ALISON O'CONNOR: Mary Lou wants to be a modern leader but is hobbled by the past

It was the day after the first RTÉ Claire Byrne debate on the abortion referendum, which had turned into a shouting match: The anti-abortion side had hijacked the programme.

One participant on the pro-choice panel had stood out. It was Mary Lou McDonald.

This wasn’t a surprise. The Sinn Féin leader can mix it with the best of them and has a sterling record on this issue.

What was a surprise was to hear the verdict of a friend who attends a yoga class in the leafy and affluent suburb of Mount Merrion, in the heartland of southside Dublin.

The class is on a Tuesday, so they gathered on the morning after the debate and the chat was all about how impressed the women were with Mary Lou.

It is difficult not to like and admire Mary Lou. She has risen to the top using grit and determination.

At a time when there are still so few women in politics, let alone as leaders of political parties, she stands out like a beacon.

Crucially, she had managed this with the handicap of being a member of Sinn Féin.

That party inspires devotion in many, but revulsion in many others, although, over the years, the latter has eased, aided in no small part by Mary Lou’s palatability to the public.

She took over from Gerry Adams in February and seemed to get off to a flying start.

The abortion campaign, and her visibility during it, proved a great help. She went North in April and referred to “Londonderry”, subsequently defending its use by saying it reflected a “dialogue” she’d had “with people who see things differently from us”.

She had just met with Presbyterian minister, the Reverend David Latimer, and members of his congregation.

In May, she “admitted” to being a fan of the UK’s Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, saying Prince Harry “did well” to marry her. People had “mixed views” about the monarchy.

“The couple got married; the best of luck to them,” she said, when asked about fellow Sinn Féin TD John Brady’s criticism of RTÉ for showing the wedding.

Equally, though, at the end of her speech at the Sinn Féin ard fheis, where she assumed the party leadership, she chose to use that phrase, “tiocfaidh ár lá”.

It was seen as a nod to the hard men in Belfast who had to be kept on side, regardless of what kind of new sheen she wished to put on the party.

Moving forward to the summer, she said the border poll issue should be put to one side, until the dangers posed by Brexit were sorted. But the very next day, in a rather dizzying U-turn, she said there would have to be a border poll if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.

Sinn Féin claimed her comments were consistent, but, once again, the shadow of the gunmen could be felt across her shoulder.

So, while you can look, as I did, in admiration at her role in the abortion referendum, or how she handles herself in the Dáil chamber, there are issues that remain, ever lurking.

None more so than the handling of sex-abuse allegations by Sinn Féin.

This has now re-emerged, with the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland finding that a police investigation seriously failed Máiría Cahill.

Máiría Cahill says she was raped by an IRA member in Belfast when she was 16-years-old and subsequently had to endure an IRA kangaroo court, where the man she said had abused her, Martin Morris, was present.

She recalls how she was told her body language would be read at that IRA meeting, to see if she was telling the truth.

In her initial response to the ombudsman’s report, last week, Mary Lou kicked off with a statement, saying she ”deeply regretted” that procedures covering the mandatory reporting of abuse “were not in place at the time of Máiría Cahill’s disclosures.

For this, I unreservedly apologise”. Ah, that old trick of appearing to apologise, but not actually doing so at all.

On Tuesday night, the BBC Spotlight programme said that, in a letter to Ms Cahill, the ombudsman revealed that the RUC special branch had begun to receive reports from 2000 that Martin Morris was involved in the sexual abuse of children and that the IRA was investigating it.

It also states that RUC intelligence received information which suggested Mr Morris, who denies the claims, was suspended from Sinn Fein.

But Mary Lou told journalists this week she did not know if Martin Morris was a Sinn Fein member at the time, as the party’s “record-keeping was not as it is now, 20 years ago”.

She was being disingenuous when saying she couldn’t respond to the RUC intelligence that Morris had been suspended from the party, because she herself is “not a spook”, “not a spy”, “not a police officer”.

It stretches all credibility that even with the absence of written records, this episode and whether Morris, a former prisoner, was a party member, could not be confirmed.

Furthermore, Sinn Féin gave a statement to Spotlight (unusually issued through a solicitor), saying it completely refuted any allegations of a cover-up and that it would “take all steps necessary to protect the party’s reputation, in the event of it being attacked”.

The bullying tactics remain consistent.

Mary Lou is not just wedded, but welded to the past; which is completely at odds with the vision of a new, strong leader.

It was bad enough when she did it back in 2014, when the story of Máiría Cahill’s abuse first broke. At that time, it appeared as if Mary Lou’s usual ability to ‘tell it like it is’ deserted her, as she stuck like glue to her defence of then leader, Gerry Adams.

This included her shamefully appearing to try and cast doubt on Máiría Cahill’s story.

Mary Lou is now in charge. We’ve also had the emergence of the #MeToo movement, in the meantime. But you have to wonder what she really thinks; how beholden is she to those ‘hard men’? Is she really in sole charge?

What other hostages to fortune are there lurking in the Sinn Féin/IRA undergrowth? How much of a blind eye would Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil be willing to turn?

The party’s presidential candidate, Liadh ní Riada, said, on Cork’s 96FM this week, that a president needed to be the “moral conscience of the nation”.

Truth be told, her party, and its leader, should take a long hard look at its conscience, when it comes to sexual abuse.

The talk in the posh yoga classes is likely to be a lot less complimentary.

Is she really in sole charge? What other hostages to fortune are lurking in the Sinn Féin/IRA undergrowth?


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