Mary Lou McDonald signals Sinn Féin’s shift to middle ground

Analysis: Party leader’s message positions Sinn Féin on centre left with Labour and Fianna Fáil

In her acceptance speech as leader last February, Mary Lou McDonald offered only a glimpse of what her Sinn Féin would offer voters who would, until now, not have considered supporting the party.

In the RDS that day, McDonald spoke of a “shared prosperity” - the theme she wanted to guide the party into power in Dublin. The suspicion then was that she would seek to bring Sinn Féin further into the centre of Irish politics, but was not ready to say how she would do so.

The ardfheis in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall marked her first major set piece event as leader, and her first half hour long live televised address.

Her “shared prosperity”, based on the content of her speech on Saturday evening, is an effort to move the perception of Sinn Féin away from that of a party for the disadvantaged only to one that represents the aspirational lower middle classes and working classes.

Those in the party say Gerry Adams made similar arguments, but an Adams leadership was never the vehicle to reach those voters McDonald needs to propel her to Government Buildings.

Adams could have said “our agenda is a shared prosperity fuelled by ambition and driven by opportunity”, but would Sinn Féin’s target audience have heard it? McDonald said it, and hopes people were listening.

The earthy language used by McDonald - "a visit to the doctor, the car breaking down... back to school costs should not be a financial disaster" - coupled with the pitch to those "who do everything possible to better their lives" positions her party on the same centre left ground as Labour, the Social Democrats, the Greens and, yes, Fianna Fáil.

The leaders of any of the aforementioned parties could have comfortably stood over the broad arguments of this speech.

The Dublin Central TD spoke of Sinn Féin's competitors "vying with one another to come up with the best reason to keep us out of government", and her task between now and the election is to reduce those reasons further.

Similar to Micheál Martin, her policy priorities are in the areas of housing, health and rural broadband, but there was no major detail in this speech.

Sinn Féin would immediately reopen hospital beds, increase nurses’ pay, build more social homes and introduce rent certainty, but no specifics were offered.

On the North, she said Sinn Féin is committed to reestablishing the Stormont institutions, and called on London and Dublin to convene the Intergovernmental Conference, as allowed under the Belfast Agreement.

Demands for same-sex marriage and an Irish language act were repeated. But despite saying the "North is next" when it comes to liberalising abortion law, McDonald did not give any indication she is wiling to push Arlene Foster on the matter.

If the task of re-entering government in Northern Ireland would not be completed anytime soon, the job of convincing parties in Dublin to share power with Sinn Féin may also be a medium term, rather than immediate, goal.

McDonald said she wants to enter a "progressive" coalition and insists she would talk to all comers after the next election. Even if Leo Varadkar or Martin did sit down with McDonald, Sinn Féin figures say their policy demands may not be met by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

But McDonald is right when she says Sinn Féin and those who vote for them cannot be ignored for much longer. When she said Ireland is a changing place, she means a Sinn Féin in the mainstream of Irish politics is part of that change.

McDonald is part of the “new generation” of leaders she spoke about in public life and, under her stewardship, Sinn Féin is changing into a middle ground party.