McDonald’s tricky first year underlines Sinn Féin’s central problem

Party sources say it is after the ‘angry vote’, raising questions about longer-term strategy

Mary Lou McDonald on the screen during the Sinn Féin special ardfheis held in the RDS. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Mary Lou McDonald on the screen during the Sinn Féin special ardfheis held in the RDS. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

For some members, it was as simple as a change in colour. Purple was just too much.

After the presidential election, a low point of Mary Lou McDonald’s first year as Sinn Féin leader, the party reviewed what had gone wrong.

Liadh Ní Ríada, the presidential candidate and Munster MEP, lost badly, coming in fourth of six on just 6 per cent of first preference votes. The Sinn Féin juggernaut, not used to electoral setbacks, had been halted.

The party never expected Ní Ríada could beat Michael D Higgins, but it believed a result near 20 per cent of the vote was achievable.

Martin Ferris, the retiring Kerry TD; Denise Mitchell, a low-profile deputy for Dublin Bay North who is said to be close to McDonald; and Sam Baker, the chairman of Belfast Sinn Féin, spoke to activists around the country.

“People come back and say: ‘You made a hames of that bit, you did that bit okay. If you are doing that again, I wouldn’t do it that way,’ ” a party source said. “I think it was fair and honest. They didn’t like the colours. People were saying ‘Your traditional colours are gone.’ ”

Ní Ríada’s posters were a striking purple, a change from the party’s traditional green. But it was not just the colour. The entire presidential strategy – from whether Sinn Féin should have stood a candidate at all to whether Ní Ríada was the right one – has been dissected, and the review’s conclusions are being communicated back to party members.

A poster of presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada in Waterford. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A poster of presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada in Waterford. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The presidential election knocked the party’s confidence, and a commonly held view across politics since then has been that McDonald’s leadership has failed to catch fire.

She begins her second year as Sinn Féin leader this weekend, having assumed the position held by Gerry Adams for 34 years at a special ardfheis last February.

Under pressure?

The portrait of a leader under pressure – internally or externally – is not shared by those within Sinn Féin, many of whom argue, with some credibility, that presidential elections are forgotten by voters almost as soon as they cast their ballot.

Instead, they claim McDonald’s contribution to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in last May’s referendum, and her position in supporting the Government on Brexit, is what will stick in the mind of potential supporters.

Louise O’Reilly, the Dublin Fingal TD who describes “ML” as her friend, says McDonald grabbed the abortion issue in the early stages of her leadership and backed reform “wholeheartedly”. Others say McDonald’s conviction convinced many – if not all, with some TDs and councillors leaving – to back the liberalisation of abortion law.

Party figures say the perception of McDonald’s leadership as the first stage in Sinn Féin moving into the centre of Irish politics was mistaken

“She did play a very pivotal role in the Repeal campaign,” says O’Reilly. “She put her face on posters, which I thought was important because she put her name to it.

“The big, public decisive interventions were on the TV and that was huge, but there was also the work done on the ground, knocking doors, putting out our own party literature, mobilising our party behind it.”

She is a different leader to Adams, say insiders: strong where he was weak in the Dáil and media, yet not across all the minute organisational details as he was. She is described by those who know her as a politician who, in line with her party, believes in incremental progress.

Where Adams could have a disagreement and sit down afterwards and talk about football, she does not forget as easily, it is claimed.

She is “marginally” to the right of the party’s traditional economic position, and to the left of it on social policy, according to one observer.

Those close to her include Ciaran Quinn, her chief of staff; Ken O’Connell, Sinn Féin 26-county political director; Dawn Doyle, the party’s general secretary; and senior TDs such as Pearse Doherty, O’Reilly, David Cullinane and others.

Northern question

Unsurprisingly, suggestions that McDonald answers to other figures in the republican movement or does not carry authority with senior figures in Northern Ireland are rejected. Last summer she said a “chaotic Brexit” was not the time to hold a Border poll, removing immediacy from the party’s demand for Irish unity.

Against what most observers believed was a significant change in direction – or at the very least a kite being flown to seem more responsible – the party, en masse, insists McDonald did not shift on Sinn Féin’s most cherished goal.

The speed at which she clarified her position led to claims from opponents that she was not in control, and was being directed by unnamed others.

A call for a referendum on Irish unity has since been a constant, which has been variously interpreted as McDonald assuaging the party base after a period of difficulty or an effort to keep the broader republican movement together as Brexit takes effect.

McDonald with Sinn Féin’s presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada and deputy leader Michelle O’Neill at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Tom Honan
McDonald with Sinn Féin’s presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada and deputy leader Michelle O’Neill at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Tom Honan

“Our position has always been that the optimum time to have a Border poll is in good economic circumstances,” says Conor Murphy, the MLA for Newry and Armagh. Murphy laughs off claims of McDonald answering to others, too.

“People always quote Connolly House,” he says of Sinn Féin’s Belfast headquarters on the Anderstown Road. “But as someone who is a party leader, I haven’t been in Connolly House in years.”

Lower down the party ranks, McDonald responded to claims of bullying and the departure of a number of councillors by commissioning a “consultative project” that sought the opinions of Sinn Féin’s local authority members. The final report will be published shortly.

Party figures say the perception of McDonald’s leadership as the first stage in Sinn Féin moving into the centre of Irish politics was mistaken. Measuring her first year against that yardstick, it is claimed, is an error.

“That was always wrong,” said one source. “It misread the people who had come to us, and the activists.”

Murphy says the same people who believed Sinn Féin would soar in the polls after Adams stood down also claimed McDonald would move the party to the middle ground.

“What you are dealing with here is what the commentators thought she should be doing and we as a party doing what we are doing. We don’t forget our roots as a party of the working class. It is not about shrugging that off.”

First Dáil speech

McDonald’s speech at the recent State commemoration of the centenary of the first Dáil was the most obvious indicator of where Sinn Féin sees itself on the political spectrum now.

As Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and others reflected on both the legacy and the shortcomings of the State, McDonald attacked the failure of the intervening generations to achieve Irish unity and drew comparisons between the tenements of 100 years ago and tenants living in “fear of eviction” today.

Her address explicitly said Sinn Féin did not see itself in competition with those who take pride in the foundation of the State, but was rather pitching for the votes of those who believe it had failed.

It no longer believes – if it ever did – that it can make inroads into the 60 per cent of voters who, according to polls, will vote for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Those who love McDonald are thrilled the more Leo Varadkar attacks her in the Dáil chamber, a now almost weekly occurrence

The remaining 40 per cent is what Sinn Féin is targeting: lower-income workers and people who feel disenfranchised – what one party source characterised as the “angry vote” that went to Peter Casey in the presidential election, and acknowledged by another as the protest vote concentrated around Independents and the wider left. The idea of killing off Fianna Fáil, once entertained by some, has been dismissed.

“You are constantly sitting down and looking at it,” said a party figure of its target vote. “Where’s it at? Where are we heading? Where is it going? Maybe people made the mistake that they thought Fianna Fáil was wiped out. Maybe some of our people did and said: ‘They’re f**ked, they’re finished.’ Anyone who thought that, it was a mistake.

“You’d get Fianna Fáilers saying: ‘Sure youse are from the same politics as us, you’d want to get rid of that auld socialist shit.’ In that sense, they were never going to disappear.”

One Government Minister who observes Sinn Féin at close quarters at constituency level believes they are “trying to wipe out the People Before Profits and the Independents”.

Cullinane, a Waterford TD, said the party must “ruthlessly” target a handful of constituencies for gains.

“We have to monopolise that vote and get as much of that vote as we can and get a very clear message to those individuals that we represent something different, that we are not Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.”

Love/hate

Another Government Buildings source said much of the talk about McDonald and Sinn Féin underperforming has been overstated, claiming it had tacked to the left to try to make modest seat gains at the next election.

The distaste expressed by many in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil towards McDonald is shared by their voters. Some in middle Ireland, further argues the Minister, waited for her to change her pitch and her party when she became leader, but were left waiting.

Mary Lou McDonald arriving for the first Dáil centenary commemoration. Photograph: Tom Honan
Mary Lou McDonald arriving for the first Dáil centenary commemoration. Photograph: Tom Honan

“It is not just Mary Lou. Some of their policies have scared middle Ireland. They waited for Mary Lou to change that and she hasn’t, so they are pissed off. But most of the people who are pissed off now are the people who never liked the Shinners anyway. There are people who either love Mary Lou or hate her. The middle ground is gone.”

Those who love McDonald are thrilled the more Leo Varadkar attacks her in the Dáil chamber, a now almost weekly occurrence that has buried claims he is preparing to bring Sinn Féin into coalition with Fine Gael. Senior Sinn Féin TDs claim there is a section of the population that viscerally hates Fine Gael, and whose support is up for grabs.

One deputy said the “space” is on the left, adding: “It is going to be very hard to shake the traditional voter that has come back to Fianna Fáil. Where our vote is, and where I think there are huge gains to be made, is the people who don’t vote. If they exercise their franchise, they can make a huge change in Irish society.”

Two down

The last election saw Sinn Féin record just under 14 per cent of the vote to win 23 seats. It is already down two with the departure of Carol Nolan and Peadar Tóibín over the abortion issue. Tóibín’s new party, Aontú, is hoping to pick up support from both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

To those in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both of whom have already ruled out bringing Sinn Féin into government after the next election – pursuing a strategy based on gains among seriously disaffected voters throws up another obstacle to McDonald becoming tánaiste.

Sinn Féin sources see the position it took on the Strokestown evictions before Christmas as an example of how it can appeal to those who feel nervous, insecure and left behind.

Yet its response to the Roscommon controversy led Varadkar to claim the party’s “balaclava” had slipped. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said it proved Sinn Féin was not fit for office.

Micheál Martin has repeatedly rejected the prospect of an alliance with Sinn Féin, and some Fianna Fáilers wonder if a party whose base is built on such a disenfranchised vote will be able to withstand the pressures and compromises of government.

Achieving an electoral mandate large enough to ensure her party cannot be ignored in post-election government formation is the main task facing McDonald, yet maintaining a support developed on an anti-establishment message if she assumes power will arguably be a bigger test for the Dublin Central TD.