Mary Lou McDonald repeats ambition to be Sinn Féin leader
Interview: ‘I would not be presumptuous to think I would be automatically chosen’
Mary Lou McDonald: With her as leader, Sinn Féin could become a real threat to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the road to a Sinn Féin-led government could become shorter. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Whether she wants to admit it or not, Mary Lou McDonald is on the verge of becoming the next leader of Sinn Féin.
The deputy leader has spent years in the shadow of the party’s president, Gerry Adams, but even he knows his era is drawing to a close.
While McDonald continuously plays down the prospect of an immediate leadership change, her colleagues know she is in pole position to replace Adams.
It is a worrying prospect for the party’s opponents. The Dublin Central TD has endeared Sinn Féin to a new tranche of voters, mostly working mothers and younger people.
This Dáil term she has been somewhat subdued. She insists this is due to her touring the country as part of her role as party spokeswoman on mental health and not because she is “plotting away” in a dark room.
In an interview with The Irish Times, McDonald repeats her ambition to be considered for the leadership when the time arises.
“When there is a vacancy and there is no vacancy now, I will be asking for my name to go forward and then it is a matter for membership.
“We have options and I would not be presumptuous to think that I would be automatically chosen or automatically entitled to it.”
Adams is 68 now and while he is showing no signs of slowing down, time catches up with us all eventually.
However it seems the biggest block to her success is whether she would be sufficiently popular with Sinn Féin figures in the North, something the party dismisses.
McDonald is incredibly supportive of and loyal to her party leader, often to her detriment. When Adams finds himself in controversy she is often dispatched to his defence.
“Gerry has been an immensely important part in the development of Sinn Féin, immensely important. It cannot be overstated but the party is important too.
“We are all-Ireland; we are Republican; that matters to people. It does not come down to one single person.”
Ten years ago, Sinn Féin was a timid force in Irish politics. A decade later, it has become a real challenge to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
The party largely credits McDonald for its success in the 2014 local elections, securing over 250,000 first-preference votes.
While they increased their representation, their performance in the 2016 general election was disappointing.
McDonald admits Sinn Féin has an uphill battle to convince the electorate there is life outside the two main political parties.
“The analysts and the reporters insist there cannot be political life beyond Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. That is not actually true. It is convenient and lazy to say that anybody now who does not conform or agree with this centre-ground argument, which in Ireland is code for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are somehow by definition dangerous. I think that is wrong.”
But without a strong left alternative, surely voter trends will continue to go in one direction. Sinn Féin has attempted to lure other left-wing Independents but its past – or at the very least its leader’s past – prevents progress.
Last week, Sinn Féin’s Bill seeking rent certainty secured support from Labour, Social Democrats, the Green Party and a range of Independents. McDonald sees that as a victory for common sense rather than a sign of any future alliance.
This weekend she hosted a conference for female Sinn Féin supporters and elected members. It was also the beginning of the party’s campaign seeking a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Sinn Féin will argue for the amendment to be removed from the Constitution and not replaced.
McDonald said the party does not support widespread access to abortion but believes legislation should be provided to allow for terminations for women who have been raped or subjected to incest or for those who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormalities.
“The position has evolved over time. This matter is set at our ardfheis. Sinn Féin is no different to anyone else. We live in the same world, we breathe the same air; we face the same challenges. Our views are shaped; opinions are formed and changed like anyone else. But we are at the point where we have a very settled view on this matter and of course we, like any other party, have very mixed views. We are not sheep, we are not robots; people have their own position.”
The Dublin Central TD insisted “mainstream Ireland” is behind the campaign but this will still be a hard-fought battle.
Those who want to repeal the Eighth must explain to people the reality many women face, she says. They must make people understand Ms X and “an absolute alphabet soup of other cases” are real women and real cases.
Repeal, not replace, will be their message.
“We cannot take out one formulation and replace it with another. I would say if that route were taken you are stirring up trouble for next 20 years.”
McDonald says the debate should not be a divide between men and women. However she says she believes Ireland is a sexist country, pointing to pay inequality between genders and a male-dominated Oireachtas.
McDonald said she has no difficulty calling Trump out for his “sexist and racist” behaviour but the party had no choice but to accept the result as the will of the American people “even if we don’t like it”.
But would she accept an invitation to meet him in the White House on St Patrick’s Day?
“That would be a matter for the party to decide. It is good access for Ireland, to push for issues that are important.
“We would go ahead. I wouldn’t see anything to be gained by not being present.”
She says 2016 has been an incredibly bizarre year for politics. And while heavily critical of the present Government, she is not anticipating a general election next year.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are too comfortable together, she insists. If an election does happens she believes it will be an accident or something that trips them up.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, she says, has gone over and above the call of duty to retain Enda Kenny in power.
“They abstain on everything. They don’t have a view on anything anymore. It is quite incredible. They don’t have the bottle to stand up to anything anymore except their own sense of political entitlement and their own project to forget about the past and the economic crash and so on and to ensconce themselves on the Government benches.
“It is purely motivated by their sense of what is politically advantageous to them. It has nothing to do in my view with what is politically needed or necessary.”
Is she not concerned about the potential return of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern to politics in her constituency of Dublin Central? The local branch has voted to invite him back to the fold.
McDonald says she is not surprised by the move but claims it is a sign of desperation by the party. “I don’t feel any level of personal animosity towards Bertie Ahern whatsoever. Why would I? But politically speaking if this is some mechanism for Fianna Fáil to say forgive and forget, I don’t think that is on the money at all.”
There has been some good things to come from 2016, she says. The possibilities of a Border poll and Irish unity are back on the agenda.
She cannot name a date for when a potential vote could be held but said it must be done by consensus. It cannot be tolerated, she says, it has to be welcomed.
Next year will be spent arguing for the best possible deal for Ireland arising from the British exit from the European Union in spite of the “British government’s scant regard for Ireland or the consequences for the Good Friday Agreement or the peace process”.
But her overarching political ambition for the new year ? To remove Fine Gael from government.