Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had a good abortion referendum campaign, but a bad presidential election, writes
It’s not easy being Mary Lou McDonald at the moment. The Sinn Féin leader must be looking to the Christmas break with some degree of longing as a time not just for relaxation, but also some much-needed reflection.
It is a truism in politics to say that you can never predict how someone — no matter what their track record in politics, or their years served in Leinster House — will perform when appointed to the job of party leader.
You can never predict the pitfalls and certainly not that an altercation over a seating arrangement with a former Fianna Fáil minister in the Dáil chamber would come to symbolise how things are definitely on the slide for Mary Lou right now. “Things are a bit rocky at present,” acknowledged one of her party colleagues this week.
In February she will be a year in the job — one she accepted at the time by saying she was ready for the challenge of leadership. Expectations were high. After all, this was a woman who had a sure hand, served a long and fruitful apprenticeship under Gerry Adams and was a highly impressive media performer. In the often testosterone fuelled bear pit that is the Dáil chamber she was able to more than hold her own — not taking any crap — and had the respect of her peers. “Brand Mary Lou” was strong.
She got off to a good start as leader but things have been patchy for a little while now. That wouldn’t have been eased by the Sunday Business Post/Red C poll showing the party at only 13%, down by two points. She has also lost two TDs over the abortion issue — Offaly deputy Carol Nolan and Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín, now attempting to set up his own party.
A group photograph had been organised in the Dáil Chamber with serving and former women TDs and senators to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage. In what was a significant misstep Mary Lou ended up in a stand-off with former Fianna Fáil minister Mary Hanafin over the seating arrangements. The rest of the group looked on aghast. There was a consensus afterwards that her utter bullishness was really misplaced on such an occasion. Mary Hanafin had been directed to the seat, which is usually occupied when the Dáil is sitting by Mary Lou, by the Oireachtas staff. For the occasion that was in it that row was reserved for former and serving ministers.
But Mary Lou apparently told the former Fianna Fáil chief whip she didn’t care where anyone else was sitting, but this was her seat. Eventually after some conferring with the horrified staff who were organising the event Mary Hanafin graciously agreed to move.
There is a school of thought among Mary Lou’s supporters that if seats had been organised for some, such as former and current ministers, then a party leader should have had the same courtesy afforded to them. Surely though a judgment call at the time would have told the Sinn Féin leader that this was not the time or place to pick a fight.
It’s interesting to add here that Sinn Féin did not join the Women’s Caucus in Leinster House on the basis that it should be more all embracing and open to female staff working for political parties there. Yet here was the party leader putting the Leinster House staff in a very difficult position in a highly public setting.
That evening Mary Lou also had a meeting with former Labour senator Mairia Cahill. This situation, where Mairia Cahill is entirely unsatisfied with the Sinn Féin response to her rape claim against an IRA man, continues to fester. The meeting certainly did not progress matters although Mary Lou repeated an earlier apology. Amongst other things Mairia Cahill accused her afterwards of “bullshit”.
In what was definitely a Tuesday to be forgotten, in between those two events, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivered an impressive burn to Mary Lou in the Dáil. She was criticising him for his announcement of tax cuts for workers at the Fine Gael ard fheis, while at the same time doing away with minor tax relief for low-paid workers.
But he had his response ready. Wasn’t she the one who was “hobnobbing with the super-rich” in New York on Armistice Day, when other party leaders were remembering the war dead “which was significant for Protestant and unionist communities” and later attending the inauguration of President Higgins. She was at a $400-a-plate Sinn Féin fundraiser in Manhattan. There was no classic Mary Lou rejoinder to that.
WATCH: Taoiseach @campaignforleo accuses @SinnFein leader @MaryLouMcDonald of hypocrisy for missing Presidential inauguration & Armistice day commemorations as she was in New York attending a 0 a plate fundraiser pic.twitter.com/afg9XT9sCL— RTÉ Politics (@rtepolitics) November 20, 2018
It had all been going far better in the first few months as she appeared to take the leadership role in her stride. Then she did a spectacular U-turn on the need for a border poll, first saying it should be put to one side while Brexit was sorted, but then saying the next day there would have to be a border poll if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal. Who was pulling the strings in the background there? In the latest Brexit-related complication the Taoiseach called on Sinn Féin to take up their seats at Westminster or else consider resigning them.
Neither is Mary Lou’s cause assisted by the leadership in the North of Michelle O’Neill, who is perceived as weak.
Mary Lou did have a good abortion referendum campaign, but a bad presidential election with MEP Liadh ni Riada as candidate performing very poorly in the vote and in the process putting a final nail in the coffin of the myth about Sinn Féin elected members taking home the average industrial wage.
One school of thought within the party is that Mary Lou is still adjusting to leadership, as is her party, given the massive change following the decades long reign of Gerry Adams. “There was a school of thought that Gerry might be like Alex Ferguson, but he has totally taken a back seat and is now just a backbencher,” explained one party member. “I’m a big fan of Mary Lou. No one works harder than she does. But she is settling into the role slower than I thought. The buck now stops with her and I suppose everyone was used to Mary Lou in the past always being available to talk and give advice and drink tea over a problem. She also has a whole new staff because Gerry’s staff left with him.”
All-in-all Mary Lou McDonald has a lot to reflect on. The momentum of her leadership needs to get back on an upward trajectory. Will party loyalty hold as steadfastly to her as it did to Gerry Adams if things don’t settle down? It’s clear she is mad keen on coalition after the next general election. Of course politicians can go back on anything they say about future coalition partners if the seat numbers add up. But it would still be an exceedingly big ask for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to do so this time around. The Sinn Féin leader needs to make that easier on them, rather than more difficult.