Elaine Loughlin: McDonald is seeking votes and transfers in fresh fields and pastures new

Aiming to form a coalition without the Civil War parties, Sinn Féin is going deep into 'their' turf with a transfer-friendly message to woo Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voters
Elaine Loughlin: McDonald is seeking votes and transfers in fresh fields and pastures new

In recent days, Mary Lou McDonald has not only indicated she is willing to climb into the bear pit to ensure her party gains power, she has actually clambered into the enclosure.

On Monday, the Sinn Féin leader turned up at an agriculture event in Limerick, which could not be further from her traditional support base.

“Mary Lou will never speak at a more unwelcoming assembly outside an Orange Lodge,” one attendee at the ICMSA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association) AGM said ahead of the event.

The move was seen as a “serious declaration of intent” by those at the event, with one adding: “She’s not afraid, I’ll give her that.”

Dairy farmers have up until now not been a cohort that Sinn Féin would have seen as a target audience. However, if the main opposition party is to take the step into government after the next general election, it will have to go after every single vote, including those traditionally seen as Fine Gael’s.

Mary Lou McDonald fielding questions alongside Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Matt Carthy at the ICMSA AGM at Castletroy Park Hotel, Limerick, on Monday. 	Picture: Don Moloney
Mary Lou McDonald fielding questions alongside Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Matt Carthy at the ICMSA AGM at Castletroy Park Hotel, Limerick, on Monday. Picture: Don Moloney

Addressing the crowd of around 200 farmers, McDonald began by acknowledging that there had been “surprise expressed” by some at her attendance. However, she went on to assure them that “there was no need for surprise”.

The native of Churchtown in south Dublin, who has since moved across the Liffey to equally urban Cabra, made it clear that she is also is a woman of the land, pointing to her family’s farming connections in the Glen of Aherlow, Co Tipperary. Those links go back to her mother’s generation, but it was part of her heritage that she was eager to stress to her rural audience.

After softening up the crowd, she went on to state the real reason for the appearance: “You won’t be surprised either to hear me confirm that I want to lead the next government. I want that to be a government of change.”

Speaking to groups once ignored by Sinn Féin and telling them what they want to hear now seems to be the chosen path to the office of An Taoiseach for Mary Lou. Of course, she had already warmed up the crowd in September when she blitzed the various representative stands at the Ploughing Championships.

Sinn Féin’s increased presence at the event in Co Laois did not go unnoticed at the time either, but the farmers appreciated the love-bombing nonetheless.

Speaking to a conference room full of dairy producers on Monday, McDonald said she wants the agriculture sector to be part of her
vision for change, as she believes Ireland’s farmers will be much better off under a Sinn Féin-led government. She then took part in 40 minutes of question and answers where buzzwords such as “sustainable food production” and farmers being the “custodians of the land for generations” were bandied about.

She wanted farmers to be paid fairly for their produce on the one hand but also stressed the need to keep in mind their city cousins, who get milk from a supermarket carton and not from a cow.

Sinn Féin stepped up its presence at the National Ploughing Championships this year, part of an effort to win votes and transfers from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supporters. File picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews
Sinn Féin stepped up its presence at the National Ploughing Championships this year, part of an effort to win votes and transfers from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supporters. File picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews

From renegotiating the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy to making college education affordable for farm families and protecting the national herd, there were big promises — all kept sufficiently vague — from a leader with big ambitions. Even less detailed was any plan for how a Sinn Féin government might reduce carbon emissions to meet our 2030 targets.

Perhaps the most telling comment was when she told the audience that “no political party has all the answers to the big questions that are coming our way”.

While this is true, at least others have tried to draw up plans and, unlike Sinn Féin, had views to express when the sectoral targets were being drawn up earlier this year. One frustrated attendee told her that if she wants farmers to vote for Sinn Féin “you are going to have to tell us what you are going to do” and called for “no more waffle”.

But the overall response was very positive.

“I thought she was very impressive,” said the same person who had initially compared the meeting to a gathering of orange sash wearers.

McDonald ended the session by stating: “Our way of doing things if in government — irrespective of who that may be with because that will be up to the electorate to decide in the last instance — but our approach will be very much one of engagement.”

It echoed comments she had made on The Late Late Show last Friday night, during which she refused to rule out doing a deal with Fine Gael after the next general election.

While acknowledging it would be a “long shot” for Sinn Féin and Fine Gael to form a government, she told host Ryan Tubridy that all political parties should talk to each other after elections.

“I disagree fundamentally with Leo Varadkar on many things,” she said. “I believe we should protect Irish neutrality. But unlike him, I will respect whatever votes are cast by the Irish people, and I actually believe people should talk to each other. 

You don’t shut down the possibility of respectfully acknowledging somebody’s democratic mandate and talking to them. 

However, she said the “best outcome” would be a new government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. 

It now seems that forming a coalition without the help of the two civil war parties will be through going after their supporters or at least trying to get transfers from them.

However, the Late Late comments were greeted with eye-rolling and cynicism from within the Fine Gael ranks.

One TD said that she had “done this before”, adding that she likes to claim that she will talk to anyone and that everything is on the table, “but it’s just a line as then they start ruling things out”.

A Fine Gael senator added that leaving the door ajar is simply a ploy to gain seats by any means.

“They want to be transfer-friendly across the board and, ultimately, the last five or six seats that any party gets they get them on transfers. She’s probably just trying to benefit from transfers.”

Is Mary Lou willing to muck in and do anything to get into power?

The answer is most definitely yes, if her recent comments and actions are anything to go by. But beyond soundbites and soft interviews to please the audience of the day, it’s still difficult to gain a full understanding of what a Sinn Féin government might do in power.

For Mary Lou, it is a tactic that so far appears to be working.

Did You Know?

Leo Varadkar fielding leaders' questions in the Dáil in 2016 for then FG leader, Enda Kenny. File picture: Oireachtas TV
Leo Varadkar fielding leaders' questions in the Dáil in 2016 for then FG leader, Enda Kenny. File picture: Oireachtas TV

Every week, Dáil time is set aside for leaders’ questions which allows opposition leaders raise matters directly with the Taoiseach, usually on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Tánaiste generally takes leaders’ questions each Thursday.

The following rules apply:

  • The question must not take longer than two minutes to ask;
  • The Taoiseach’s, or his representative’s, reply may be no longer than three minutes;
  • The person who asked the question may ask a brief follow-up question that is no longer than one minute;
  • The Taoiseach will give a final reply that is no longer than one minute.

 

This week in years gone by

1938

December 8: The second stage of the Holidays (Employment) Bill passed through the Seanad. However, the policy to introduce holiday pay was highly criticised by senator Patrick Francis Baxter who said: "If there was one country in Europe today where the leaders of the people ought to get up and say to the people: 'we must work harder and longer hours', it was this country."

1964

December 10: Under the headline "Unruly Scenes in the Dáil", it was reported that the Ceann Comhairle had been forced to adjourn proceedings following "uproar" when deputies from both sides of the House shouted at each other so loudly that nobody could be heard. There were references to "forged letters" and "perjury" during the exchanges.

1972

December 8: Referendums to lower the voting age to 18 and to delete from the Constitution a sub-section of Article 44 which stated that the Catholic Church had a special position in the case of the State passed by a majority of five to one.

1985

December 11: Three leading members of Fine Gael in the Cork East constituency, including the chairman of the Midleton District Executive, were facing expulsion from the party after being ordered to apologise to two Church of Ireland members. In what was described as a "political storm", the three men had approached Cloyne farmer George Jeffrey and "suggested that, because of this religion, his Fine Gael candidature might mitigate against the party's overall changes in that area".

2008

December 9: Pig producers were facing a €100m bill as production was halted following a weekend recall of pork products. It was reported that the government was seeking funding from the European Commission as part of a rescue package for the pig industry after a day in which at least 1,400 people lost their jobs because of the contamination of pork products.

Hot topicals

Bringing in the Balkans: The war in Ukraine has put EU expansion back on the agenda. Today, Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin joins his counterparts for a summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders which will focus on enlargement.

Croatia was the last new member to be admitted to the EU in 2013.

Micheál Martin: Taoiseach is among EU leaders meeting representatives of states in the Balkans. File picture: Naoise Culhane
Micheál Martin: Taoiseach is among EU leaders meeting representatives of states in the Balkans. File picture: Naoise Culhane

Open disclosure: A bill to ensure mandatory open disclosure by health service providers is due to be discussed in the Dáil. Following the death of Vicky Phelan, Mr Martin promised that the Patient Safety (Notifiable Patient Safety Incidents) Bill would be passed before Christmas. However, significant concerns around the limited scope of the bill have been raised and the Government is due to bring amendments to it this week.

Shuffling the deckchairs: The three coalition leaders are expected to finally sit down and talk about the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle due to take place on December 17 when the Taoiseach and Tánaiste also switch places.

Controlling the Lobby: Michael McGrath is due before the finance committee tomorrow, Wednesday, to discuss the Regulation of Lobbying (Amendment) Bill which would restrict lobbying by former politicians and designated public officials and would introduce fines of up to €25,000 and/or a prohibition from lobbying for up to two years for those found to be non-compliant with lobbying rules.

Michael McGrath: Public Expenditure Minister will discuss lobbying at the finance committee. File picture: Naoise Culhane
Michael McGrath: Public Expenditure Minister will discuss lobbying at the finance committee. File picture: Naoise Culhane

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