Mary Lou McDonald talks frankly of her struggles with anxiety

In The Meaning of Life, McDonald discusses Covid-19 and confronts the ghosts of IRA victims

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

 

As licence fee payers, we could all do with a bargain and that is what the Meaning of Life (RTÉ One) serves up as Joe Duffy interviews Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

This is the ultimate in two-for-the-price-of-one factual television. It kicks off with a touchy-feely opening half, taking in saints and statues of the Buddha (she has one in the house). But the ecumenical patter falls away after the break as Duffy pivots into a more adversarial quizzing of McDonald’s justification of the IRA’s campaign of terror.

The mixed grilling is gripping and a vindication of Duffy, who tends gets to get written off as a populist by dint of his day job hosting Liveline. He is excellent at drawing out McDonald, as demonstrated by a gentlyposed early question about her parents separating when she was 10.

And Duffy encourages her to share her experience of coronavirus, which she contracted shortly after it reached Ireland. She doesn’t hold back and admits fearing the worst when, towards the end of the illness, she developed pleurisy in one lung.

Duffy, perhaps hearing Meaning of Life predecessor Gay Byrne whispering in his ear, also coaxes from McDonald a frank revelation of her struggles with anxiety. “I think there is a whole art to sitting ... yourself down and learning how to breathe and to be calm,” she says.

He even lobs a question about her favourite saint. Disappointingly, she opts for the generic St Francis of Assisi when the hipster’s choice would have been someone slightly more obscure like St. Martin de Porres (my grandmother’s favourite – she had all his merch).

But, woah, change comes charging in hastily in part two as Duffy invites his guest to confront the ghosts of the IRA’s victims. He asks about Angela Gallagher, a 17-month-old shot dead by the IRA in 1971. Had Gallagher lived, she would be younger than McDonald is now, Duffy says. So this isn’t about the past. It’s about people who could be walking around today but aren’t.

She isn’t for turning: McDonald points out she is the leader of Sinn Féin in peace time. She also says that, with “a viable democratic pathway established”, there is no justification for violence today

As an insight into McDonald’s spirituality, the broadcast is illuminating and she is to commended for speaking frankly about her anxieties. And she makes clear that Sinn Féin’s commitment to social justice played a large part in why she joined the party.

Duffy does not ask why she joined Fianna Fáil first. But he does well in teasing out her ultimate ambition, which has less to do with building houses than removing borders. “I hope our legacy will be a united Ireland,” she says. “I would like my legacy to be that I did my part.”

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