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Exclusive book extracts: The extraordinary story of the ‘colourful’ father Mary Lou McDonald prefers not to talk about

In a new biography of the Sinn Féin leader, Shane Ross dismantles the prevailing narrative about her life before politics and says the road that may lead her to the taoiseach’s office is littered with riddles

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Mary Lou McDonald throws her books in the air as a schoolgirl in 1987; right addressing the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 2021

Mary Lou McDonald throws her books in the air as a schoolgirl in 1987; right addressing the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 2021

A young Mary Lou McDonald throws her schoolbooks in the air after her Leaving Cert in 1987. Picture courtesy National Library of Ireland

A young Mary Lou McDonald throws her schoolbooks in the air after her Leaving Cert in 1987. Picture courtesy National Library of Ireland

Mary Lou McDonald first ran for Sinn Féin in 2002

Mary Lou McDonald first ran for Sinn Féin in 2002

Mary Lou McDonald canvassing on the streets of Cabra, Dublin, in 2004. Picture by Gerry Mooney

Mary Lou McDonald canvassing on the streets of Cabra, Dublin, in 2004. Picture by Gerry Mooney

Mary Lou McDonald delivers her speech at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis on 30 October, 2021, in Dublin

Mary Lou McDonald delivers her speech at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis on 30 October, 2021, in Dublin

Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald at Downing Street in 2005

Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald at Downing Street in 2005

Paddy McDonald on the front page of the 'Irish Independent' in March 1973

Paddy McDonald on the front page of the 'Irish Independent' in March 1973

The 'Evening Echo' carried the story about Paddy McDonald's court appearance in February, 1976

The 'Evening Echo' carried the story about Paddy McDonald's court appearance in February, 1976

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Mary Lou McDonald throws her books in the air as a schoolgirl in 1987; right addressing the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 2021

Mary Lou McDonald’s career so far poses many puzzles. The most frequently asked question is how a middle-class, privately educated woman has emerged as the leader of a united Ireland movement that has traditionally been driven by Northern working-class males, many of them unapologetic advocates of IRA violence.

Another question has attracted even more immediate attention. Do the IRA veterans, the volunteers, the backbone of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, approve of her? Is their acceptance of her leadership conditional? Or, worse still, do the Northern hard men control her? What is the new leader of Sinn Féin’s true relationship with them? Is she mistress or servant?


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