Before Gerry Adams announced on Saturday night that he would be stepping aside after 35 years at the helm of Sinn Féin, heads had already turned towards McDonald, who has been pushed by the party as their leading star for some time.
While Sinn Féin is not lacking in a crop of ambitious younger generation politicians, such as Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin, the succession conversation seems to have finished before anyone has opened their mouths.
Although only a TD since 2011, McDonald has quickly risen in the party and received a rip-roaring response when she spoke on multiple motions at the party’s ard fheis over the weekend.
Of course, the party will be given a chance to vote on a successor, just as they have voted in Adams every year for more than three decades.
Over the weekend, delegates attending the gathering in the RDS voted to hold a special ard fheis within three months of the departure of the party president.
The Sinn Féin ard comhairle is expected to meet in the next two weeks to start planning for this extraordinary ard fheis which will allow for a leadership contest within the party.
Seven days’ notice of the special ard fheis must be given to all members, who will then select delegates to vote on their behalf.
Yesterday, Adams moved to quash any speculation that, despite the fact that the party will go through the motions of a contest, a successor has already been anointed.
He said change within the party is now needed and those at the top levels had been working to bring about a transformation for some time now.
“We don’t do anointments,” said Adams.
“We are blessed with a cadre of young and multi-generations being represented across our party, so we have a lot of work to do.
“Any member of Sinn Féin can be nominated for any of our leadership positions. Our ard fheis — and not our parliamentary group or any of the little elites that are in the other parties — our ard fheis will appoint the next leader through a democratic process of a free election,” he told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.
Whether anointed or democratically appointed, McDonald — or whoever is selected to take over from Adams — will have a job on their hands to shake off the past.
McDonald, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, DCU, and University of Limerick, is among a growing number of elected representatives in the party who are post-Troubles politicians.
However, McDonald has consistently backed Adams though repeated controversies.
In 2014, she stood firm behind the party president when he was questioned over the abduction, murder, and disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972.
A year later, when Adams told a US media outlet that McConville’s disappearance is “what happens” during conflict, McDonald again came out to defend him.
And she was by his side when Adams came under fierce pressure over his handling of the controversy surrounding Máiria Cahill who claimed she had been forced to attend a ‘kangaroo court’ and face an IRA member who sexually assaulted her.
McDonald herself came under the spotlight herself when it was claimed over the summer that she “smirked” at Cahill when she passed her in the Dáil.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner in July, McDonald, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, supported Adams, claiming he has brought the party “right into the middle” of Irish politics.
And as recently as Friday, she again backed the party when Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claimed Sinn Féin refused “to disassociate themselves from the worst atrocities of the IRA”.
Responding, McDonald said she was “proud” to be a member of Sinn Féin, adding: “No party disassociates themselves from who they are and where they come from. I’m very proud of who we are. I’m also very conscious of people coming out of conflict and the hurt that was done over the last decades of conflict.”