MY LITERARY hero — the late Christopher Hitchens — famously drew the ire of the left in the late 1970s when he had the temerity to write that he believed Margaret Thatcher, newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, was sexy.
He spoke of how she used her brain and her gender to overcome and surpass the sexist dinosaurs in the Tory Party to become leader and to later become prime minister and rule so completely for 11 years.
He recounted one episode where they met in the House of Lords and her sex appeal was confirmed to him.
Hitchens wrote: “Almost as soon as we shook hands on immediate introduction, I felt that she knew my name and had perhaps connected it to the socialist weekly that had recently called her rather sexy. While she struggled adorably with this moment of pretty confusion, I felt obliged to seek controversy and picked a fight with her on a detail of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe policy. She took me up on it.
“I was (as it happened) right on the small point of fact, and she was wrong. But she maintained her wrongness with such adamantine strength that I eventually conceded the point and even bowed slightly to emphasise my acknowledgment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Bow lower!’ Smiling agreeably, I bent forward a bit farther. ‘No, no,’ she trilled. ‘Much lower!’ By this time, a little group of interested bystanders was gathering.
“I again bent forward, this time much more self-consciously. Stepping around behind me, she unmasked her batteries and smote me on the rear with the parliamentary order paper that she had been rolling into a cylinder behind her back. I regained the vertical with some awkwardness. As she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words ‘Naughty boy!’”
For the poster boy intellectual of the left to label the Queen of the Tories as a sex goddess led to bags and bags of angry mail to descend on the New Statesman’s office and Hitchens’ reputation as a combative and unpredictable commentator was cemented.
Something happened last week which made me think of this and it involves the new president of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald.
When you strip all the political correctness away, what people see in Ms McDonald is a poised, polished, private school-educated woman who can eviscerate her political rivals — male and female — with ease and who is not short of one of the most-rare attributes in politics — sex appeal.
Many of you will say I have gone off my rocker but here is my case.
Last Monday night, Ms McDonald held a public meeting in the Maples Hotel in Drumcondra.
This part of the world recently was shoved back into the Dublin Central constituency, making Ms McDonald the local TD again.
But this is not her home patch and it would be fair her meeting was akin to a hostile takeover of the leafy Iona district, replete with its lawyers, doctors, civil servants and other professionals. Sinn Féin voters by and large they are not.
For two hours, she and a panel, chaired by the irascible veteran broadcaster and journalist Vincent Browne, spoke nominally on the issue of Brexit.
The real purpose of the meeting was to win over prospective voters.
The meeting was wedged and Ms McDonald had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hands.
Vincent Browne did what Browne does best and sought to expose — with vigour — weaknesses in her and her party’s position with increasing theatrics.
Yet, she did not take the bait.
Instead, her poise intact, she sat confidently, smiled and joked with Browne, toyed with him in fact in a flirtatious and playful way.
As they sat beside each other at the top table, she nudged him with her elbow, she tapped his hand playfully, all subtly saying to the quizmaster and to the room, that she was in charge.
It was intoxicating.
Sinn Fein President @MaryLouMcDonald deeply critical of Alice in Wonderland approach to Brexit by British govt at public meeting in Drumcondra ... event chaired by @vincentbrowne pic.twitter.com/2VrTESD39Z— Daniel McConnell (@McConnellDaniel) April 16, 2018
I sat there saying to myself that the two big parties — Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — have a major problem on their hands.
I was not alone in thinking that. I met political operatives from other parties in the room who obviously came to spy on the competition and they said the same thing.
Local residents, of which I am one, had attended to get a glimpse of her up close and many walked away
They said that while perhaps her answers to some of the questions put from the floor were less than convincing, she had the room captivated.
She has that intangible X-factor that few others in politics have.
And just to prove I am not coming from a sexist viewpoint, Bertie Ahern had it, Tony Blair had it, Leo Varadkar has it, Justin Trudeau has it.
They light up a room, make people sit up and listen and Ms McDonald is the most captivating female leader Ireland has seen in a long time.
She eschews the clichés about women in politics, “the whole idea of the political woman has become indissolubly linked to the preachy, the righteous, the health conscious, and the wholesomely interfering,” as Hitchens said of Thatcher.
She transcends that and has used all of her considerable skills — including her attractiveness — to climb the ranks of Sinn Féin in a relatively short time to become its unassailable leader.
I think, like Thatcher, Ms McDonald has exploited her gender positively to make herself the obvious choice to succeed Gerry Adams.
What was so apparent on Monday night, aside from the neutral posters aimed at not scaring off the crowd, was that her skill set poses a real threat to the two big parties.
Monday night showed me that Middle Ireland is in part now ready to see Sinn Féin as a viable alternative to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
While she risks losing some of the traditional hard-left Sinn Fein vote, associated with the struggle, in her dash to the centre, one senses McDonald is not that bothered.
She is desperate to be in government and has shown she has the appeal to get her there.
The latest Irish Times opinion poll showed there was a three-point gain for Sinn Féin under its new leader and most significantly it now holds 42% support with respondents aged under 25.
Interestingly, McDonald also recorded an approval rating of 39% as party leader, up 12 points on the backing of her predecessor Gerry Adams.
Now, while her appeal is undeniable, the same cannot be said of her party whose commitment to real democracy, internally and externally, remains to be seen.
But one suspects that a great many people in Ireland are willing to park the crimes of the past with the now departed Gerry Adams and give Ms McDonald’s Sinn Féin the benefit of the doubt.
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour (remember them) had all better be prepared.
Tánaiste Mary Lou, anyone?