McDonald must work to ensure her legacy stands the test of time

Marking the 100th anniversary of the introduction of voting rights for women and their right to stand in parliamentary elections Culture Minister Josepha Madigan singled out the legacy of Countess Markievicz.

McDonald must work to ensure her legacy stands the test of time

Marking the 100th anniversary of the introduction of voting rights for women and their right to stand in parliamentary elections Culture Minister Josepha Madigan singled out the legacy of Countess Markievicz.

Speaking in Marlay Park in Rathfarnham, Dublin, she told those assembled how at the foot of nearby Three Rock Mountain, the countess took up summer residence during the early years of the last century to escape the city and paint, write and walk; and it was here she developed much of her political thinking.

It was later in November 1918, that a second piece of legislation was passed by the Westminster Parliament allowing women to stand for election on an equal footing with men for the first time. Seventeen women did so in the general election, but only Countess Markievicz was elected.

The minister added how the countess wasn’t the only revolutionary to have a presence in the area; just to the north, at the end of Marlay Park, Pádraig Pearse established his school at St Enda’s Park.

The occasion also marked the launch of Mnà 1916/Women of 1916, Sinead McCoole’s book telling the often forgotten story of women who participated in the events of 1916 and contributed to our national story in so many ways.

During her speech, the historian spoke of the importance of today’s female politicians creating and retaining their own personal archive which would then be there for examination in 100 years time.

My mind wandered to a current highly successful female politician, one who has had a ring side seat in so much of what has gone on in Irish life over the last few decades. She grew up not that far away from where we were standing.

She may well have walked in Marlay Park as a child, a beautiful middle-class haven in south Co Dublin, where you’ll find a thriving Saturday market, probably an open air yoga class or two, and free outdoor cinema events during the summer.

But now, Mary Lou McDonald lives on the northside of Dublin where she is a TD in Dublin Central. Tomorrow, she will travel to the southside again, to the RDS, where she is due to become the new president of Sinn Féin, replacing Gerry Adams.

Despite the significance of the changeover there is little buzz outside the party given that the position has been achieved by acclamation rather than election. All going to plan, Michelle O’Neill will become the vice-president. Similarly there was no election for that position.

Last month, on the day she was confirmed as the sole nominee for the position of party president, Mary Lou told party members Sinn Féin was “probably the most exemplary party when it comes to girl power at this stage in Irish politics”.

Indeed, looked at dispassionately, it is a remarkable transition from the years of the bombs and bullets and the hardline macho culture, with Adams and the late Martin McGuinness at the helm, to McDonald and O’Neill now taking their places. McDonald is a stellar politician who has certainly put in the time and effort.

She’s climbed through the ranks from the days when she was best known for “doughnutting” Gerry Adams, had a stint as an MEP, fought her way to a seat in Dublin Central, and more than proven her loyalty to Adams and the party.

Why now then does her eventual ascension have a feeling of being anti climatic?

After those years of apprenticeship and graft, she deserved a leadership race, complete with the hustings and razzmatazz, where as Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney will tell you, you get plenty of chances to lay out your stall and remind everyone why you deserve the job.

It also pleases the membership no end to have their say, even if, as the Fine Gael contest showed, it was the parliamentary party votes that eventually swung it for Leo.

What would have been wrong with, for instance, with Mary Lou and possibly Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin battling it out on a few nights?

They would have been very credible adversaries but she would still have won the vote.

If Mary Lou herself had a role in deciding that this was the best way forward, I think she will live

to regret it in time to come, and the manner of her ascension will certainly prove good political fodder for her opponents. If the matter was not in her hands, she has very good reason to fell aggrieved.

The under-billing could have gone to Michelle O’Neill, and MEP Matt Carthy. Carthy made some initial noises about running for the deputy leader position and confirmed that he had received the necessary number of nominations to allow his name to be listed as a candidate.

He was aware, he said, there was a large desire “within many structures of the party for a contested election” and he shared the view a contest “would be healthy and an opportunity for a positive debate” within Sinn Fein.

But added: “However, it shouldn’t just be a contest for the sake of it.” What an extraordinary sequence of things for a senior party politician to say.

Why not have a contest for the sake of it, why not satisfy the desire by many which he highlighted to have healthy and positive debate?

The party faithful, having had the same leader since 1983, were denied an election for the new leader and not even given the sop of a contest for the role of deputy.

Was it because such a development would have shown up too much of a contrast between it and the Mary Lou coronation?

Apart from all of that, it’s been an inauspicious week to become leader of a party with hair-raising tales of bullying and internecine constituency warfare culminating in a suspended councillor posting photos on social media alleging that bruising evident on her legs were as a result of assault in a party related incident.

Sinn Féiners do a strong line in resisting what they see as the media and their political opponents attacking them unjustly.

They bristle at being described as cult like, yet at central level, the jibe is more than justified.

What is happening at the peripheries of the party, with extensive examples of bullying, show that the “undying loyalty” aspect to the party is not just unhealthy, but unravelling.

The success of Ms McDonald’s leadership, and how she may be judged by the historians of 100 years hence, will really rely on her ability to separate fact from fiction when it comes to what constitutes “normal” politics.

She has said the quick growth of the party in the south has brought challenges and she had spoken to people at grassroots level to get a “deep sense” of the problem.

If she wishes to begin her new role on the best footing possible, she will explicitly address this bullying issue in her first speech as leader tomorrow and make clear that what may have been judged as acceptable in Sinn Féin under the previous regime will actually now result in strict and transparent disciplinary measures.

In fact, you’d hope that this will be just one of a number of ways that this talented and hard working politician will mark out her new leadership territory. It will feel like an awful disappointment if she does not.

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