Monday 17 December 2018

Playing to the hardliners is perilous path for Mary Lou

The new Sinn Fein leader should have kept her own counsel and let Gerry Adams escape from messes of his own making, writes Mairia Cahill

Sinn Fein’s newly elected president Mary Lou McDonald (left) and vice president Michelle O’Neill are hugged by Francie Molloy MP at the party’s special conference at the RDS. Photo: PA Wire
Sinn Fein’s newly elected president Mary Lou McDonald (left) and vice president Michelle O’Neill are hugged by Francie Molloy MP at the party’s special conference at the RDS. Photo: PA Wire

Mairia Cahill

In 2014, I wrote for this paper that Mary Lou McDonald needed to gain the trust of the IRA Belfast Brigade in order to reach the top of Sinn Fein, and that she "needed to go from being her own woman, to being theirs".

And so, it has come to pass.

Her steadfastness at defending her party leader over various controversies, coupled with her capability and acerbic forensic questioning of opposition parties, has won over Northern hardliners to allow her to run unopposed for a position which until yesterday was in the lap of Gerry Adams for decades.

Republicans are acutely aware of the Brendan Behan line that the first thing on the agenda is the split, consciously trying to stage-manage any type of transition to within an inch of its life. This one involves invoking the ghost of Martin McGuinness in reverential terms at every opportunity, installing McDonald and O'Neill as part of his "10-year plan".

It's a clever strategy. Sending down a missive from their deceased republican God is less likely to be challenged by restless troops, and implementing it in this way from the man who took the majority of Sinn Fein with him in the first major split after Adams became president by shouting "come, my friends, we will lead you into the Republic" is a perfect backdrop to negotiating through any choppy waters.

Much criticism has been made, unfairly, of the fact that McDonald is being crowned without contest. Other parties have done this.

What is more striking is the fact that since Adams took the reins in 1983, few, if any, officer board positions on its Ard Comhairle have ever been contested. Sinn Fein has managed to control the party by appointing its leadership for more than 30 years, using the excuse of ratification by membership at an Ard Fheis. It shows little sign of changing.

Her own lack of involvement in IRA atrocities is the vehicle in which Sinn Fein should have driven McDonald forward to attract middle Ireland, while quietly stepping down the old guard.

Instead, from 2014, a steady stream of scandals shackled her to the IRA as she chose to publicly defend Gerry Adams at every turn. A wiser thing would have been to keep her counsel and let him get himself out of messes of his own making. Instead, she put her own credibility on the line and did what hard-line republicans see as a necessary evil in order to keep their movement intact. McDonald had to part offer up her reputation as a sacrificial lamb, in order to become the elevated angel.

In March 2014 she was riding high in public opinion, appearing on The Late Late Show to great reception, and receiving relatively good headlines. In May 2014 she raised eyebrows when she described the arrest of Gerry Adams in the Jean McConville investigation as "politically motivated", and tainted her image further when that October, she uttered "I believe the people who volunteered to the IRA were decent", in the wake of a sex abuse scandal.

A few weeks later, she behaved impetuously in a bizarre Dail sit-in. Then came uproar as she read out names using parliamentary privilege in connection with Ansbacher.

Some of her other behaviour would be laughable if it wasn't so serious.

Slab Murphy was described by her as "a very typical rural man" much to the mirth of anyone familiar with his notoriety within republicanism, and the look on her face of embarrassment and later amusement as she shared a smile with Gerry Adams when Bobby Storey described the IRA as a "butterfly that's flew [sic] away" in 2015 is perhaps the starkest illustration of how sitting alongside the heavy hitters in the IRA has put her in a bind and made her look completely ridiculous at times.

When it came to the violence meted out by the IRA, however, she used to be more cautious in her phrasing. In 2013, asked by journalist Ursula Halligan whether she supported the IRA campaign, she responded: "I… recognise the right to meet force with force, it's not something I celebrate or necessarily that I support. I'm not sure… I'm not being picky with the language here, but I do understand why volunteers came forward, was it necessary to take up arms against the British state in the North? I believe it was."

Fast forward to November 2016 when she tweeted "Delighted to speak at Derry Volunteers Dance. Very moving occasion for all families. Honoured to be honoured", which was accompanied by a picture of her standing on a podium adorned with a poster of two crossed rifles and the caption "Derry Brigade, Oglaigh na hEireann".

Playing to the IRA gallery for whatever reason won't damage the party among nationalist voters in the North, but it is a very dangerous path for Mary Lou to tread when it comes to sustaining or attracting Southern support.

Both jurisdictions are markedly different in their approach to politics, with commentator Mick Fealty aptly describing the South as "senior hurling to the North's U16 game".

While Sinn Fein is in no danger of tearing itself apart, as age besets the Adams brigade and their power starts to ebb, McDonald needs to find a way to navigate through a group of Northerners that runs Sinn Fein as a party of street protests and politics, to transition into one fit for coalition with behaviour and policies fitting of same, while also dealing with a litany of personnel problems within the party on how they conduct themselves in private. It won't be plain sailing.

The woman who once stated that she joined Sinn Fein for "economic and social justice and equality reasons" will have a hard time explaining to her troops the economic equality in the revelation that Sinn Fein TD Dessie Ellis was able to come to an agreement with party honchos to draw his full salary, while others are expected to get by on the "average industrial wage".

The party has had other embarrassments in recent times in Kelly and McElduff, and McDonald hasn't exactly shone in her response.

Sinn Fein's lack of ability to govern with the DUP is an open goal for Southern opposition parties to cite as another reason not to do business, and for that reason, she more than anyone else will be looking for a resolution to the Assembly talks.

And yet, the most pressing issue facing Sinn Fein is that it has never found a way to put the nation over self-preservation. It is this narrow-sightedness which means that Mary Lou is often seen to be jumping through hoops to protect individuals at the real expense of positive politics.

Her effort to presumably be seen in the same light as Markievicz by tweeting from her commemoration last week: "A most unmanageable revolutionary" shows she has her work cut out for her.

Markievicz had cojones. Mary Lou has yet to prove hers by finally standing up to the malevolent force within.

Ironically, it will not be McDonald's opponents but the unmanageable "revolutionaries" in her own party and her public response which is likely to do her the most damage.

Sunday Independent

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