David Davin-Power: McDonald proves an old hand at playing down party controversy

Sinn Féin found itself in hot water yesterday, while Fianna Fáil left reporters yawning, writes David Davin-Power.

David Davin-Power: McDonald proves an old hand at playing down party controversy

Sinn Féin found itself in hot water yesterday, while Fianna Fáil left reporters yawning, writes David Davin-Power.

Gentle banter and the clack of indoor bowls wafted through the cavernous John Paul II Sports Centre as senior citizens from the heart of Mary Lou McDonald’s Dublin Central constituency enjoyed their weekly game.

The Sinn Féin leader was there to showcase her pension proposals, but the controversy surrounding one of her councillors, who has some distance to travel before thoughts of retirement crease his brow, took centre stage instead.

Paddy Holohan, she insisted repeatedly, had apologised in good faith for remarks that should not have been made and she had accepted that.

The former MMA fighter said that, no offence to Leo, but he wanted a ‘family man’ running the country, and that Varadkar’s “blood obviously runs to India”.

It’s safe to say it’s a view that won’t find its way on to Sinn Féin’s election literature.

Fending off any suggestion that Holohan might be Sinn Féin’s Verona Murphy, McDonald pointed out that he was not a candidate and talk of him being removed from his position as a party councillor did not arise.

She must have repeated the point a dozen times to reporters but the Sinn Féin leader showed no sign of the condescension or waspishness that sometimes mark her Leinster House performances.

For this was another Mary Lou, in her own skin on home ground in her own constituency.

It’s a part of Cabra known as The Bogies, synonymous with a legendary Sinn Féin figure who attracted his own share of controversy, Nicky Kehoe.

No sign of Nicky though, whose relationship with the party became strained after a complex libel case in which he moved to distance himself from his long IRA career.

Earlier, McDonald had chatted amiably over tea and biscuits with some older supporters taking time off from their bowls game, kicking around the relative merits of retirement at 65 as she prepared to brief the media on her pension proposals.

“I couldn’t wait to get out, I left at 63,” said George Barton, while Yvonne McDonald — no relation — a sprightly 77, said she loved her work in a local school.

“I worked until I was 70 — I’d be working still if I could,” she told me.

Sinn Féin’s proposals would give workers the option to retire at 65 with the state pension or work on and defer it, supplanting the current plan that will see the pension age rise in time to 68.

It would cost some €368m to be funded, like any other initiative, from tax revenue.

It was a societal choice, Mary Lou maintained, to give our senior citizens choices or to continue to give big tax concessions to institutions such as our main banks.

While Sinn Féin went for innovation, Fianna Fáil was at its most prudent and responsible, Michael McGrath and Lisa Chambers epitomising qualities which they clearly sense, for some unaccountable reason, voters may not immediately associate with their party.

Outlining the party’s economic policies, its finance spokesman exuded concern and responsibility; unlike Fine Gael it “wasn’t the Fianna Fáil way” to make uncosted promises.

Chambers, in a significant break with party tradition in her home county, resembled an accountant warning against a dodgy savings scheme.

Lisa Chambers

Lisa Chambers

Sensing her client’s misgivings about her advice, she understood “why Fine Gael was annoyed at the responsible stance her party was taking”.

With much talk of fiscal prudence, the continuing need for that rainy day fund, and vital macro-prudential guidelines, Fianna Fáil wants to be the boring party when it comes to the economy, and it made an excellent start yesterday.

While Fine Gael was raising proposals on the media across town, it was a policy Sahara for its main rival.

Journalists were anxiously consulting the UNHCR website to see how their rights might have been violated by detention in such a news-free environment for over an hour.

Spirits leapt briefly when McGrath confided that “not once in the last four years had he asked Paschal Donohoe to step outside...” but after a tantalising pause “...normal fiscal parameters” dashed notions of the Polite One and the Responsible One throwing off their jackets and going full Conor McGregor.

Fianna Fáil will be having a full economic launch later; it seems this was in thenature of a scene setter.

One aspect of the political scene it did highlight was how Twitter ping-pong is likely to feature in the campaign.

Its finance spokesman accused Donohoe of avoiding meeting the main players about insurance costs, a claim posted to social media by those present, prompting an instant denial from Fine Gael at its news conference; when that was then put to McGrath he stood by his claim, citing answers to Dáil questions.

The ongoing exchange sparked fears of a never-ending social media doom loop, but luckily at that point the curtain fell.

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