Alison O’Connor: Mary Lou has had her troubles as Sinn Féin leader, but is resurgent

It was the 2004 European elections. Mary Lou McDonald was a candidate for the European Parliament. I was to accompany her on a canvass, preferably in her local neighbourhood of Rathgar, Dublin, where she grew up.
Alison O’Connor: Mary Lou has had her troubles as Sinn Féin leader, but is resurgent
Mary Lou McDonald in 2004, as a Sinn Féin candidate for the European elections. She is now party leader. Picture: Photocall Ireland

It was the 2004 European elections. Mary Lou McDonald was a candidate for the European Parliament. I was to accompany her on a canvass, preferably in her local neighbourhood of Rathgar, Dublin, where she grew up.

It quickly became clear that I would not be observing how she would be received in the leafy, middle-class suburbs. Eventually, there was a take-it or leave-it offer from Sinn Féin of an old local authority estate in Crumlin. I took it.

The following year, an attempt was made to set up an interview between me and the then Dublin MEP. There was no way of contacting her directly.

Quite incredibly, her press officer in Brussels seemed to be out of contact with her for days at a time.

Eventually, a limited time slot was found. “We’re not trying to be cute,” McDonald said, when we finally met, in response to my queries about the party’s approach, and the notion that she might not be in charge of her own media destiny.

At the time, as Sinn Féin chairperson, McDonald was a massive addition to the party.

She had joined in early 2000 and had risen rapidly through the ranks. There must have been any number of occasions when she had to swallow hard politically.

The term “donut” (meaning a political candidate who sticks to a party leader to get in photographs and TV shots to increase their own visibility) seemed to have been made for her, as then leader, Gerry Adams, seemed to never appear in public without Mary Lou at his shoulder.

What fascinates is how this woman, who was a “convent girl” at the private Notre Dame school in Churchtown, was drawn to Sinn Féin and managed to get to the top of it.

As part of that 2005 interview, I asked her how she adjusted to working with colleagues who had been involved in campaigns of violence, killing people and serving jail terms. Answering wasn’t a problem.

She did not have “any sort of hang-ups” on that. “People act from the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Where there aren’t political alternatives, and people are repressed, armed action takes place.

"There is a history of that in Ireland. The 30-year campaign is not unique in that respect,” McDonald said.

Politically, she was initially attracted to Fianna Fáil, but has previously explained how that party, for her, fell down on issues of social and economic equality.

She felt she was “simply in the wrong party”. I’ve written previously of appearing with her at a Women in Media event in Ballybunion a few years ago; how she delivered a speech, without any notes, and had every woman (and the few men) in the room eating out of her hands.

She was bright, warm, empathetic, funny, feminist, and smartly political. She spoke of how women are uncomfortable with the notion of power and of using it.

She told of how when she met men of a certain age, they would shake her hand, look at her, and say: “You’re a terrible woman.”

She told of how she had taken, recently, to looking directly back at them and saying “maybe I am” rather wickedly.

Mary Lou, we felt that day, had the measure of these men. But when it came to the main political man in her life, Gerry Adams, there was that odd, unquestioning public loyalty. To this day, you wonder at its source.

It would be far easier to understand from someone born and bred in the North and shaped by the Troubles.

Perhaps it is because of her outsider status that she is still trying to prove herself to that older generation of IRA men which remains in the shadows of the party.

One of the starkest examples of that was her angry denunciation of the arrest of Adams in 2014, over the 1972 murder of Jean McConville.

That fervent defence established McDonald’s sympathy for those colleagues and comrades who had seen active service. Subsequently, the force of her support for Adams when he was criticised for his handling of sexual abuse allegations involving IRA members seemed utterly at odds with Mary Lou’s image of a strong, heartfelt, female politician who was never afraid to say it as it was.

This week, in the closing days of the election campaign, we have had a classic Sinn Féin/Mary Lou dissembling response to the horrific 2007 murder of Paul Quinn, from Co Armagh, and the subsequent remarks made by the North’s finance minister, Conor Murphy, linking the dead man with criminality.

In that way of politics, you simply don’t know how anyone will perform as leader. Mary Lou began well.

The referendum on the Eighth Amendment and abortion rights rolled around in 2018 and she shone, making a particularly good impression on women traditionally outside the Sinn Féin support base.

But just over a year ago, a year after she took over the job (uncontested) of leader, she was going through a difficult time and the party was well down in the polls.

There was an uncharacteristic, bad-tempered episode during a group photograph of serving and former female TDs and senators in the Dail chamber, to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage.

Mary Lou ended up in a stand-off with former Fianna Fáil minister, Mary Hanafin, over the seating arrangements.

Hanafin, who had been directed to that seat by Oireachtas staff, graciously agreed to move in the face of such bullishness. Sinn Féin had a bad presidential election in 2018 and poor local elections late last year.

Questions began to be asked as to whether party loyalty would hold as steadfastly to her as leader as it used to Adams.

The party reviewed how it had been presenting itself to voters.

The perception is that they always seem to concentrate on the negative and don’t offer solutions. A tough exterior is always problematic for female politicians, so McDonald has noticeably “softened” her approach. During this campaign, there have been plenty of effective quips and smiles.

Mary Lou McDonald is on a roll.

There is an excitement among many voters that she can deliver change. While she and the party may be as surprised as everyone else by the seemingly massive SF swing, they are cresting that wave with all the political savvy at their disposal.

One of her biggest fans in the party, health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly, said this week that at the childcare protest on Wednesday in Dublin, women were shouting Mary Lou’s name and queuing up for selfies.

“I’m a huge fan of Mary Lou. She is part of the reason I joined Sinn Féin… her intelligence, her tenacity. She is a very nice decent person and an incredibly hard worker,” said the Fingal TD.

The party’s appeal, according to recent opinion polls, has broadened in an extraordinary manner. Chances are that, this time around, Mary Lou might even have agreed to a canvass in Rathgar.

How her party performs overall in the election will be one of the most eagerly awaited results in a long, long time.

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