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?


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.

“I would have been more captivated by the romanticism of striking a blow for freedom. I still feel that. But the balance of that is the social radicalism of the Rising, and of the first Dáil.”

McDonald calls these elements, and particularly their commitment to the social rights of women and children, “the most powerful engine for progressive social change”. Unfortunately, I say, we ended up with the 1937 Constitution instead. We both nod sadly.

Then we move on to the issue of flags – an issue that would be Lilliputian if it didn’t cause so much grief.

“Our position always has been parity of esteem,” says McDonald. “Both flags or no flags – it was a long running debate.” The demographics of Belfast have changed, she says, “Belfast is now a shared city.” But it seems such a devastating thing to do to the unionist population, I say, to make them fly the Union Jack only on designated days, when the flag is so important to them.

McDonald says that the designated flag-flying days aren’t about trying to do down others. But there are people living in Belfast and other northern towns who have seen the Union Flag “flying and flying 365 days a year . . . they felt deeply unhappy with that.”

This is the stock answer, which in a way is surprising coming from one of the most impressive politicians of her generation.

We move on.

Why is Sinn Féin always colonising the past? There have been a rash of commemorations. I forget to mention the Raymond McCreesh playground in Newry, called after a hunger striker who has been heavily implicated in the Kingsmill massacre, as well as other sectarian murders. Instead we talk about the plaque unveiled to Thomas Begley, the man who died in the process of planting the Shankill bomb, which killed nine Protestant men and women when it exploded in Frizzells’ fish and chip shop in 1993. (The other bomber, Sean Kelly, apologised at the unveiling of the plaque to Begley, saying that he was truly sorry for the loss of life that had occurred in 1993.)

Effectively, Thomas Begley was a suicide bomber, I say. McDonald bridles at this. His family would be very upset to have that said about him, she says. I don’t want to upset the Begley family. How would we feel, I say, if the families of the soldiers who perpetrated the first Bloody Sunday, in Croke Park in November 1920, said that the soldiers had been very traumatised and perhaps injured in the incident and would like a plaque erected to them just near where their victims died?

McDonald takes a breath. “Let me preface this by saying that any Sinn Féin person, north, south, east or west, recognises in a very profound way the damage, the hurt that was done. Anything I say is mindful of that truth. IRA volunteers and their families, they have their truth and they want their recognition too. Sometimes that’s hard for a southern audience to grasp.” [I should have said here that sometimes that’s hard for a northern audience to grasp, but I didn’t]. The families of IRA volunteers, says McDonald, “very often feel that apart from demonisation there is very little effort in the South to understand what went on in the North”.

Is this the explanation for all the commemorations, and the reason why Sinn Féin is the organisation that has not yet tired of mentioning the war?

I say that it’s ironic that southerners, who are all meant to favour a united Ireland, don’t go to the North much, or like it much, or know much about it. Whereas both Protestants and Catholics in the North know much more about the South. “They follow the news down here,” says McDonald, nodding. People in the South should go to the North, she says, to its many beautiful places.

When McDonald is talking about anything except republicanism her responses are generous and confident. She doesn’t know Lucinda Creighton very well personally, she says, and obviously they would differ politically, but she admires anyone who tries to take an initiative in politics (this interview took place a few days after the Reform Alliance meeting in the RDS). In fact, McDonald has just come from having her photo taken with Creighton and other female members of the Oireachtas, as part of the celebration of the December 1918 election in which Irish women voted for the first time, and in which Constance Markievicz was elected.

“She’s expecting her first baby in March,” says McDonald of Creighton, in one of those seamless segues women specialise in. She herself was elected an MEP when her first child, Iseult, was an infant. She had her son, Gearóid – “No, he wasn’t called after Gerry! What do people take me for? He was called after my husband, Martin’s, father” – while she was still in Europe. Having a tiny baby when you’re a public representative, she says, is “very demanding, psychologically and physically”.

But it’s the fact that the gender balance in politics is still so poor that makes a public representative having a baby appear unusual. She was in the European parliament for five years, “and it’s much bigger and more [gender] balanced”, she says.

When she was elected to the Dáil, “it was only when the chamber was full for the first time that I looked around and saw what a testosterone-heavy environment it is”.

It is for this reason that she is in favour of “gender quotas and direct intervention in the system” to get more women into politics in general, as well as into republican politics. Her own organisation is pretty testosterone heavy, after all.

She laughs. “It certainly, at times, has been,” she says. But for the past year-and- a-half, gender equality has fallen within her remit in Sinn Féin, and she is working towards the local and European elections both North and South. Last weekend she hosted a Sinn Féin women’s conference outside Belfast and enjoyed all the energy released “when you bring women together”.

In fact, on an anecdotal level, it seems that women in general are her biggest fans, her closest followers, her most ardent critics – not least of how she looks. “I’d love to give her hair a make-over,” says one woman seriously. Women are proud that she is such an effective parliamentary and media performer. She in turn is at home with the personal as well as the political. She volunteers how she met her husband, during the 1990 World Cup, “quite by chance”.

“It was in Peter’s Pub. I was only 20. We had mutual friends. He was watching a match and getting blood pressure . . . you can picture the scene.”

She remembers her maternal grandmother, from Tipperary, who was very republican, cheerful, lovely and a widow for many years. Long after smoking on trains was banned, she smoked on the train up to Dublin for her visits, “out of sheer pig-headedness. It was rage against the machine type thing.”

Next weekend at the Sinn Féin árdfheis in Wexford Opera House, McDonald will give “what I am reliably informed will be a keynote address”, she says with a smile. She has plenty to say. You know she’ll bring the house down. It will be interesting to see if Sinn Féin ever let her do anything else – or if she will ever want to do anything else.

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