McDonald will walk a tightrope between reassurance and change

Sinn Féin’s new leader must extend party’s appeal without alienating its old guard

Mary Lou McDonald has been confirmed as the sole nominee for the position of Sinn Féin president.


Mary Lou McDonald has same task that all new political leaders face: how to reassure the ancien regime while emphasising the change that has taken place.

In McDonald’s and Sinn Féin’s case the need for reassurance is especially acute. The party has been led by the same man since 1983 – a tenure of almost Cuban proportions. In that time Fianna Fáil has had five leaders; Fine Gael has had six. For Sinn Féin members, not having Gerry Adams as leader is going to take some getting used to.

Adams has led the party from war to peace, from protest to parliament, from the North to the South. The modern Sinn Féin is Adams’s creation above all, and through all the changes he has maintained the unity of the republican movement. That has been his highest priority. You can be sure that McDonald will accord it a similar importance.

The leaders who served time in jail are being replaced by the generation that has grown up since the ceasefires, the graduates of universities rather than of Long Kesh

Adams’s retirement is the most visible part of a generational transition in Sinn Féin. The generation of leaders and activists who played an active part in the republican movement through the Troubles – many of them served time in jail – is stepping back, replaced by the generation that has grown up since the ceasefires, the graduates of universities rather than of Long Kesh.

But McDonald will be as keen as Adams – and she will, presumably, have access to her mentor’s advice, to say the least – to maintain the unity of the movement, to ensure that the two generations remain united in purpose and in deed. So expect much talk of a united Ireland – the party’s comfort blanket in times of change – in the coming weeks.

She will also be acutely aware of need to maintain unity between the Northern and Southern wings of the party. She will be in Stormont this week for the talks to restart the Northern Ireland Executive, emphasising her all-island role.

McDonald is unlikely to do anything in the early months of her leadership that Adams wouldn’t have done. Yet McDonald will also know that there is no point in the change of leadership unless she can extend the appeal of the party, especially in the South, which is now the focus of the party’s political priorities.

Some expect that her age and gender will enable McDonald to give Sinn Féin a fresh start in the South. But it is likely to take more than that. McDonald has long been the face and the voice of Sinn Féin in the South. Simply putting her face on the posters, and advertising her as the party spokeswoman, won’t change Sinn Féin’s appeal in the Republic: she has been doing those jobs for some time.

If McDonald wants to grow the party, in appeal, support and membership, it will have to be more accommodating of difference and dispute

If she wants to extend the party’s appeal in the South, looking and sounding different are unlikely to achieve that. She will have to be different. If the party wants to reach new voters it will have to formulate policies and messages that are attractive to those voters. It will have to seek to a different role from that of the past. The change in the party’s position on going into coalition in the Republic – approved at the last ardfheis – is probably a precursor to that.

Other changes are likely, too. McDonald’s position on abortion is considerably more pro-choice than her party’s. She will be bound to oppose the emerging proposal to allow abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy unless Sinn Féin changes its policy.

More generally, if McDonald wants to grow the party – in appeal, support and membership – it will have to be more accommodating of difference and dispute.

All large parties are coalitions, to a greater or lesser extent, bringing together people of diverging views under the one tent. As the very public problems the party is having with bullying and discipline show, Sinn Féin is much more monolithic. A different approach on this issue would signal that she intends to change the culture of the party. But that might also alarm the old guard, comfortable with the strictures of military discipline. Whatever path she chooses, McDonald will have a tightrope to walk.