Sunday 28 May 2017

Mary Lou: the Sinn Féiner who's really a mé féiner

As the latest skeleton to tumble from the party's closet makes headlines, it seems that in her bid to succeed Gerry Adams, the deputy leader is again willing to turn a blind eye to scandal.

Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Mary Lou McDonald is presumably not a big fan of Fawlty Towers. She once tried to quote from it in a Dáil speech by comparing her opponents to the sitcom's hapless Spanish waiter Manuel. Unfortunately for Sinn Féin's deputy leader, her quip backfired when she referred to the character played so memorably by Andrew Sachs as "Manolo".

Now, in the week following Sachs's death, McDonald finds herself accused of borrowing his famous catchphrase, "I know nothing". With Sinn Féin reeling from allegations that some of its best-known politicians may have information about an IRA murder, the party's leader-in-waiting has firmly adopted a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach. Once again, the question is being asked in Leinster House - is there any Sinn Féin scandal that McDonald is not prepared to turn a blind eye to in order to achieve her long-term ambition of succeeding Adams?

In case there was any doubt about that ambition, McDonald also used a newspaper interview this week to make it crystal clear. "When there is a vacancy, and there is no vacancy now, I will be asking for my name to go forward and then it is a matter for membership," she told the Irish Times. If Adams decides to reward her loyalty with his backing, she would be all but unstoppable - as long as they have not both destroyed each other's credibility by the time that day arrives.

The latest skeleton to tumble out of Sinn Féin's closet dates from March 1983, when Mary Lou was 13 years old. Brian Stack, a prison officer at Portlaoise where many republican convicts were held, was shot in the back of the neck after leaving a boxing match at Dublin's National Stadium. He was left paralysed and suffered for another 18 months before dying at the age of 47.

For several years now, Stack's sons Austin and Oliver have been lobbying Adams to help them discover the murderers' identities. In 2013 they travelled with him in a blacked-out van to an unknown location along the border, where a former Provo chief admitted that IRA members had been responsible. He also claimed that the killing had not been sanctioned by the IRA leadership and the renegade gunman had been "disciplined".

Last week the story took a new twist. This newspaper revealed that Adams sent an email to Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan three days before February's General Election, supplying the names of four people who may have information about the killing of Stack. Two are now believed to be the TDs Dessie Ellis and Martin Ferris, one is also a prominent Sinn Féin figure and the other was a senior leader in the IRA.

This is where Mary Lou McDonald comes in. If any other political party was rocked by such serious allegations, the deputy leader would be putting pressure on his or her boss to clear them up. Instead, McDonald has declared that although she knows who the Sinn Féin people alleged to have information about the Stack murder are, she has no intention of personally getting involved.

"I think that people have an entitlement to their good name," she said last weekend. "There would be no useful purpose with me having a conversation with anybody on this issue."

McDonald also made the extraordinary claim that Adams had given the gardaí all relevant information without delay. By his own admission, this is wildly inaccurate and he did not contact O'Sullivan for another two-and-a-half years.

Adams's Dáil statement on Wednesday night (which McDonald did not attend) descended into chaos when the Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell used parliamentary privilege to name Dessie Ellis and Martin Ferris. Unfortunately for Mary Lou, her own past behaviour makes it difficult for them to take the moral high ground here. In 2014, she named six former politicians who allegedly held illegal offshore Ansbacher accounts - and was later found by an Oireachtas committee to have abused Dáil privilege herself. The named individuals were subsequently found to be innocent.

Of course, this week is by no means the first time that Mary Lou has tried to bail Gerry out of a sticky situation. When he was arrested in 2014 over the murder of mother-of-10 Jean McConville, she insisted that his detention was "politically motivated" by "old guard elements" within the PSNI and unionism. When Máiría Cahill accused him of covering up her rape at the age of 16 by an IRA man, McDonald responded that some of Cahill's claims about Sinn Féin were "simply not true".

When Adams defended the alleged IRA godfather and convicted tax cheat Thomas 'Slab' Murphy as "a good republican", McDonald backed him up by saying Murphy was "very nice… a very typical rural man". When he tweeted "Ballymurphy N***er!" while watching the film Django Unchained last May, his dutiful deputy responded: "Gerry has not got a racist instinct or a racist bone in his body."

Most embarrassingly of all, McDonald has felt obliged to say on countless occasions that she believes Adams when he says he was never even a member of the IRA.

The defining image of Mary Lou McDonald comes from a TV3 documentary about Sinn Féin made by Ursula Halligan in 2013. It shows the Dublin Central TD shopping in her local Superquinn, checking the price of prawns and then moving to the breakfast cereal aisle. Asked about her commitment to a united Ireland, she replies: "I'm just looking for Cheerios… Cheerios and a united Ireland." No spin doctor could have come up with a better illustration of how McDonald has the potential to transform Sinn Féin's electoral fortunes. As a middle-class, working mother who has clearly never planted a bomb or gone to jail, she could expand the party's base far beyond its republican heartlands.

Hillary Clinton failed to crack the glass ceiling in last month's US election, but a female leader might just help Sinn Féin to crack its own glass ceiling of support, which seems stuck somewhere around 15pc.

By common consent, McDonald is her party's best performer both in Dáil Éireann and across the airwaves. She often exudes an icy contempt for opponents, once appearing to mouth "What a dick!" at a Fine Gael TD who dared to heckle her. She is always impeccably well-briefed, while Adams's confused comments about tax policy in a disastrous radio interview during the last election led to him being dubbed "a man who takes off his socks to count to 20".

McDonald's critics sometimes ­wonder how a Rathgar woman educated at Notre Dame convent school and Trinity College could possibly have ended up in Sinn Féin. Dig a little deeper into Mary Lou's background, however, and you discover that she comes from a family steeped in Irish nationalism. Her mother's uncle was one of the Grey Abbey Martyrs, seven anti-Treaty IRA activists who were arrested by Free State Forces and executed in 1922.

If the IRA Army Council still exists, would it accept a Dublin woman with no military background as leader of Sinn Féin? While this remains to be seen, McDonald's personal support for the Provos' historic 'armed struggle' is not in doubt. She often says said that her "road to Damascus" moment came at the age of 12 while watching television coverage of the H-Block hunger-strikes. She spoke at a memorial service for the Nazi-collaborating republican Seán Russell in 2003 and carried the coffin of IRA chief Joe Cahill (Máiría's great-uncle) in Belfast a year later.

Despite these attempts to bolster her republican credentials, McDonald is sometimes labelled a 'mé féiner' rather than a Sinn Féiner. She was briefly a member of Fianna Fáil in the late 1990s and, according to some accounts, only left because her Dáil ambitions were frustrated by the local TD Brian Lenihan Jr. She strongly disputes this, insisting that she switched parties after realising that the Soldiers of Destiny were far too conservative for her. Whatever the truth, it may soon be time for the real Mary Lou McDonald to stand up.

Even assuming that Adams survives his latest brush with scandal, he is now 68 and seems unlikely to fight another general election. McDonald's only credible leadership rival in Dáil Éireann is finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, who has said that having young children rules him out for now.

At the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month, McDonald was in scathing form. "Do you know the expression 'eejit'?" she asked the MD of a bank that had advised the National Asset Management Agency. "It's an Irish term. A patsy. They made an eejit of you."

The problem for McDonald is that Adams has been making an eejit of her on a regular basis - and she seems either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

Mary Lou in her own words

Do you have a personal motto in life?

Don't let the bastards get you down!

From an interview with Hot Press, 2004

To be in political life, I think you require two things - you need cop-on and you need backbone.

Speaking on The Late Late Show, 2014

I liked all the Anglo-Irish writers. I particularly liked Beckett's theatre. I know it's very dark, I got a kick out of that.

Recalling her university days in Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin by Déaglan de Bréadún, published 2015

From Rathgar to Trinity... and a short stint with Fianna Fáil

Mary Lou McDonald was born in 1969 and grew up near Orwell Road in Rathgar. She was christened Mary Louise, a name only used if she got into trouble. "When the voice was raised and I got my full title, I knew that I had crossed some line," she said.

Her parents separated when she was nine. She attended the Catholic girls school Notre Dame des Missions and studied English at Trinity College Dublin, followed by a European Studies degree from the University of Limerick. She met her future husband Martin during the 1990 World Cup match in Peter's Pub.

"He was watching a match and getting blood pressure… you can picture the scene." They are now married with two children, Iseult and Gearóid.

McDonald first became involved in politics through the Irish National Congress group, a non-party group designed to promote Irish republicanism. She joined Fianna Fáil in 1997 but left a year later because, according to herself, the party was not left-wing enough.

"There was a discussion and I raised the idea of - I don't think I even used the word 'equality', I think I used the word 'equity' - and there was a kind of a puzzled intake of breath."

McDonald was elected to the European Parliament for Sinn Féin in 2004, lost her seat in 2009 but secured a Dáil seat in Dublin Central at the 2011 general election. She is the only Sinn Féin politician who has said that she will definitely be a leadership candidate when Gerry Adams retires.

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