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SF and Mary Lou have made political history - but insist the surge in votes is 'just the beginning'

Hugh O'Connell


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Winner: Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after she was elected on the first count of the Dublin Central constituency at the RDS yesterday. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Winner: Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after she was elected on the first count of the Dublin Central constituency at the RDS yesterday. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

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Winner: Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after she was elected on the first count of the Dublin Central constituency at the RDS yesterday. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

This was a make or break election for Mary Lou McDonald whose leadership of Sinn Féin was on the line after a series of electoral setbacks.

Today, as she marks exactly two years since her coronation as party leader, she is celebrating her finest hour and preparing, perhaps, to lead Sinn Féin into government for the first time in Ireland.

Arriving amid an unprecedented media scrum at the RDS yesterday evening, she declared: "This is not a transient thing, this is just the beginning."

The events of the last 48 hours are even more remarkable given that for much of the past two years Sinn Féin seemed to be going backwards under her leadership.

First she made a strategic error in pushing - against the views of others in Sinn Féin - to run a candidate in the presidential election who floundered.

Then the party took a hammering in the local and European elections, losing dozens of local authority seats and two of its four MEPs.

Even as recently as last December, Sinn Féin's vote share declined in all but one of the Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland.

No wonder the party entered this election on the defensive with a risk-averse strategy that was aimed at holding on to as many seats as possible. Days after the election was called it removed its second candidate in Sligo-Leitrim, Chris MacManus, amid fears for the seat of incumbent TD Martin Kenny. Mr Kenny topped the poll yesterday as did dozens of other Sinn Féin candidates across the country with massive surpluses.

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Sinn Féin supporters react after the exit polls were announced in Cork. Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Sinn Féin supporters react after the exit polls were announced in Cork. Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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Sinn Féin's biggest regret is its failure to run enough candidates to capitalise on the surge, but nonetheless Ms McDonald leads the most popular party in the State.

In an election where voters wanted change she successfully pitched herself and her party as the outsiders who could deliver that change and break the duopoly of Fine Gael, which has led the country for nearly a decade, and Fianna Fáil, which sent the country off a cliff a decade ago.

Ms McDonald was born and raised in south Dublin, attended private school at Notre Dame in Churchtown, was educated at Trinity College and used to be a member of Fianna Fáil.

In terms of background, she is a world away from her predecessor Gerry Adams and in this election that has made her more palatable to middle Ireland and women voters in particular.

One Sinn Féin member and former party staffer said Ms McDonald's appeal to female voters was one of the striking aspects of this election campaign on the doors. Meanwhile, one Dublin-based EU diplomat described Ms McDonald as "personable and definitely not anti-European".

Quite simply, she has broadened Sinn Féin's appeal among voters in all age categories bar those over 65.

In this election, Sinn Féin let the Civil War parties scrap with each other and instead spoke about solutions to the real crises affecting people's everyday lives. One of the main lessons learned from last May's setback in the local and European elections was a need to be issues-based and solutions-focused - not permanently giving out about everything Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were doing wrong.

The party presented credible spokespeople across a range of portfolios, including Eoin Ó Broin (housing), Pearse Doherty (finance) and Louise O'Reilly (health). None of them carries the baggage of the likes of Dessie Ellis, the former IRA prisoner, who sang 'Come Out Ye Black and Tans' with his supporters in the RDS yesterday and had to be told by a party press officer to tone it down.

In Mr Ó Broin voters see a man who was not just giving out about how poor a job Eoghan Murphy was doing but was promising a different way of dealing with the seemingly intractable housing crisis. The party's rent-freeze proposal caught the public's imagination particularly among younger voters getting hammered by monthly rents and unable to even dream of owning a home. Fianna Fáil's mixed messaging on the idea and Fine Gael's opposition to the proposal worked against them. That the policy may be flawed and unworkable did not seem to matter among those hungry for a change of tack on housing.

Sinn Féin also called it right on one of the key election issues with its demand for the retirement age to be brought back to 65, leaving the other parties scrambling. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both had to perform U-turns on their pensions policy in the course of the campaign amid a backlash on the doorsteps. Both parties derided the economic proposals of Sinn Féin, saying the party would introduce over a dozen new taxes that would hit the middle classes and lead to a flight of capital from Ireland. The business lobby group Ibec warned of the "grave" impact of Sinn Féin's policies.

But as RTÉ's election exit poll shows, the voters were concerned less about tax and the economy and more about housing and health.

Sinn Féin was also likely bolstered by events North of the Border where it finally, after a three-year hiatus, re-entered power-sharing. A Fine Gael source lamented last week how Tánaiste Simon Coveney had done more than most to bring about the return of the Northern institutions. "It doesn't seem fair," the source said. "Sinn Féin is getting all the benefit from it."

Yesterday Mr Coveney saw Sinn Féin's justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, who had feared for his seat before the campaign got under way, elected on the first count in Cork South-Central.

Voters also do not appear to have been put off by the questions about the party's handling of the past which emerged in the final days of the campaign. Some within republicanism saw the fact Conor Murphy, once tipped as a Sinn Féin leader, was forced to apologise for comments labelling murder victim Paul Quinn as a criminal as evidence of Ms McDonald flexing her muscles. Chris Donnelly, a political analyst and former Sinn Féin candidate, said: "Mary Lou's decision to effectively call out Conor Murphy for not apologising clearly and decisively all those years ago was striking as it left no room for doubt as to where authority resided within the party."

But this should not be overstated.

In her acceptance speech this day two years ago, Ms McDonald proclaimed "up the rebels" and "tiocfaidh ár lá". The use of militant republican language signalled that while there was a new leader there would be no dramatic change in how Sinn Féin dealt with those thorny and troublesome legacy issues.

Its approach to victims of crimes committed in the name of republicanism remains questionable and these victims and their families will not remain silent in the coming weeks and months.

In fact, their voice is likely to grow louder now.

Ms McDonald must handle that better than she did in the final week of the campaign.

There are also many outstanding questions about the party's own ard chomhairle, how it functions and makes decisions. Ms McDonald was unclear as to how exactly it was decided to change Sinn Féin's policy on the special criminal court - and the policy itself remains ambiguous. The party's new Wexford TD Johnny Mythen has openly stated his opposition to the non-jury court.

These matters will all come to a head as the parties squabble over how to form a government. Sinn Féin hopes its large surpluses can bring in a wave of left-wing TDs and put the party in a position to form a minority administration. "We need change, we need a new government, the best outcome is a government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. So that's the first thing I want to test, whether or not that is possible," Ms McDonald said last night.

This would appear ambitious in the circumstances but cannot be ruled out. Nor can Micheál Martin performing one of the most astonishing U-turns in Irish political history and forming a government with Sinn Féin be out of the question. He opened the door to that last night as Fine Gael firmly shut it.

But questions linger as to whether Sinn Féin actually wants to be in government. Will it set the bar too high for other parties in the hope that the stalemate triggers another election when it can run more candidates and win even more seats?

Ms McDonald will have to consider all these matters now that she has cemented her position and made history for her party.

Irish Independent


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Mandate: Leo Varadkar declared he had promised voters that he will not share power with Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan