There’s something about Mary Lou

Mary Lou McDonald sweeps through the Dáil exuding tidal waves of charisma. But what chance does the Sinn Féin vice-president really have of becoming leader?

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

Mary Lou McDonald is remarkably sunny for someone who is between major rows at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee. “I’ve been on it since I came into this place and, in my experience, it works well,” she says.

It could be the adrenalin. The PAC certainly works well for her. She shines on it. It suits her. She sweeps along the office corridors of Dáil Éireann exuding tidal waves of charisma . It feels great to be swept along.

She doesn’t think that the committee points up the weakness of the Dáil chamber and how it is used – or not used – by most of her colleagues.

“You simply don’t have the scope to go into that much detail,” she says of the Dáil chamber. “ A man came into my clinic the other day and said that he wasn’t my greatest supporter, but he saw I was a nit-picker. And he said he was as well.”

You can see that McDonald has always been the type of attractive woman who gets taken aside a lot by men – particularly, perhaps, older men – who have something to say that will be very useful to her. Men who are eager to give her the benefit of their opinions. You can also see that she would handle these situations with tact.

She laughs at the fact that the man called her a nit-picker. She thinks that he is right. She prides herself on getting stuck in, her command of minutiae, of pursuing something to the bitter end.

“Of course there have to be limits,” she says of the committee.

You wonder about the limits on her. For example, what chance does she have of ever becoming leader of Sinn Féin when she is a female southerner who never fought the Brits? I make a quick list of the ways she differs from the current leadership . . . “I don’t have a beard,” adds McDonald helpfully. “But I don’t feel strange within Sinn Féin. You don’t have to have those characteristics to be in Sinn Féin.”

She feels that people outside the party are working to an old stereotype of its members. “Ann Marie, Sinead [her assistant] is from Blackrock.” I am a bit mortified to think that McDonald thinks I would be surprised by this. But back to the eternal party leadership of Gerry Adams.

“Of course Gerry enjoys the full confidence of our electorate,” she says. “All in good time, the transition will happen. We have a lot of talented people. We’re not short of options.”

It’s a bit like Queen Elizabeth, I say. Adams is just too loved to step down . . . McDonald laughs. That makes you Prince William, I say. If observers of Sinn Féin are correct, the northern wing will never relinquish the leadership to anyone who hasn’t been in the IRA. Sinn Féin is one of the few political parties in Europe – most of them deeply unattractive – where it is a distinct disadvantage not to have blood on your hands if you want to be its leader. That could make McDonald Prince Charles, waiting in limbo for a lifetime.

The thing is that McDonald is so very charming and likeable that by now I’m ready to join the republican movement myself. Hand me a black beret – although actually, I have a black beret already – I’m going in. Yet, strange to say, it could be her republicanism that holds McDonald back. It is where she resorts most frequently to cliche and seems least herself.

Every political party wants to get its mitts on the centenary of the 1916 rebellion, and it is unsurprising that Sinn Féin should be particularly eager. McDonald, who has been a republican since her early youth, says her attitude to 1916 has changed.

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