Mary Lou McDonald primed to be Sinn Féin leader since joining in 1998

Profile: Despite electoral lows, Fianna Fáil defector was always at the heart of party hierarchy

Mary Lou McDonald: A self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, McDonald was having to defend the party against a rape victim

Mary Lou McDonald: A self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, McDonald was having to defend the party against a rape victim

 

From the moment Mary Lou McDonald joined Sinn Féin as a fresh-faced Fianna Fáil defector, she was primed for the position of leader.

In 1998, she abandoned Fianna Fáil after less than a year, shifting her allegiance to Sinn Féin, and now, 20 years later, she is on the cusp of being elected party president.

This was a carefully woven path. Within months of her entry into the party, she became part of the leadership team, and despite electoral lows she remained at the heart of the hierarchy.

It became clear during the 2002 general election that McDonald was Sinn Féin’s star attraction. At that juncture Sinn Féin was an almost exclusively male party, making her ascendancy all the more remarkable.

She failed to secure a seat at that election in the Dublin West constituency, but made history two years later by becoming the party’s first MEP.

However, she kept her eyes on the prize – a Dáil seat. She and her husband Martin moved northside to Cabra, and she sought the party’s support to run in the Dublin Central constituency in the 2007 general election.

Sinn Féin was sure its leading lady would make an electoral breakthrough. The party ran an extensive poster campaign and threw all its resources behind her. McDonald was not just their star; she was also a significant part of Sinn Féin’s domestication and their attempts to appeal to young voters who had little or no knowledge of the Troubles or the party’s role in it.

Crushing defeat

It was not to be. She suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Fianna Fáil party she had abandoned nine years earlier. Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern had managed to get Cyprian Brady over the line with a significant vote transfer, and McDonald was the biggest loser in that campaign.

Two years later she ran in the European elections but failed to retain her seat. That same year she was appointed deputy leader of Sinn Féin.

McDonald was never far from high office. Despite not being an elected member of the party, there was never any question of demoting her or moving her.

Sinn Féin began crafting a political plan at that juncture. The country was in the depths of recession, and the public were beginning to turn on the government. Buoyed by popular anger over the country’s financial crisis, Sinn Féin tripled its seats to a record 14 in the 2011 general election. McDonald was one of two women elected.

She is a proud mother of two, but rarely discusses her life outside of politics. Few outside Sinn Féin – or, indeed, within it – know Mary Lou the wife and mammy

Her performance over the next five years escalated her and the party to new heights. Her role on Leader’s Questions and at the Public Accounts Committee endeared her and the party to a raft of new voters.

However, McDonald adopted a number of positions during that period that will haunt her as she prepares to take over the reigns of the party. Her loyalty to the leadership and Gerry Adams saw her defend some of the worst atrocities of the IRA and her leader’s alleged role in them. The rest of the party could watch from the sidelines but it was McDonald who had to defend Adams on the airwaves.

Judgment

Never more so was her judgment called into question than in the case of Mairia Cahill. Having castigated the Catholic Church for its handing of sexual abuse allegations, McDonald defended her party and her leader in light of allegations of a cover-up of Ms Cahill’s abuse.

She was forced to deny she smirked at Ms Cahill when the two met in the Dáil.

A self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, McDonald was having to defend the party against a rape victim.

One party figure insists there was a “lot of background” to McDonald’s handling of that affair that cannot be disclosed.“She did what the rest of us do – toe the party line even if it is something you don’t want to do or something you don’t agree with.”

Either way, it gave her political opponents the ammunition to attack her credibility, and such shots will be fired repeatedly at her as she takes over from Adams.

As a person McDonald is affable and pleasant. Born in Rathgar, she has two brothers – Bernard, a scientist, and Patrick, a patent lawyer – and a sister, Joanne, a teacher.

There will be, hopefully, less meetings, and people will be free to make their own decisions. There will be less zany tweets too, hopefully

In the mid-1990s she married Martin Lanigan, who works for Bord Gáis. She is a proud mother of two, but rarely discusses her life outside of politics. Few outside Sinn Féin – or, indeed, within it – know Mary Lou the wife and mammy.

Shrewd

As a politician she is shrewd and ruthless. Her ascent to high office has been a plan long in the making, but the exact nature of her leadership is unclear.

One leading figure described her as “quite firm”, and someone who is not shy about making decisions.

“One of the things the party does is micro-manage. There will be, hopefully, less meetings, and people will be free to make their own decisions. There will be less zany tweets too, hopefully.”

Sinn Féin’s past will continue to dog its future, but the change in leadership offers them a chance to wrangle free from the shackles of the Adams era.

Only time will tell if McDonald will seek to distance herself from his reign or continue to defend and honour.