Wednesday 26 November 2014

Cheerios and a united Ireland... the rise and rise of Mary Lou

From middle-class Rathgar to the Cabra White House, Kim Bielenberg charts the rise and rise of the Trinity graduate who has brought Sinn Féin electoral success and might one day be the first female Taoiseach

Mary Lou McDonald whose political career has been constantly on the up.
Mary Lou McDonald whose political career has been constantly on the up.
Mary Lou McDonald carries the coffin of Joe Cahill
Mary Lou McDonald with party leader Gerry Adams
Mary Lou with Pearse Doherty and Gerry Adams at the National Gallery during Sinn Féin's 2011 election campaign.

Mary Lou McDonald first made an impression in national politics in November 1998 when she spoke at her party's árd fheis in the RDS.

The 29-year-old Trinity College graduate of English literature and resident of the leafy Dublin suburb of Castleknock was just the kind of articulate young middle-class woman her party was looking for. She stood at the rostrum and spoke passionately about the need for reform of the RUC in the North.

At this time in her political career, Mary Lou's leader was Bertie Ahern, and the young delegate from Dublin West and treasurer of a local cumann was an active member of Fianna Fáil.

The world seemed to be at her feet in a party that was on a roll.

It was hoped that she might run in the following year's local council elections and she was offered what was deemed to be a safe seat.

In Fianna Fáil she is now seen by some as the one who got away. Senator Mary White, who worked closely with her in Fianna Fáil at that time, told Weekend Review: "It was clear to me that she was talented."

Mary Lou's middle-class family from Rathgar in South County Dublin were staunch Fianna Fáilers.

But it also became apparent that she did not quite fit into the party.

Bertie Ahern noticed her at the time and told an acquaintance later: "She kept banging on about the North."

Mary Lou's politics were a good deal more green than those of Fianna Fáil and within months of the árd fheis the promising young party member had defected to Sinn Féin, where she very quickly became the rising star.

She seemed to follow Gerry Adams to every photoshoot and was always on his shoulder. This role led some not to take her seriously and she was caricatured as a "pouting puppy in Sinn Féin's pound of scruffy mongrels" and the "leader of Sinn Féin's millinery wing".

This week, Mary Lou returned to the RDS, scene of her Fianna Fáil debut, as queen of all she surveyed. Her protegé Lynn Boylan, as far removed from the traditional image of a Shinner as she is herself, topped the European poll in the Dublin constituency and was held aloft.

Mary Lou went on Facebook to boast that Sinn Féin had won more votes in the EU election across the island than any other party.

It is a chilling thought for those detractors who remember IRA atrocities such as the murder of Jerry McCabe.

This could give them the choice to join a coalition government from a position of strength, with Mary Lou as the likely Tánaiste, or bide their time until the following election when she could have a genuine tilt at becoming Taoiseach.

So how did the privately educated girl from upmarket Rathgar end up as the party's southern icon, an instantly recognisable figure, with whom every Sinn Féin election candidate or party worker wanted to pose during the campaign?

Early on in her career, she certainly did not play up her well-to-do background – and her south county lilt is overlaid with a hint of a Dub drawl.

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