Friday 20 September 2019

Gerry O'Regan: 'McDonald learns leading from front is much harder than life on sidelines'

Mary Lou McDonald has had a torrid few months
Mary Lou McDonald has had a torrid few months

Gerry O'Regan

What with all this Brexit business swamping the headlines, it's all too easy to miss out on some other stuff rustling beneath the undergrowth.

Take the case of Mary Lou McDonald. She's had a torrid few months in her role as a post-Gerry Adams pivot for Sinn Féin. And her whole gambit of nudging the party towards the middle ground - with more than an eye on a coalition deal with one of the major parties - has come unstuck.

The bid to unseat Michael D Higgins resulted in some bloody noses for those who failed dismally at the polls - deciding to enter the contest at all was a serious miscalculation by McDonald and her inner circle.

In contrast, experienced old war horses in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil rightly concluded there was no point partaking in the slugfest of an unwinnable battle. But for McDonald, it was a tempting opportunity to test the waters, for a "softer" Sinn Féin, cast in the mould of its new leader.

Gerry Adams and other well-known Northern powerhouses maintained a low profile. In fact, Sinn Féin branding for party candidate Liadh Ní Riada was, in general, kept to a minimum.

The strategy was clear. In order to give Michael D Higgins a run for his money, the hoped-for Mary Lou McDonald allure would have to attract support outside the party's traditional base. This clearly did not happen. Hopes for a surge in support from middle Ireland fell flat.

The election was also a wake-up call. Building a base outside its core areas remains a gargantuan task for Sinn Féin.

Allowing for the undoubted voter appeal of President Higgins, it was a lacklustre performance all round - and a serious rebuff to Mary Lou's type of "soft republicanism", specifically tailored for voters south of the Border.

The election result will also have a sobering effect on some fantasists in Fine Gael who harbour thoughts of a future Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition pact.

It is clear the battle to bring Sinn Féin in from the edges is still very much a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the McDonald leadership strategy has also been buffeted by the loss of Peadar Tóibín, who was one of her most high-profile TDs.

Admittedly, the abortion issue is unique in its power to cause splinters in any political grouping. Yet questions will be asked as to whether the Sinn Féin hierarchy could have handled things differently.

It will inevitably focus attention on the party's much-vaunted reputation for having a kind of Stalinist control over TDs and activists. The era for unyielding acceptance of a centralised authority may simply have run its course.

Meanwhile, the high-profile Máiría Cahill case continues to simmer, putting McDonald on the back foot yet again in recent days. She insists the party did not cover up allegations of serious sexual abuse.

On the Brexit front, if certain events come to pass, Sinn Féin's policy of not taking its seats in the House of Commons will be centre stage. We could have a situation where DUP machinations will scupper the Theresa May deal, which is so advantageous to Ireland.

The burden of history may well be the key to Sinn Féin's approach to the Westminster parliament. But of course it did change its stance in relation to the Dáil, following decades where it refused to recognise the 'Free State' parliament.

The reality is the party's seven Westminster MPs could make all the difference in what will be a make-or-break Brexit vote in the House of Commons.

Yet they insist on watching from the sidelines as the possibility of a hard Brexit - and with it a major hit to jobs and living standards for this country - becomes a real-time risk.

This approach has also allowed the DUP to make much of the running on British media, despite a majority in Northern Ireland having voted to remain in the EU.

If events conspire in a certain fashion, McDonald and her party will have a lot of explaining to do.

Mary Lou McDonald is learning fast that sounding off from the sidelines is one thing, but trying to lead from the front is a whole new ball game. The jury is out as to whether she's got what it takes to forge a new pathway in the undergrowth.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss