Monday 26 August 2019

The annointed one to face a baptism of fire

The fact that Mary Lou McDonald may become her party's leader without a contest says it all about Sinn Fein

SHOO-IN: Bookmaker Paddy Power is currently quoting odds of 1/100 on Mary Lou McDonald becoming the next leader of Sinn Fein
SHOO-IN: Bookmaker Paddy Power is currently quoting odds of 1/100 on Mary Lou McDonald becoming the next leader of Sinn Fein

Eilis O'Hanlon

The good news is that Dublin West TD Eoin O Broin, a man with all the warmth and charm of an ideologically-driven ice cube, will not be standing against Mary Lou McDonald for the leadership of Sinn Fein.

The bad news is that nobody else looks likely to wrestle her for the top job either.

Not the party's finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty. Not Senator Padraig Mac Lochlainn. Even the party's nominal leader up at Stormont, Michelle O'Neill, has ruled herself out of the race.

CALLING TIME: Gerry Adams is stepping down as president
CALLING TIME: Gerry Adams is stepping down as president

As with O Broin, it's not exactly a political tragedy if none of these people fail to become Sinn Fein leader either. Doherty undoubtedly has a head for figures, but often looks and sounds far more choleric than circumstances justify, as if he's suffering from a permanent bout of indigestion and the antacids just aren't working. Mac Lochlainn has a certain bull-in-a-china-shop effectiveness, but diplomacy wouldn't be the former TD's strong point, as he once proved by calling the Fianna Fail leader a "gurrier" during a heated Dail debate. It warms the cockles of the party faithful's hearts, but it doesn't travel well.

As for Michelle O'Neill, she's now been leader in name in the North for 10 months, and has not exactly emerged from Gerry Adams's shadow to stamp her authority on the party. Her fondness for attending memorials to IRA Volunteers conjures up associations which still make SF toxic in many constituencies in the Republic, though it's all a matter of degrees.

Mary Lou has hardly distanced herself from the terrorism committed in the Republican movement's name either, and that may well come back to haunt her. Nonetheless, she easily remains the best qualified for the leadership. She has tenacity and personality; she's not wholly a stranger to humour; she has a churlish side, but mostly bears up well under pressure. The problem is not that she will be the next SF leader, but that the contest is over before it's even begun.

It can't be stressed enough how abnormal this is; it's every bit as weird as the fact Adams remained in charge for 34 years without so much as the sniff of a serious challenge.

Whether SF went up or down in opinion polls, or did well or badly at elections, Adams was automatically returned as president at each ard fheis, party members having apparently forgotten that it was possible to change leaders periodically. In most normal democratic parties, Adams's announcement at last week's annual gathering in Dublin that he would not be standing for the position of head honcho again, and would indeed be stepping down as a TD for Louth in order to spend more time with his social media accounts, would have prompted a round of frantic manoeuvring among the ranks. Deputies would have already started canvassing support amongst fellow TDs, senators and councillors. They'd have campaign managers, who'd be busily identifying their own candidate's strengths and his or her rivals' weaknesses, and drawing up battle plans for the months ahead.

Even the Labour Party, which was reduced to just seven seats at the last election, tried to have a proper leadership contest afterwards, before Alan Kelly's bid for power imploded, and the party decided: "Look, let's just give it to Brendan Howlin, he's wanted it long enough, and things could hardly get any worse." (Opinion polls since would suggest they were spectacularly wrong about that).

Not so SF, despite being repeatedly told that the party is awash with political talent. The party now has 23 TDs in the Dail, more than enough to flush a few would-be leaders out of the woodwork. Still not a single one of them has looked set to step forward.

They all have their reasons. Pearse Doherty insists it's "ridiculous" to suggest he was ordered not to stand, saying he's only ruled himself out for "personal reasons", not wishing to spend any more time away from his young family back in Donegal; O'Neill says she has "enough to do" without taking on further responsibilities.

But it's still remarkable that, for the first time in over three decades, the leadership of SF will soon be up for grabs, and not a single politician other than Mary Lou McDonald will take a crack at it.

The decision by Conor Murphy not to put his name forward is the most telling development. Murphy is a heavy hitter in SF north of the border, having experience, both as a Republican activist (he was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of explosives), as a former MP and MLA, and in Government, as a former Minister for Regional Development in the devolved assembly and a key member of the party's negotiating team with the DUP and British government. Experience isn't everything, and his period in office was not without controversy; but it usually counts for something.

This time last year, he looked like a serious contender to replace the ailing Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Instead, he was spectacularly snubbed in favour of O'Neill, the shadowy figures who call the shots in the Republican movement having decided that she better suited their purposes.

Murphy has clearly decided that he doesn't want to put himself through the humiliation of being overlooked again, just to provide Mary Lou with the fig leaf of legitimacy. There's only so much humiliation a man can take.

"I don't want to be anointed or ordained," Mary Lou has said, but that's exactly what's happening. It will be every bit as much of a coronation as the ascension of Toireasa Ferris to be the party's nominee to contest her father Martin's Dail seat next time round, just as she was co-opted on to his Kerry County Council seat in 2003. This is how Sinn Fein works, and everyone knows it. You might be able to fool a few pundits into peddling the lie that SF is a normal democracy, but the bookies don't lie. Paddy Power is currently quoting odds of 1/100 on McDonald becoming the next leader.

It's hard to imagine anything that's considered more of a dead cert, so unless SF is playing a clever double bluff in order to make a financial killing, Mary Lou it is.

It's her misfortune that she'll be taking over the reins at a time when centre ground politics is reasserting itself in Ireland, with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail now above 30pc in the polls, and support for independents and the Left falling back sharply.

There's always a possibility that, having taken the first steps at the ard fheis to end the ban on entering coalition government as a junior partner, a few more radical voices may peel off from SF and veer leftwards; but that will be more than compensated for by an influx of ersatz feminists who've hypnotised themselves into believing that having a female leader somehow compensates for Republicanism's systematic abuse of women.

It's something of a mystery why anyone else who shunned SF during the recession would suddenly start supporting the party as the country begins to recover; but Adams's departure should have an immediate impact on SF's toxicity when it comes to transfers, and small percentages can make all the difference in final seats. That may be tested sooner than expected. Gerry surely hoped for a languorous final lap of honour before retirement. Instead he could be out by Christmas, having confirmed he'll step aside immediately if an early election is called. Mary Lou may be about to get a baptism of fire.

Sunday Independent

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