t think there’s any expectation that the leader of Sinn Féin would be wearing a poppy, in all fairness.”

Ultimately, Ní Riada got just 93,987 or 6.4% of the first preference votes — a far cry from the 14% to 22% her party has been attracting in recent opinion polls. Which goes to show that Ní Riada failed to get her own party support behind her.

Aside from the candidate, McDonald, as leader, is now very much under focus. Will she be successful in wrestling control of the party from the hardliners in West Belfast who are known to be most concerned at Sinn Féin’s dash to the centre ground.

She is very much still a rookie leader and every leader deserves time to settle in but the much-anticipated rise of Sinn Féin under McDonald appears to be wavering, to say the least.

But the question remains, just what type of leader does she intend being and what sort of party does she intend Sinn Féin being on her watch? On one level, it appears she intends it being a sort of Fianna-Fáil-lite with a slightly greener tint but if she has genuine ambitions of being considered fit for Government then a lot more alterations will be necessary.

Last weekend, Fine Gael virtually made a coalition between the two parties impossible by virtue of a significant motion passed at its árd fheis — meaning the only likely avenue to power is with the Soldiers of Destiny.

I suspect that somewhere on Tuesday night, Gerry Adams was chuckling to himself that his successor now realises that being leader is no walk in the park.

A week to forget for Mary Lou.

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