Uncompromising Mary Lou is making Foster sound reasonable

You don’t need much self-awareness to realise that if you’re making the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, sound reasonable, you’re in trouble. 

But Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, does not seem to be indulging in much introspection. Instead, she’s clinging on to a bullish determination not to compromise.

It has handed quite the gift to Sinn Féin’s political opponents in the run-up to not one, but two elections in the next few weeks, and a general election looming on the horizon. 

The real question — both north and south of the border — is how much Fr Martin Magill’s words during the funeral of Lyra McKee, in Belfast last week, resonated with voters?

As people dealt with the shock of the murder of the talented young journalist, there was a collective outcry that something had to be done.

Fr Magill put words on those emotions and received a standing ovation in St Anne’s Cathedral. That will linger long in the memory of anyone who saw it.

There has been two years of political stalemate, with the Northern parties refusing to work together and get the Assembly back up-and-running. 

But the tragedy of the 29-year-old’s death, in Derry, has focused in the minds of the people of the North that it is time for the two sides to show political maturity and start talking.

Yesterday, the voters had an opportunity to make their feelings known at the ballot box for the Northern Ireland local elections. 

As the results roll in today, it will be difficult to imagine how Lyra’s death could not but have a major impact on the vote. It’s unimaginable to me that her brutal death won’t sway the electorate. 

Perhaps that’s because of our shared profession; or because of the stories of what a lovely young woman she was, finding her feet in life. She had much yet to contribute. 

How could voters simply go with tradition: a unionist cling to the union, and a nationalist the push for a border poll? 

But outside observers have often made that mistake of believing that tribalism might be set aside to encourage the art of compromise.

A high election turnout would indicate voters motivated to tell their politicians they are sick of the inaction, and that they have to go into next week’s talks with a mindset of possibility, rather than intransigence.

A voter at Bloomfield Methodist Church polling station on Grand Parade in east Belfast (David Young/PA)
A voter at Bloomfield Methodist Church polling station on Grand Parade in east Belfast (David Young/PA)

The alternative would surely point towards more of what we have witnessed over the past two years and which culminated in the shooting to death of Lyra McKee. 

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January 2017, because of the rows between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It’s a busy time for Sinn Féin, with that Northern election and with the local and European polls coming up here on May 24. 

A few weeks ago, they would surely not have imagined that voters in places like Cork, Dublin, Limerick, or Mayo might care too much about whether the Northern Assembly resumes business, at least not enough to raise it on the doorsteps with canvassers for the local or European elections.

Previously, many here would have looked on a non-functioning Assembly as a victimless crime, but the death of Lyra McKee changed all of that.

This is what I will be raising if a Sinn Féin candidate rings my doorbell. I’ll be asking why, despite what happened, party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is sounding so unyielding. 

In an interview last week, with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One, Mary Lou sounded utterly out of step with public sentiment, and made no effort to conceal her annoyance with the very legitimate line of questioning from O’Callaghan, who refused to be cowed by the Sinn Féin leader’s recalcitrance.

Just 24 hours after that Belfast funeral service, the Sinn Féin leader said her party’s positions in favour of a standalone Irish Language Act and marriage equality had not changed. 

“There is nothing trivial at all on insisting on equality and rights for every citizen, irrespective of class, colour, or creed. And we stand by the Good Friday Agreement, and we are not going to resile from that position,” she said.

Striking a resoundingly pessimistic note, Sinn Féin has warned that the Irish and British governments must have a ‘plan B’ to legislate for the Irish language, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights, at Westminster, in case the talks fail.

Earlier that morning, on Morning Ireland, Arlene Foster had said she wanted the Northern Assembly up-and-running, even if outstanding issues are not resolved. 

Sinn Féin, as well as the SDLP and the Alliance Party, disagree with this approach, but it certainly makes the DUP leader sound, in this instance, more reasonable than her Sinn Féin counterpart.

Up to this, Arlene Foster and the DUP’s dogged stance on Brexit was what had been resonating south of the border and causing much gritting of teeth. But the mood music has shifted. 

Mary Lou McDonald is already on the back foot, in terms of her own leadership. In the last Irish Times/MRBI poll, her personal rating fell sharply, down seven points to 33%, while her party went down three points to 21%. 

The decline wasn’t a major surprise, given the party’s poor performance in the presidential election.

To be fair, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dropped more, at eight points, but that was to a higher 43%, while Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin, was at 35%, down four points.

Lest all the self-awareness pressure be placed on Mary Lou’s shoulders, let us also recall that Pearse Doherty, at an Easter Sunday event, said that the people who shot Lyra McKee “are not the IRA.

They besmirch the name of the IRA”. The Donegal TD was speaking in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone, after the New IRA claimed responsibility for the recent murder of the journalist.

Sinn Féin is still an electoral force to be reckoned with, and we will see the evidence of exactly what order shortly, with the local and European elections. But now, political opponents have quite the stick with which to beat Sinn Féin.

Looking beyond, to a general election, it makes it easier for Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin to double down on their separate refusals to go into coalition with Sinn Féin, despite Mary Lou showing a willingness.

In realpolitik terms, recent events make the prospect of such a coalition seriously unpalatable from a voter perspective.

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