Ian O'Doherty: 'McDonald reminded us of Sinn Féin's true colours when she defended the Venezuelan dictatorship'
It's unlikely that Sinn Féin's party motto is 'when in a hole, stop digging'.
But it probably should be.
After being anointed as the new, acceptable face of post-terror, post-IRA Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald has enjoyed a rather turbulent 12 months.
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She successfully positioned herself as part of the Repeal axis, and landed some undeniably impressive blows during her combative Dáil performances.
But she has also had to carry much of the blame for her party's humiliating and disastrous Presidential campaign, its ever-decreasing approval ratings in the opinion polls, numerous high-profile resignations and, as always, the usual internecine feuding and claims of bullying between members.
Of course, all of that is grist to the mill of domestic party politics.
But her decision to defend an official Sinn Féin delegation of MLA Conor Murphy and general secretary Dawn Doyle attending Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro's inauguration in Caracas last week provided yet another example of just how far to the left Sinn Féin has drifted.
Venezuela is a basket case; a failed state that has managed to transform itself from the most oil-rich country in South America to a place where, famously, citizens can no longer even buy toilet roll.
Even more important than the vexed issue of a shortage of loo paper, the Maduro regime, which seems even more chaotic and corrupt than that of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, is one of the worst human rights offenders in South America.
Currently, 80-90pc of the population live sbelow the poverty line.
Three million people have left the country in the last three years. Arbitrary arrests and torture of dissidents are now commonplace, the old South American party-trick of 'disappearances' has made a strong comeback, there are an estimated 12,000 opposition activists locked up. Fourteen protesters were killed on election day in May. Then, for good measure, Maduro's forces arrested the last opposition leader on Sunday.
The election in May was denounced as a sham before the polls had even closed - neutral observers had witnessed massive voter intimidation, voter fraud and there were countless examples of members of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela paying people to vote for their guy - as if there was ever any doubt about the outcome in the first place.
That election, which was condemned by the EU, the US (well, no surprise there) and all independent monitors, was a grisly throwback to the dark South American days of sham-polls rigged from the beginning and designed only to add a veneer of respectability to a despotic regime.
Yet according to McDonald: "We believe that the Venezuelan election was open and democratic and the president has been elected. Let me tell you this, it is for the people of Venezuela and for them alone to decide who leads them...It's the only democratic position you can have. The important thing is that countries freely select their political leadership and freely elect their governments."
Stirring words, indeed. But they also show that McDonald seems to have a rather unusual, indeed even innovative, interpretation of what 'democracy' and 'free elections' actually mean.
Of course the people of Venezuela wanted free elections and democracy. The problem is that they didn't get it and they won't get it any time soon as long as Maduro and his ilk have control, which is why so many opposition parties refused to legitimise the farcical event last May.
Inevitably, whenever a left-wing government goes off the rails in South America, the blame is immediately placed at America's door and plenty of Sinn Féin's well orchestrated social-media supporters have been quick to blame 'Yanqui' imperialism for the parlous state of that country.
But while the USA has hardly covered itself in glory with its history of disastrous interventions in the region, it is too trite and simplistic to reflexively blame the Great Satan to the north for all the ills of Venezuela.
After all, even Canada, which has now under the Trudeau government become perhaps the most liberal and 'progressive' nation in the West, condemned the election, with its foreign minister stating on the day of the inauguration that: "Today, Nicolas Maduro's regime loses any remaining appearance of legitimacy...Having seized power through fraudulent and anti-democratic elections, the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship. We call on him to cede power immediately."
It is also interesting to look at who joined the Sinn Féin delegation in celebrating Maduro's 'victory'.
While the rest of the democratic world shunned the celebrations, Murphy and Doyle shared the experience with representatives from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Turkey and Syria.
Lovely company to be keeping.
In a free society, every party has the right to send delegations to whatever tin pot dictatorship it chooses, but McDonald's comparison between Maduro and Leo Varadkar, arguing that: "There are people in this country who would not endorse Leo Varadkar on the basis that they have endured poverty, we also have to accept that he is Taoiseach," was simply fatuous.
We have plenty of problems in this country, for sure. It is also true that the current Taoiseach has his fair share of detractors - but they are not dragged out of bed, or off the streets, by masked goons never to be seen again, as happens in Venezuela.
You can say what you like about the failings of this Government and that is precisely the point - we can all say what we like without fear of becoming a missing dissident.
Of course, the Taoiseach will probably have welcomed her remarks, because it briefly took the spotlight away from both his Ethiopian misadventures (really, Leo? Leaving women outside?) and Vicky Phelan's scathing attack on his handling of the CervicalCheck scandal, when she accused him of being "all talk and no action".
But why do Irish leftists love to endorse and glamorise despots?
The Shinners are hardly alone in that.
After all, many of us still haven't forgotten or forgiven Michael D Higgins for his praise of Castro on that monster's death.
It seems that all you have to do to win the approval of the 'progressives' in this country is to say that you hate America, want to return power to the peasants and then you have carte blanche to do whatever you want.
It's juvenile and devoid of rational analysis and the political equivalent of a student wandering around in their favourite Che Guevara T-shirt.
The decision to send, and then defend, was a sign of either chronic naïvety or fairly monstrous cynicism.
Say what you like about Sinn Féin, but you'd never accuse them of being naïve...