It is a cliche to say that Mary Lou McDonald is an enigma but it’s nonetheless true. Likable, warm and approachable yet never quite revealing herself. A straight-talker who appears to shoot from the hip yet says nothing that has not been thoroughly considered.
The embodiment of educated, Dublin 6 middle-class privilege who peddles a persuasive anti-establishment line and attracts the kind of adoring scrums last seen in Bertie Ahern’s heyday. A non-dogmatic, practising Catholic who finds the New Testament message of hope, deliverance and social justice highly appealing yet who will always be shadowed by Sinn Féin’s violent associations.
A woman who places a huge value on broad-mindedness and independent thinking yet faces serious questions about who precisely makes the party’s decisions.
For older generations who lived through the Troubles, these questions are existential. When the party leader insists – as she did in a recent RTÉ interview with Joe Duffy on The Meaning of Life – that IRA outrages are history, that she "can't undo the past", and that her ethical duty as a "peacetime leader" is never to go back there, it seems fair enough.
All of it had a context, she said, all of it was down to the failure of politics. It would be “an extraordinary ask for people to take on everything of the past – it has to be history”, she said, making the point that we have the choice between an ethical duty to chart out the future or consistently reaching for the past, not to bring healing but to reach for it because we can’t move beyond it.
The notion that Sinn Féin is no ordinary political party lingers for a reason
But how are people to square this with her own and prominent elected colleagues’ public commemorations of IRA atrocities that occurred well within living memory – colleagues who may well be tapped as cabinet ministers in the likely event of McDonald becoming taoiseach?
The notion that Sinn Féin is no ordinary political party lingers for a reason. Any journalist who has written critically of the party talks ruefully of the ensuing pile-ons that come with a particular edge and can evaporate mysteriously in an instant.
She is by no means the only person who says she would have joined the IRA in other circumstances and is probably one of millions who had at least one grandparent driven by "a very nationalist, very old-style republican" ethos, as she described her grandmother Molly to Mary Banotti for the 2008 book There's Something About Mary.
But most people never acted on the youthful impulse to join the IRA or went beyond a raucous chorus of The Men Behind the Wire at a Wolfe Tones singalong.
Her rise and rise within Sinn Féin is part of the McDonald enigma. The decision to join the party was not driven by youthful impulse. She was around 32 when she left Fianna Fáil. She chose Sinn Féin as her political home she said, because it blended the social justice agenda and "that impetus towards ending partition". No other party – not even Fianna Fáil: the Republican Party – would do. The difference is you can believe and say it rhetorically or you can go out and do it, she told Joe Duffy.
Within a few years she was the party’s Dublin West candidate in the 2002 byelection and main speaker at a Sinn Féin homage to Sean Russell, a former IRA chief of staff and Nazi collaborator. Last year she led the party to a historic triumph in the general election and became leader of the Opposition.
Polls suggest Sinn Féin has consolidated its position in the meantime, but 2020 was a testing one for her and the party. She became very ill with Covid-19 in its most terrifying phase around the end of March, when Italy’s horror scenes dominated the news. The disease abated while she developed pleurisy in a lung. As an asthma sufferer, she warned against complacency, saying “you don’t have to be over 70, younger people get it too”. The children’s school had been closed ahead of the rest and how she got it remains forever a mystery.
Meanwhile, the drive towards a united Ireland went fully mainstream this week
As the lightning rod for the public backlash against restrictions, it put the party in an awkward position of responsibility to public health policy while maintaining the voice of opposition. Sinn Féin also had to contend with various eruptions about its online activities, not to mention the governing parties suddenly hosing money at various sectors in the face of shutdowns that could be blamed on no one.
Meanwhile, the drive towards a united Ireland went fully mainstream this week, when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar kicked off the Fine Gael Ard Fhéis with a speech that, coming from Fine Gael, caused sharp intakes of breath around the country. Varadkar believes "in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime", he said. While the views of unionists must be "acknowledged, understood and respected", he insisted that "no one group can have a veto on Ireland's future". Furthermore, the debate on unity did not belong to any one party.
Varadkar was undoubtedly laying down the gauntlet to the only party challenging Fine Gael in the polls. The Summer Nights interview with Mary Lou McDonald will take place a week before the bearpit of the Dublin Bay South byelection. It should be riveting.
Mary Lou McDonald will join Kathy Sheridan for a dicussion on her life, her politics and her thoughts on a united Ireland on Tuesday, June 29th, at 7.45pm as part of The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival. For tickets, go toirishtimes.com/summernights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival and further access to view each event after the festival ends. Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25. Just make sure you are signed in before purchase, and the discount will be applied automatically.