Liadh Ní Riada as close as you could get to the image SF wants to project right now
Candidate forced to spend a lot of time trying to justify past events
There is a long tradition in republicanism of going to ground at critical times, from Michael Collins during the War of Independence to the on-the-runs during the conflict in the North.
You might have expected the tactic has had its day. But strangely, for the first part of the presidential campaign, Liadh Ní Riada went off-radar. She had next to zero national visibility. Given that her national profile wasn’t exactly high wattage to begin with, it was an unusual strategy.
That seemed to be borne out by the first opinion polls that put her support levels at single digits, and suggested more Sinn Féin supporters would be backing Michael D Higgins than her.
So where was she and what was she up to? Well, it seems she was focusing on a “ground war” in local media and communities.
She is a post-conflict politician, female, modern, articulate, cultured and a native Irish speaker. She is personable and even in temperament
“In the first few weeks I covered every county in Ireland, bar two [Monaghan and Limerick]. For me, it was important to connect with as many people on the ground.
“I hope the next polls are different and with the national debates hopefully people will see the cut of my jib,” she responds.
Ní Riada certainly has her work cut out in the capital. We walk down Grafton Street following the exactly same route Michael D Higgins had taken a week before. He was mobbed. For part of her journey, Ní Riada could be just another midday browser, such is the inattention.
Ní Riada (50) is as close as you could get to the image Sinn Féin wants to project right now. She is a post-conflict politician, female, modern, articulate, cultured and a native Irish speaker. She is personable and even in temperament. But even a modern Sinn Féiner, politically, is in a state of original sin. She has spent a lot of time in this campaign justifying events and actions that predated her own interest in politics.
It is a Tuesday morning and we travel on Ní Riada’s impressive bus (featuring huge images of her, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill) from RTÉ to the city centre. The main canvass is a walk through the shopping districts of Dublin 2.
It is not as if Ní Riada is ignored. Some do approach having seen her on TV in the past week. A woman asks here how she thought she did on Frontline. She responds that she did okay but regrets “taking a pop” at Joan Freeman over her donor, saying she did not mean to phrase it in that way. A few others say they will support her.
I remember going into a shop with my sister in Kenmare when I was quite young and the shopkeeper said, are you foreigners?
Ní Riada’s own life has had its share of sadness. She was an infant, the youngest of seven, when her father, composer Seán Ó Riada died. “My dad died in 1971. He was only 40. It struck me how much he achieved. I’m 10 years older than that now and I think, crikey, he left an enormous legacy.
“It made us very close as a family, particularly when my mother died when I was 10.
“It was tough as a teenager growing up without the influence of a parent . . . It was a noisy enough household, seven kids left to their own devices. It was a bit of a railway station, we had lots of people coming in and out. We had great neighbours.”
Spoke no English
There was little income in the house, mostly intermittent royalties from their father’s music but they got by. She spoke no English until she went to school.
“I remember my first word in English which was dog. I thought everybody in Ireland spoke Irish. I remember going into a shop with my sister in Kenmare when I was quite young which is only over the mountain from us and the shopkeeper said, are you foreigners?
“I thought it was extraordinary that she did not know we were speaking our native tongue.”
Her first husband, Fiachra, died from malignant melanoma, a year after they married. She was 29, he younger. It was beyond sad.
“Even though we both knew he had cancer, we had this thing of love will conquer everything and we will get through . . . He went very fast in the end.
“It’s not something you ever get over. It’s something you get through,” she reflects.
Later, she met and married Nicky Forde - “He is just a tremendous support” – and the couple have three daughters.
Having been a TV director for over a decade, she entered Sinn Féin as Irish language officer, never having been involved with politics or a party. She says that move wakened a nascent republicanism within her.
Privately, publicly, anyway I am completely in favour of the vaccine. I was never against it
But how did she reconcile that with all the egregious actions of the IRA during the conflict? Is there anything, past or present, that made her uncomfortable?
No, is her response. “Maybe it has to do with my own background. You accept and acknowledge the good and the ugly of the past but you don’t let it define what you do in the future."
“For me, it’s about the future and ensuring generations to come will not be bogged down in this but it’s always important to acknowledge those awful dark days.”
But isn’t the Máiría Cahill case a good example of Sinn Féin generalising the response and muddying the waters by saying everybody was to blame?
“I think what happened to Máiría Cahill was absolutely wrong. I condemn it in all its forms. Sinn Féin at the time did not have mandatory checks and they should have been in place. They are now in place. This would never happen again and it should not have happened,” she responds.
Last month Ms Cahill rejected an apology from Sinn Féin as “woefully inadequate” after Ms McDonald expressed regret for how it handled her allegation of rape. Ms Cahill claimed she had been raped by an IRA member and said she was later subjected to an IRA “kangaroo court” investigation.
Ms Ní Riada has shipped criticism for her pay (which is well above the average industrial wage which Sinn Féin representatives are supposedly pegged to) and over her comments on the HPV vaccine which protects against cervical cancer.
She steadfastly refuses to say if her daughters were vaccinated against HPV, on the grounds of their right to privacy. It leaves her open to criticism that she publicly supports the vaccine, but privately harbours doubt.
“Let me be so clear. Privately, publicly, anyway I am completely in favour of the vaccine. I was never against it. The only thing I will guard fiercely is the privacy of my children.
“I made the mistake of not guarding it two years ago and I have been paying for it since. It would be easier for me to say, you know, to give the information out but I won’t betray the confidence and trust of my kids.”
Key planks of her campaign include the Irish language, conversations on a united Ireland, and social justice. A lot of that is overtly political. Won’t she have to press the mute button on all that if she become president?
In particular, is not her intention to visit Palestine a political act, given some Irish people would disagree with her stance? She points, in response, to Oireachtas recognition for the state of Palestine.
“It’s on a peacekeeping level you are going trying to show some solidarity to the people, that that would be the context. The atrocities being committed are horrendous. Naturally I would need permission from the Government. It would do nothing but help peace.”
And would she visit Israel?
“If I had to, I would yes. It’s about having uncomfortable conversations. I am not going to shy away from visiting or meeting anybody who is completely unwholesome.
“You have to be balanced. I think it would be right to put that in the schedule.”
Like other candidates, she thinks the media and political establishment have given Michael D Higgins too soft and too easy a time.
“His level of activities has gone down and he has not addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas.
“He has not made his mark. One term is enough for anybody.
The Áras should not be some kind of winding-down gift to somebody who has had a long career in politics,” she claims.