Mary Lou McDonald: a Dubliner with deep republican roots

A constant at Gerry Adams’ side, McDonald was widely accepted as successor from 2016

Deputy political editor of the Irish Times, Fiach Kelly, looks at Mary Lou Mc Donald's first speech as president of Sinn Fein and the challenges that lie ahead for her north and south of the border.

 

Mary Lou McDonald first came to public and media notice in the early 2000s as part of Gerry Adams’ doughnut – the group of party honchos who would surround Adams for television clips during the endless Northern negotiations.

Though she was a constant at Adams’ side, McDonald could hardly have been more different from the Gerry Kellys of the world who made up the rest of Adams’ doughnut retinue. When Kelly was busting out of the Maze prison and going on the run, McDonald was enjoying a comfortable upbringing in Rathgar, one of the more affluent south Dublin suburbs. She attended Notre Dame Des Missions, a fee-paying school in Churchtown of which it may fairly be said that most of its students were well aware of its fee-paying status.

She studied English in Trinity College, followed by a European Studies degree in the University of Limerick. She later worked as a researcher in the Institute of European Affairs. So far, so conventional.

Setbacks followed: in 2007 she failed to be elected to the Dáil and in 2009, she lost her European Parliament seat

But McDonald’s family had deep republican roots – her mother’s uncle was executed by the Free State side during the civil war. She says that the hunger strikes awakened her to the injustices suffered by northern Catholics. She understood that it was necessary, she told a documentary some years ago, to take up arms against the British state. These militant views did not prevent her from joining Fianna Fáil however, and her earliest entry in The Irish Times archive is contributing to discussions at the party’s 1998 ardfheis.

‘Peace negotiator’

She later joined the Irish National Congress, a fringe Republican group, but left and before long she joined Sinn Féin, becoming the party’s standard bearer in Dublin West, where she stood unsuccessfully for the party in the 2002 general election. In 2004, describing her occupation as a “peace negotiator”, she won a seat for the party in the European Parliament. The coming political party needed politicians, and McDonald was on the up.

But setbacks followed: in 2007 she failed to be elected to the Dáil and in 2009, she lost her European Parliament seat. But she did not lose faith, nor did the party lose faith in her. By now she was vice-president of the party, and openly speculated on as a future leader. She finally won a Dáil seat in 2011, comfortably retaining it in 2016.

By then she was more or less accepted as Adams’ successor, having demonstrated complete loyalty to the leader during the excruciating controversies involving sex abuse in the Republican movement, and in Adams own family.

Her election on Saturday, as it always was with Adams, was unopposed. That, it is fair to assume, did not come about by accident.