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McDonald will have to defend gaping holes in Sinn Féin's policies during tonight's debate

Philip Ryan


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Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, during the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, during the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. Niall Carson/PA Wire

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Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill arrive at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson /PA Wire

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill arrive at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson /PA Wire

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Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, during the seven way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus in Galway, Ireland. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mary Lou McDonald has been itching for this fight. It's been years in the making. She lived in the shadow of Gerry Adams and the Provisional IRA for long enough. Now she's edging towards mainstream acceptability.

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The national broadcaster decided she is one of the top three politicians in this country and will now include her in a televised debate with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. It was easy for RTÉ to add McDonald to the debate. The opinion polls provided the cover and Varadkar and Martin were never going to put up much resistance.

The Sinn Féin leader was always going to benefit from the debacle surrounding her inclusion or not in the debate.

If she was excluded she'd get sympathy, if she gets invited on she gets coverage.

But judging by Bryan Dobson's skilled deconstruction of Sinn Féin's policies last, McDonald might now be hoping she could watch the debate from the safety of her couch.

For instance, McDonald had absolutely no idea how an increase in the vacant site levy to 15pc would raise a massive €107m. It raised €800,000 last year at 7pc.

She also struggled with questions about the cost of a United Ireland. Who would pay the €12bn the North receives every year from Westminster if it breaks away from the United Kingdom?

Of course, Westminster and the Tories were her answer for any questions about Sinn Féin's 20 years of government in the North.

Who caused the health service crisis in the North? The Tories. Who increased the pension age in the North? The Tories. She even admitted her party had a discretionary vote on increasing the pension this year to 66 and voted for it because failing to do so would have budgetary consequences.

But it was still somehow the Tories' fault. She seemed to be of the opinion the British taxpayer should send a never ending stream of funding to the North for Sinn Féin to spend how it wishes.

McDonald also struggled to explain the influence of members of the Sinn Féin ard comhairle over senior party members. Especially in relation to the renewable energy scheme scandal which resulted in the collapse of the Northern Assembly.

She also called for the Special Criminal Court to be reviewed. She used to want to have it abolished. The court is used to lock up serious criminals and terrorists but her party does not believe it is working for some reason.

On criminals, she condemned the murder of Paul Quinn who was beaten to death with iron bars when he was 21 years old. His mother Breege Quinn has asked for an apology from Sinn Féin northern finance minister Conor Murphy for suggesting her son was murdered because he was involved in a criminal feud.

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Stephen and Breege Quinn hold a picture of their murdered son Paul

Stephen and Breege Quinn hold a picture of their murdered son Paul

Stephen and Breege Quinn hold a picture of their murdered son Paul

McDonald sided with Murphy who she insisted did not say what a grieving mother has said he did.

She would also not say that Murphy should talk to the gardaí about his conversations with IRA members who he said assured him they did not murder Paul Quinn.

She confirmed Murphy spoke to the IRA but stuttered and said it was more important Quinn's murderers are apprehended which did make a lot of sense.

Surely, if Murphy can help solve the murder he should then sit down with gardaí and tell them who he met all those years ago.

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Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill arrive at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson /PA Wire

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill arrive at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson /PA Wire

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Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill arrive at Government Buildings in Dublin for a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson /PA Wire

RTÉ says it does not matter that Sinn Féin is running half the number of candidates as Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

The station also does not care Mary Lou McDonald has half the number of TDs as the other two parties.

The broadcaster binned its election steering committee's previous methodology for deciding to have a debate involving only Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál which was to use the results of previous elections.

Take the local elections last May when Sinn Féin polled nationally at 9.48pc.

Less than one in 10 people voted for the party.

Fianna Fáil received 26.92pc of the vote and Fine Gael got 25.26pc.

Sinn Féin also lost two of their three MEPs on the same day while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil increased their seats in European Parliament.

Across the four constituencies in November's by-elections they took an average 14.8pc of the vote.

Nonetheless, Sinn Féin is riding the crest of a wave of public support, according to the opinion polls.

But those polls were taken before she sat down for 30 minutes with Bryan Dobson.

The interview raised far more questions than it did answers which we will hopefully see answered tonight.

Irish Independent