McDonald facing electoral tests that will shape her leadership

McDonald’s future in charge of the party may be in jeopardy if May’s fortunes are repeated

Sinn Féin is not yet a typical political partybut it is not that different that it would stick with a leader who lost half its Dáil seats. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Sinn Féin is not yet a typical political partybut it is not that different that it would stick with a leader who lost half its Dáil seats. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Gerry Adams, white-haired and grandfatherly, was downstairs at the makeshift bookshop signing copies of his many titles while Mary Lou McDonald prepared for her televised leader’s address to the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Derry on Saturday night.

She might be wondering how the old fox made it all look so easy. Turns out being leader of Sinn Féin – straddling North and South, holding the working class support while trying to break into the middle class – is trickier than it looks.

McDonald was in New York last week, speaking to an adoring audience at the annual Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in New York. In the Millennium Forum in Derry on Saturday they cheered her to the rafters when she told them: “Tomorrow is ours – the next stage of our struggle beckons!”

But she knows – and they know – that she faces electoral tests in the coming months that will shape her leadership of the party. If she can consolidate the party’s position in the North, and turn the tide to save most of its seats in the South, this past year will be seen as a difficult start for her leadership that she came through.

Jeopardy

But if the party sees its Dáil seats tumble at next year’s expected general election – as would happen if the party achieved its current opinion polls ratings, and last May’s local and European elections suggest is likely – then her future as Sinn Féin leader will be in jeopardy.

For now, McDonald’s party is behind her, just as it was behind Adams for so long as he led the party slowly, slowly away from southern abstensionism, from violence, from political untouchability to government in the North and to be the fastest growing party in the South.

But now Stormont is in a deep freeze and – judging on recent election results – Sinn Féin might become the fastest contracting party in the South.

Sinn Féin is not yet a typical political party – its history and its culture are different from the other parties. But it is not that different that it would stick with a leader who lost half its Dáil seats.

The performance in the four forthcoming by-elections will be an interesting signpost, even if it’s not decisive one way or another. It’s the general election that will matter.

But the by-elections might tell us in what direction that’s going.

The message of the ardfheis, emblazoned on the backdrop to the stage – was “Time for Unity”, an effective if familiar rallying call for the troops. In her keynote address, McDonald demanded a unity referendum within five years – a prospect which seems unlikely now (and would be greeted with horror by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil) but might not seem so far-fetched if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister. It is the British secretary of state, after all, who calls the referendum, once he or she believes it would be passed.

Left-wing policies

But McDonald also delivered a strong restatement of the party’s left-wing, redistributionist platform – a living wage, public housing, reducing rents, an Irish National Health Service, free education, public childcare, and so on. It is these that are likely to form the core of the party’s pitch to voters at the next election.

McDonald also restated the party’s willingness to enter a coalition government as a junior partner, subject to a programme for government which achieved the party’s policy objectives. Earlier the ardfheis had restated its support for the policy.

But of course any programme for government would involve compromise; nobody gets everything they want in a coalition. Would McDonald make those compromises and be strong enough to carry them in her party?

Would Fine Gael Gael or Fianna Fáil be willing to do business with Sinn Féin in the face of widespread opposition in their own parties? These are questions for the future. For now, McDonald’s job is to put her party back in the game. She has only a few months to turn it around.

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