Sunday 25 August 2019

Philip Ryan: 'McDonald's leadership on the line after voters abandon SF'

Under pressure: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at the count centre in the RDS. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Under pressure: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at the count centre in the RDS. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Sinn Féin isn't used to losing. If you put aside its two attempts to take up residence in Áras an Uachtaráin, it has made gains in every election over the past 10 years.

In every election it has increased its representation in local government, the European Parliament and in the Dáil. The austerity years were awful for most of us, but they were great for Sinn Féin.

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The party preyed on the disillusionment with establishment politics and muscled its way into communities which were traditionally strongholds for Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.

Gerry Adams's leadership has always been riven with questions, whether over his alleged leadership of the Provisional IRA, or his assumed apologist role in politics. Despite all of this, Mr Adams did have a gravitas that appealed to some voters.

Replacing him with Mary Lou McDonald was touted as a major milestone for the party. It would set itself free from the shackle of the Provisional IRA's terror campaign.

Sinn Féin under Ms McDonald would be a socialist republican movement which would fill the gap in Irish politics caused by the implosion of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party in successive elections.

Taking over from Mr Adams was never going to be easy for Ms McDonald. He was the West Belfast-born former Long Kesh prisoner who watched friends and family members die during the Troubles, while she was the privately schooled South Dublin woman whose first party of choice was Fianna Fáíl. That said, her Dáil and media performances were always a cut above her predecessor and there was nothing to suggest the transition would be anything other than a success.

But that analysis was completely wrong because her leadership has been utterly abysmal so far.

Before looking at the party's dreadful local election result, it is worth examining the events that caused it, which date back a year or two.

The bullying scandal that gripped Sinn Féin in the aftermath of Mr Adams stepping down has undoubtedly had an impact on the party.

During a two-year period up to the summer of 2018, Sinn Féin saw a total of 37 local representatives step down from their seats.

This included 10 leaving for personal reasons while five were expelled, eight resigned and a further 14 quit amid accusations of bullying.

The bullying scandal was the first real controversy Ms McDonald faced as leader and her handling of the crisis could come to define her time as Sinn Féin president - for however long that might be.

Losing almost 40 councillors was always going to cause an issue for a party before a local election. But when those you forced out decide to run against you, you've got a bigger problem. Many of these councillors had their names on the ballot papers on Friday as Independent candidates.

It was always going to come back to haunt Ms McDonald and her party. Early counts show the exiled Sinn Féin councillors are performing very well as Independents.

Noeleen Reilly kept her seat on Dublin City Council, as did John Snell on Wicklow County Council, Seamus Morris on Tipperary County Council and John Cassin on Carlow County Council. There are likely to be others who will also retain their seats.

Ms McDonald could have done with these seats yesterday.

Infighting in political parties is far from unusual but losing more than a dozen sitting politicians over internal rows in the year before an election is not normal politics.

After the 2014 local election, Dublin became the Sinn Féin heartland. It held the most seats on South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council.

It had real power in local government over the past five years which was a time when city and county councils were faced with tough decisions on housing.

But Sinn Féin doesn't like taking tough decisions.

The Government rightly shoulders an awful lot of the blame for the housing crisis but local authorities also have a role to play in delivering housing.

But Sinn Féin has not helped. The party has voted down plans for thousands of houses which could have helped alleviate the pressure on the market, and it suffered because of this.

Voters turned on the party for its disruptive behaviour on councils which is blocking houses. The vote count last night showed its representation on both Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council has been decimated.

Ms McDonald put on a brave face on Saturday afternoon when she spoke to journalists. She said Sinn Féin was not a party of "cry babies" and insisted real leadership comes at times of crisis.

There have always been questions over where the real leadership lies in Sinn Féin. Is Ms McDonald really in charge or is she taking orders from West Belfast?

If she really is the boss, she bears the full responsibility for the party's election failings and she should prepare for internal dissent which will make the trouble she faced with her councillors seem like a playground squabble.

There was already disquiet over her leadership after the presidential campaign but the coming weeks could see the notoriously private Sinn Féin internal rows become very public as she scrambles to hold on to power.

Irish Independent

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