Daniel McConnell: Mary Lou on the backfoot as Sinn Féin forced to explain

Having to deny purported links to gangland crime figures is denting the Sinn Féin leader's efforts to woo middle Ireland
Daniel McConnell: Mary Lou on the backfoot as Sinn Féin forced to explain

Robust questioning by the BBC’s Mark Carruthers put Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald in a most uncomfortable spot. Picture: David Young/PA 

Denials on Sunday morning by Mary Lou McDonald of comments revealed in the Regency Hotel murder trial last week about alleged links between Sinn Féin and the criminal underworld put her in a place she would much rather not be.

McDonald, even before she became Sinn Féin president, has sought to present the softer, cuddlier and less threatening image of her party in a bid to widen its voter base and especially amongst aspirational middle-class people.

The strategy has, by and large, been successful and she now stands — if we’re to believe the opinion polls — on the cusp of succeeding Leo Varadkar as taoiseach of this country, and the first woman to have ever held the post.

That is the goal. That is the dream.

So for her to have to confront allegations of links to such high-profile criminals in a robust Sunday morning television interview with the BBC’s Mark Carruthers placed her in a most uncomfortable spot.

McDonald rejected allegations that she used the Hutch family for money and votes, claims which emerged in the ongoing gangland trial in Dublin.

In the Special Criminal Court, recordings of former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall making the claims were revealed, in which he criticised Ms McDonald for (in his words) not attending the funeral of the brother of murder accused Gerry "The Monk" Hutch.

McDonald said such allegations are “absolutely not true”, warning that the case was ongoing while still addressing the issues raised.

"This case is as a result of incredible, sterling work by the gardaí over many years, and I'm certainly not going to say anything that would in any way jeopardise or undermine or influence the outcome of that important trial.

"But let me tell you, and repeat again for the avoidance of any doubt, that I have stood resolutely on the side of the community and against exactly the type of individuals who find themselves now in the courts on these charges for my entire life.

Any suggestion that there has been anything improper is entirely wrong, that is simply not the case. 

While unionists in the North have called for an investigation into the allegations, it is no coincidence that opponents in Fine Gael have also sought to heap discomfort on McDonald’s shoulders.

She said that she has no link, alleged or otherwise. 

“I'm unclear how you investigate something that didn't happen,” she said. "As to people attacking me or taking this as a golden opportunity to have a go, as they say, I'm not surprised by that. 

I'm not surprised at all because the reality is that across the island, the mood for change is obvious. 

A number of things are interesting about all of this.

For the first sustained period this year, Sinn Féin finds itself on the backfoot having tormented the Government since January on the cost-of-living crisis.

Having “out-Shinnered the Shinners” in terms of its €11bn Budget 2023 giveaway, the Government for once was able to seize the initiative as opposed to merely reacting.

Also, Sinn Féin’s economic credibility took a hit when it screamed loudly for caps on energy bills when the Liz Truss government’s plan to do just that crashed the UK economy.

The party’s popular support has fallen to its lowest level (31%) in a year, according to today’s Red C poll published in the Business Post.

And the shadow of Dowdall is one McDonald and Sinn Féin cannot easily dismiss or erase.

There is that picture of him with McDonald from his time as a councillor, all smiles and light.

There is the €1,000 donation to her local organisation which has not been paid back or donated to charity which continues to draw fire from political opponents.

These factors might explain McDonald’s ongoing lack of doorstep media opportunities with the political correspondents group at Leinster House since the summer.

McDonald is wily enough to know that facing 20 or so journalists at once on the plinth outside the Dail is a high-wire act and is probably from her point of view best avoided.

But her failure to appear does illustrate how potent this situation potentially is for McDonald and her party.

And then there is the simple fact that while Sinn Féin can point to the span of time between now and nefarious activities during the troubled and the early part of the peace process, any links to the Hutches and the Regency, real or imagined, are far more current and potentially damaging to the party.

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