McDonald passes first test at head of Sinn Féin with aplomb

Next challenge is to pass motion altering SF abortion policy for second time in 8 months

Mary Lou McDonald at the RDS during the count. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mary Lou McDonald at the RDS during the count. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The people led and the politicians followed. Those were the words of Mary Lou McDonald on hearing the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment had been passed by an overwhelming majority.

The Sinn Féin leader now finds herself in the unenviable position of trailing behind the people again on this social issue.

Two-thirds of the electorate voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the knowledge that the Government will seek to legislate for access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and beyond that in very specific circumstances.

Despite McDonald’s long-standing view on this matter, her party’s policy is out of sync with those Government proposals and the majority of the people, it seems.

Currently, Sinn Féin supports access to abortions in the cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and when a mother’s life, health or mental health is at risk. That will soon change when McDonald brings a motion to her party’s ardfheis seeking to alter Sinn Féin policy on abortion for the second time in eight months.

She seemed fairly confident Sinn Féin would adopt her proposals. “I have every faith in Sinn Féin members, just as I had every faith in people to consider, think and do the right thing. I am very confident of that.”

Northern regime

For Sinn Féin, there is also the added complication of Northern Ireland and how restrictive its abortion regime is.

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As the crowds poured into Dublin Castle on Saturday afternoon, McDonald appeared on stage with her deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill. The pair held a sign reading “The North is next”.

It appealed to the masses but pressure will now be on Sinn Féin to place this on the agenda with the Democratic Unionist Party as the two continue to stumble to form an Executive. The DUP will resist it at every turn, but if Sinn Féin wants to move past the populism, it must have those uncomfortable conversations.

Nevertheless, McDonald has been a very strong and effective presence in this referendum campaign. She argued passionately for the proposition of repeal.

Her most effective contribution was on the first of RTÉ’s televised debates. It was not a particularly good night for the Yes side, and had McDonald not been present, it would have been a thousand times worse. That is acknowledged by even her most staunch opponents.

Internal rifts

McDonald provided leadership in the referendum campaign that other political party leaders could not or did not do. That did not come without consequences internally.

She insisted at the party’s ardfheis in November that Sinn Féin must adopt a united position in this debate. That resulted in the suspension of Offaly TD Carol Nolan from the party for three months and could inevitably lead to anti-abortion campaigner Peadar Tóibín voting against the legislation when it comes to the Oireachtas.

The party made a conscious decision to place the party leader front and centre of the campaign. It was McDonald’s image on the posters across the country advocating a Yes vote.

That worked for the Sinn Féin base but it also broadened her and the party’s brand. Many of the younger voters were looking for a leading figure in this campaign and for many McDonald filled that gap.

It was also successful branding from the party’s perspective. There is no doubt this was the perfect first campaign for the Dublin Central TD.

It was something she has championed for years. This would have been a different campaign for Sinn Féin had Gerry Adams still been in situ. This was her first leadership test and she passed it with flying colours.

The next challenge is in ensuring the party follows the people in the South and in the North too.

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