SHE’S the thinking woman’s political crumpet — the girl crush that more and more are willing to admit to having. But why, oh why, does Mary Lou McDonald have to be so bloody brilliant, and yet a member of Sinn Fein?
That’s the question increasingly being asked about the girl who grew up in one of Rathgar’s leafiest roads in Dublin 6, but has spent far too much of her time recently identifying herself with the Sinn Féin of The Troubles and the murder of a widow who was watched by her 10 children as the IRA dragged her away before they eventually shot her in the head, and then “disappeared” her body.
Over a year ago McDonald and I were part of a panel discussion at the inaugural Women in Media event in Ballybunion, Co Kerry. The topic was women in politics. It is a topic close to my heart and one which I like to think I know a lot about. After my speech I sat down slightly smug in the knowledge that I had done well.
Next up was McDonald. Unlike me she went to the podium minus any speech, and by the time she was finished she 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 she when she meets men of a certain age they 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. Because McDonald has the measure of these men, as she does the men in the Dáil — despite it being such a testosterone-filled bear pit — and it is for this that women increasingly admire her.
This day next week Sinn Féin will be the main political party with by far the most women candidates on ballot papers, and the credit for that goes to the efforts of McDonald. So she is not one of those women (there are more than a few) who get elected and then pull up the ladder and refuse to assist other females trying to do the same.
But her efforts to try and get more women into the European Parliament and on local authorities were seriously interrupted by that arrest of her party leader Gerry Adams for questioning by the Police Service of Northern Ireland concerning the murder of Jean McConville.
What that did do was to put McDonald on the spot. It’s been clear that her appeal has been broadening beyond Sinn Féin supporters, and reaching into the middle classes, and not just to women. This has been in line with the party’s increases in the opinion polls, but also seems to have transcended even those figures.
In truth, her steadfastness could be admired equally by party admirers, and those who believe the past is the past in the North, and that bad deeds were done on both sides. It’s also true to say that one of the questions marks over her possibly taking over from Gerry Adams has been how she would “carry” the Republicans in the North. Her staunch and angry defence of Adams will certainly not harm her reputation north of the border. She may not have had any political choice in doing so, but it still sounded so surprising to hear her speak, and so trenchantly.
She appeared on the Late Late Show recently, as part of that programme’s slot on female politicians. She played an absolute stormer, unsurprisingly. She answered questions on her happy upbringing, shared some family details such as the fact that she has two brothers and a sister and had been a “convent girl” at Notre Dame in South Dublin.
It was a good interview, if not hugely revealing. But for McDonald even the most basic of personal information have always been the details that she appeared loathe to reveal. When she first began running for Sinn Féin, a time when most candidates would be thrilled to receive attention from journalists, she was very carefully managed by the Sinn Féin press office. I remember making repeated requests during the 1994 European election to accompany her on a canvas somewhere near the leafy suburb of Dublin where she had grown up. Not a chance. I was first offered an inner city flats complex, and then an old local authority estate in a working-class area.
In hindsight, they were dead right. Nowadays I reckon she’d have little fear of knocking on doors in the more affluent suburbs of Dublin, particularly if you take the immensely positive reaction of the Late Late audience as a barometer. One of the things that I did find interesting in that interview was how she handled the issue of describing her own republicanism. She said that “yes it was about Irish unity” which is important, but was “categorically about social and economic equality”, with the stronger emphasis on the latter.
As an aside she was also asked about her one-time membership of Fianna Fáil. She gave the explanation that the party fell down on these equality matters, which drew her to SF.
Interestingly, there are those in Fianna Fáil who remember that her obviously strong political qualities were not appreciated by the party hierarchy at the time and the future in FF would have been far from bright. It’s ironic that she could now be leader of that party.
I remember interviewing her in 1995 (arranged after much tooing and frooing with press officers) for the Sunday Business Post and asking her then about how she felt working with colleagues who had killed people and spent time in prison. She said she didn’t have “any sort of hang ups” on that and that people act from the circumstances they find themselves in. When there aren’t political alternatives and people are repressed, she said, armed action takes place. “There is a history of that in Ireland. The 30-year campaign is not unique in that respect.” I asked had she taken a pragmatic approach to it.
“I wish partition hadn’t happened. I wish that the six-county state hadn’t emerged. Some of my colleagues were IRA volunteers, and some spent time in prison. Conflict is ugly and people suffer. That is the reality.” It was interesting but general enough — what happened with her angry condemnation of Adams’ arrest put her in a different place. It put her right beside those colleagues and comrades who had seen “active service” in terms of attitude and support. It closed any distance that may have existed in the minds of those middle-class voters for whom she has an appeal. This has been such a “kitchen sink” of an election campaign for the main political parties — with issues such as Alan Shatter’s resignation, Micheál Martin’s candidate troubles, Eamon Gilmore’s leadership — that Adams’ arrest at the start of it has almost faded in the memory. We won’t know until Saturday week, when the results are in, whether this affected the party’s vote.
Beyond that there are so many imponderables when it comes to McDonald’s future. I don’t doubt that she will be the next leader of Sinn Féin. She has said that when the vacancy arises she does believe she could be party leader. But the real question is how or whether she breaks down the barrier between her own popularity and appeal, and the turn-off factor that many voters still feel for her party.
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