Conventional wisdom, that imperfect, inconsistent gauge of our thoughts, suggests voters can be divided into three categories: Those who vote for Sinn Féin, those who might, and those who, no matter what, would never vote for the party.
The same happyish-as-we-are principle applies to other parties but is not absolute. Fine Gael occasionally borrow Fianna Fáil voters and vice versa. Sinn Féin is the Marmite party, you either do or you don’t and, so far, never the twain shall meet. Whether the weekend coronation of Mary Lou McDonald as Sinn Féin’s next leader changes that dynamic only time can tell.
McDonald joins a very small club of Irish women who have led political parties — Mary Harney, Joan Burton, and, if she concedes to being called Irish, Arlene Foster — but even in that exclusive club, McDonald stands alone. Harney and Burton were elected but McDonald’s elevation by acclamation did not require a vote — just like the appointment of Michelle O’Neill as party leader in the North. Foster’s appointment followed a vote by DUP Assembly members and MPs.
O’Neill’s position is held at the pleasure of the party’s current leader, or so we are led to believe. At the time of her appointment, Gerry Adams shrugged off criticism of the one horse race, saying it was akin to any frontbench appointment. And never the twain shall meet indeed.
McDonald’s appointment at least follows long-established party practice. Ever since he was appointed in November 1983, Gerry Adams has, each and every year, been returned unopposed as leader. McDonald’s first coronation follows Adams’ 34. There are no other examples in modern Europe were a political leader has enjoyed such unquestioning support for so long, though the career of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe ran, in terms of longevity at least, almost parallel to Adams’ three-and-a-half-decade magisterium.
During those decades, McDonald has, unwaveringly, defended Adams when he defended the IRA terror campaign that divided this island in a way that makes discussion about a united Ireland at best far-fetched and at worst dangerously naive. Even if there was a 32-county democratic mandate for that evolution, extreme Unionism, just as extreme, violent Republicanism did, would oppose it in a way that makes the idea untenable in any current political lifetime.
Despite that, the latest example of McDonald’s Pavlovian defence of the indefensible was her response to the McElduff/Kingsmill controversy. This was just one in a long line that confirms that Sinn Féin cares far more about its particular objectives than they do for democracy or basic decency. There are, sadly, many more examples.
It is too easy to be critical of Sinn Féin, a party that, for 35 years, has been more like a cult than a reliable player in our democratic process, but if politics are to mean anything the possibility of redemption must endure. Hope must be imagined, if not embraced. That is the greatest challenge facing McDonald — that she might actually be the leopard that changes its spots and become more than the latest dreary mouthpiece for one of the very darkest forces in our history.