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Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle book review: Shane Ross gets us closer to the real Mary Lou

This engaging biography shows the influence of strong women on the Sinn Féin leader and how the party’s old guard tested her mettle in the early days

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Controversies: The Máiría Cahill scandal has not dented Mary Lou McDonald’s long-term popularity.

Controversies: The Máiría Cahill scandal has not dented Mary Lou McDonald’s long-term popularity.

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross

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Controversies: The Máiría Cahill scandal has not dented Mary Lou McDonald’s long-term popularity.

It was a challenge laid down for Mary Lou McDonald. One she knew she couldn’t afford to shirk.

Sinn Féin had just gifted the relatively unknown defector from Fianna Fáil its nomination for a prized European seat and the party was keen to test her mettle.

It was September 2003 and she was invited by the organisation to share a platform in Fairview Park with Brian Keenan, one-time member of the IRA Army Council.

The august occasion was a commemoration of Seán Russell, a ruthless terrorist who used to brag about the IRA’s 300 wartime attacks in Britain. The worst example was the 1939 butchering of five people with a bomb planted in shops in Coventry. He was also a Nazi collaborator who drew his last breath on a German U-boat in 1940.

McDonald, the young, middle-class south county Dubliner whom Gerry Adams was eager to fast-track, was in a bind. Refusing to attend would have exposed her ideological frailties in the eyes of the party’s doctrinaire faithful.

Sinn Féin grandees call the party’s post-Troubles activists “draft dodgers” and their mettle is road-tested in different ways instead. McDonald’s struggle had not been an armed one. She would have to struggle with her conscience instead.

McDonald had to endure one of the most militant of all IRA leaders invoke the name of Patrick Pearse in a paean of praise for a fascist collaborator. Her presence and acquiescence signalled submission. Or at least that is how it seemed.

McDonald, leader of the most popular party in the country and a likely future taoiseach, is as much a shapeshifter now as she was two decades ago. To borrow a phrase Winston Churchill designed for Stalin’s Soviet Union, she is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Is she a committed republican who endorses the Provo murder campaign, a shameless political careerist and opportunist or someone truly committed to social justice?

You won’t find the answer by parsing her speeches, or picking apart the scattergun populist policies of Sinn Féin. Best to return, as Shane Ross does in this biography, to where she came from in order to get an inkling of where she might bring us.

Mary Lou was barely a year old when, on a summer night in 1970, her father Paddy was in a head-on car crash that utterly changed his life and destroyed his promising building business. By the time she was 10, her parents’ marriage had collapsed.

Whenever she is asked to reflect on her childhood in Rathgar, her father gets scant recognition. Instead, a consistent thread emerges of a girl who was shaped and moulded by the strong women around her at different times.

Her stoic mother, Joan, who raised four children in often trying circumstances, is credited as being primary among them. Mary Lou’s republican grandmother Molly in Tipperary, her politically radical sister Joanne and Nora Comiskey, a Fianna Fáil veteran, all provided reliable stepping stones in what would turn out to be an unorthodox political pilgrimage.

While the Sinn Féin leader credits the hunger strikes in 1981 with being her moment of political revelation, she kept this Damascene conversion to herself through school and even university.

She fitted comfortably into the Notre Dame des Missions ethos and her teachers never saw a hint of republicanism or social radicalism. At Trinity, reading literature, she went completely underneath the radar.

Neither contemporary Ivana Bacik nor David Norris, whose lectures she so enjoyed, have the vaguest recollection of her.

It was only when, in the mid-1990s, Mary Lou met Comiskey — a Fianna Fáil maverick with strong links to Joe Cahill, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams — that something clicked.

Later McDonald would deny ever being a member of Fianna Fáil, even though she spoke at the 1998 ard fheis. Perhaps it was young Brian Lenihan’s iron grip on the Dublin West constituency that promoted her party switch and the subsequent amnesia.

While carefully nurtured by Sinn Féin, it took her 11 years to secure a Dáil seat, a gap in her CV interrupted by a stint in the European Parliament best remembered for her poor attendance record.

McDonald won at the third time of asking in the 2011 general election. She has never looked back. Having secured a place on the prestigious Public Accounts Committee, she set about making a name for herself.

Ross sat on the same committee and observed her with ever-increasing fascination. He leaves readers in no doubt about how dynamic she was.

Neither a controversy over the construction of the Cabra ‘mansion’ she shares with husband Martin Lanigan and their two children, nor the shameful Máiría Cahill scandal managed to dent McDonald’s long-term popularity.

When Gerry Adams eventually stepped aside as Sinn Féin leader in February 2018, McDonald was the anointed one. With the tedium of internal democracy routinely overlooked within the organisation, this was a coronation.

The rest, as they say, is history. Most of which, of course, has yet to be written. Ross has penned an engaging narrative of this chameleon’s career so far. A fine achievement considering the party slammed every door it could in his face.

Subsequent volumes will hopefully succeed in answering some of the questions tellingly posed here. In the meantime, McDonald will be happy to keep us guessing.

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Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross

Biography: Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross
Atlantic Books, 403 pages, paperback €23.80; e-book £7.47


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