In February 2020, Sinn Féin pulled off one of the most extraordinary political feats in 90 years, when its president Mary Lou McDonald led the party from the doldrums to receive the highest share of votes in the general election and transform the political landscape.
Since then McDonald has been widely tipped to become Ireland’s first female taoiseach. She has been described as an enigma who soared through the ranks of Sinn Féin in a very short time, having been a latecomer to party politics.
The woman reared on Dublin’s southside and now living in Cabra on the northside attributes much of her tenacity to her upbringing. She describes her mother as “an outstanding little woman, she doesn’t clear 5ft in height, but she is absolutely mighty… If you think I am forward in my expression and in my thoughts, you need to meet my mother. Because, that explains, I think for most people, a lot of how I think… that instinct to find your star and follow it, certainly is the work of my mother, to who I am eternally grateful.”
McDonald’s parents separated when she was 10. Her father worked “mainly in the building trade, and he did very well and very badly, depending on the times”. Her mother raised the four children.
“In September 1979, with a twist of delicious irony, I think, as Pope John Paul was making his way to the Emerald Isle, my parents separated. It literally coincided with that exactly. Back in the Ireland of 1979, a broken marriage or a failed marriage, or a broken family, was a thing of stigma… you were made to feel that sense of shame, I suppose, around all of this. It seems inconceivable now.
“I always remember my mother being so angry and frustrated… if she was at Mass, and a priest or anyone from the pulpit would be warning against the evils of divorce or family breakdown, and preaching about broken families – because our family wasn’t broken, our family in fact was very complete.”
Raised a Catholic, McDonald attended Montessori school in Rathgar and then went to Notre Dame in Churchtown. She says she is probably something of an a la carte Catholic who wouldn’t attend Mass every Sunday.
“I wasn’t brought up with that kind of austere Catholic ethos at all. I have always managed to blend and understand the world, yes as a Catholic… but also as a feminist, and also a person who believes very fundamentally in privacy and personal choices. I’m very clear that my job as an activist and as political leader is to operate within the secular sphere. And I think that’s very important.”
She feels no conflict between fulfilling public duties and being true to her beliefs. “As public figures, as political leaders, our job is to legislate, to build a society, to make provision for everyone, for all our citizens. And we need to be blind to theology and personal beliefs.”
Despite the leafy southside upbringing, McDonald refutes any notion she comes from a privileged background: “I don’t come from privilege, I come from opportunity. I have never had a privileged or a wealthy background or life – I don’t seek it either. But what I have been very privileged to have is a really good education. And my mother made absolutely sure of that, that all four of us got the very best when it came to education.”
McDonald attended Trinity College, where she studied literature, and holds a master’s in education. “I actually never completed my PhD – so in educational terms, I think that’s a regret that I have. But look, I made my choices.”
Her interest in politics evolved from growing up in a household where politics was always discussed and debated, but it was only in her late 20s that she became politically active, she says. The timing coincided with the emerging peace process in Northern Ireland, the ceasefire, and the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“Until then the part of Dublin I grew up in there wasn’t a Shinner about the place... Sinn Féin suddenly was present, and was an option and was an avenue. And I saw Gerry’s speech, the late Martin McGuinness, I knew people through other bits and pieces of activism who were in Sinn Féin, and that blend of social justice on the one hand, reunification on the other, that’s my politics. So, you find your fit.”
An earlier dalliance with Fianna Fáil, the party of her family and upbringing, proved less of a fit: “I remember one evening, we were at a meeting, and I can’t remember what meeting it was, but I raised the issue of social equality, and there was a sharp intake of breath, like I was talking about something entirely exotic or out there… not long after, I joined Sinn Féin.”
A rapid ascent ensued within the ranks of Sinn Féin. Five years later McDonald was the main speaker at a ceremony in Fairview Park in Dublin, around the statue of Seán Russell, a highly controversial Irish republican figure who fought in the War of Independence. In some quarters the move was construed as a trial of McDonald’s strength by the party, to see to what extent she would pin her colours to the party mast. McDonald remembers it differently.
“When parties are smaller, people can advance and find their feet, much more quickly than when a party is much bigger. So, when I joined Sinn Féin, it was still a small and effective entity, but a very small entity in Dublin and across this State. So, within no time, you would know everyone. I found my feet fairly quickly... There was never any testing of me… And I wouldn’t jump to tests set by anybody. I spoke at countless commemorations; the Séan Russell one was one of them.”
McDonald says events like this are part and parcel of the realities and consequences of the republican conflict. “I deal with the British government and we meet with members of the royal family, and they had a hand in, I think the predominant hand, in conflict in Ireland... But what happened in the North happened, and a lot of people suffered... And I’m not attempting in anything that I would say or do to create any kind of hierarchy of who was more hurt, or who was more worthy than anyone else… but I have to be true to my objective, which is for Irish reunification in an orderly, constitutional and democratic fashion. And now as the leader of Sinn Féin it is my job, and my duty, to bring republicans, of all varieties and stripes, with us on that journey.”
She is “in thrall to nobody”, she says, and rejects claims that she is accountable to unelected figures in the organisation who the public don’t know, or who might be in the IRA and responsible for atrocities.
“When I’m asked about this, it’s generally in exchanges like this, or in conversation with media people or commentators. That’s not something that’s raised with me on doorsteps. And just to answer your question very directly, I am in thrall to nobody… This business of us being in thrall to others is a ruse that’s deployed by people who, quite frankly, have held all of the strings of power now in this State for a century, and who are not going to ease or let go, or let others in, or let change in, without putting up a fight. And this is one of the arguments that they deploy. I find it a farcical suggestion – we’re simply not, that is not the case.”
Responding to comments made last year by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris when he said the Garda shared the view that the Provisional Army Council still oversaw both the IRA and Sinn Féin, McDonald says: “I know he said it… but that was a classic case of dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi type of thing. That somebody said that they thought something about… I don’t operate in conjecture of that nature. I’m the leader of Sinn Féin, and I’m telling you, I’m in thrall to no figures, shadowy, murky, or otherwise… If you’re asking me is there some structure outside of Sinn Féin that has to okay actions, that simply is not the case.”
Can she offer reassurances that the party has moved on from the associations of its more violent and male-dominated past?
“Of all of the political parties in the Dáil, we have the largest representation of women… And in fact, we’re beyond 50 per cent in terms of female representation in the North. So, this is not a boys’ club… there’s room in republican politics for women, for women leaders, and they’re welcome. And as regards recalling the past… for lots of people it’s still very near, and it’s still very present.
“And as republicans, as nationalists, of course you have to recall your history – whether it’s Theobald Wolfe Tone or it’s Bobby Sands. And you are entitled to do that, that is the story of what happened in our country. Just as our unionist friends are entitled to recall and to verbalise their history and their position. But you have to do it mindful of the present, and mindful ultimately, that whatever happened before, we now need to build a future together.”
A tipping point
What does she say to the people who may be close to voting Sinn Féin next time around but have concerns about the party’s past? “Not everyone is going to agree with our political view – we’re progressives, we’re a party of the left, we’re about social justice and equality… I don’t expect to wake up one morning, and the entire mass of the Irish population to be voting en masse for Sinn Féin – in fact, I think that would be entirely unhealthy. You need to have the ying and the yang, and the democratic tension.
“What we’re asking people to do really, in terms of Sinn Féin in government, is to give us the chance, that’s all. The people hire, the people fire – we have to deliver, the pressure will be on to deliver. But I think when you meet people on the level, and if you have local Sinn Féin members or councillors or TDs, believe the evidence of your eyes in terms of the work that’s done around you – that’s all I can say.”
In relation to Sinn Féin supporters who are very active on social media and have a tendency to excoriate views expressed by others who may not share the views of the party, McDonald says: “Social media are public platforms, and people will critique your work... But that should never ever descend into abuse. And where commentary is abusive, it’s simply not acceptable.”
Issue of change
Sinn Féin is hoping its candidate Lynn Boylan will win a seat in the upcoming Dublin Bay South byelection, though latest polls position her well behind the Fine Gael and Labour candidates. “I suspect that this byelection might only really take fire in the last week or so… Are we resonating strongly enough? I hope that we can, because the issue of housing and the issue of change, it’s still palpable out there, there’s appetite for that to happen.”
What would Sinn Féin do to turn around the housing crisis? “We’ve argued for a long time that the Government needs to introduce a tax credit to put a months’ rent back in renter’s pockets. And then we need a freeze, no rent increases for three years. The Government say that’s constitutionally dubious; we have advice to the contrary.
“We have very big, large banks of public land, we can stop gifting those to private developers. I’m not saying that you can build houses overnight, but I can tell you, we shouldn’t be making mistakes like were made in the Glass Bottle site, down in Ringsend, Irishtown. I mean, 3,000 houses will be built there alright, but bear in mind, the State had been offered that site at a 50 per cent discount, and they didn’t take it. That should be developed by the State for, not just social housing, council housing, but also for cost rental, and for affordable purchase.”
McDonald is of the view that a united Ireland will become a reality in this decade. “The Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, has said as much out loud now. I mean, that was long overdue. I think we’re at a tipping point now where it becomes almost reckless not to just debate this, but to actually start the planning for it.”
And McDonald has every intention of leading that charge: “A woman taoiseach is long overdue… it’s taken us a century to have a woman leading the Opposition. I think the time is now.”
This is an edited version of Mary Lou McDonald’s interview with columnist Kathy Sheridan at the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival on June 29th