Miriam Lord: Mary Lou goes ‘on the run’ as fear factor surfaces

The Sinn Féin strategy is to pack its leader in cotton wool and keep her out of harm’s reach

Sinn Féin leader  Mary Lou McDonald arriving for  the final TV leaders’ debate at the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald arriving for the final TV leaders’ debate at the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The Fear is here. You can smell this general election now. On Monday night an Ipsos/MRBI missile detonated smack in the middle of long-held assumptions, setting off alarm bells and causing major consternation across the political spectrum. The Shinners are in the lead!

Two ahead of Fianna Fáil. Five ahead and outside the margin of terror for Fine Gael. Well hello, Mary Lou!

By Tuesday morning the temperature had risen further. Campaigns shifted up a gear, and the three main parties tore off to fight the final few days in a state of mild panic (Sinn Féin); “don’t panic!” (Fianna Fáil); and “we’re doomed, we’re doomed!” (Fine Gael).

As if The Irish Times opinion poll result wasn’t enough, a breakfast bombshell lurked a few pages on from the pie charts and figures. Small but significant seismic tremors were experienced in certain newsrooms and around the more genteel suburbs. For it was Fintan.

“It is time for Sinn Féin to come in from the cold,” cried the headline on his column. Et tu, O’Toole?

There were strange noises in the air. Some said it was the movement of tectonic plates underpinning the old politics. Some said it was the sound of knives being sharpened.

Some said it was Eoghan Harris gnashing his teeth. Some said it was Fine Gael constituency running-mates savaging each other. Everyone wanted to talk to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

This is where the fear kicked in for the Shinners, still coming to terms with their own surprise at the great poll result even if party figures were on an upward curve throughout the campaign.

Out of harm’s reach

For the backroom team it became a case of not doing anything to mess up now. They packed their leader in cotton wool and kept her out of harm’s reach.

Sinn Féin had set up a WhatsApp group for journalists covering the campaign to notify them of events during the campaign. This was much appreciated, until the information stream dried up in inverse proportion to the party and Mary Lou’s rising popularity.

By Tuesday requests from print journalists for details on any public appearances were ignored. Mary Lou popped up on a pre-arranged breakfast interview on Newstalk but that seemed to be it. It was assumed she had gone off to start preparing for the night’s crucial TV debate. But not so.

Sinn Féin, mindful of the need for happy footage on the evening news bulletins, invited RTÉ and Virgin Media to the unveiling by Mary Lou of a billboard on insurance. There was even a little walkabout, but that was swiftly cut short when a reporter from the Indo, having sniffed out the Ringsend location, arrived with a question about the anger of Breege Quinn over comments by a Sinn Féin MLA about her son Paul, who was murdered by what is believed to be an IRA gang.

The leader then went to Finglas for a walkabout in the fertile Sinn Féin territory of Cardiffsbridge Road, where she got a warm reception. Again only the TV people invited – there was even a Swedish camera crew in tow.

When the same intrepid reporter turned up a second time and fired another hard question at Mary Lou, unfortunately she had to leave again without giving an answer.

The previous day, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were at the same sort of carry-on in Downing Street, trying to handpick which journalists they deigned suitable for an “official” briefing and dismissing the rest.

In Sinn’s Féin case it has to do with The Fear. And while infuriating, it is also understandable. There is a very short time until polling day and the party will not want to risk any slip-ups in public. So Mary Lou might become the most celebrated member of what Sinn Féin calls the “OTRs” over the next few days. (On The Runs, former IRA members who haven’t been granted an amnesty).

Balance of power

Meanwhile, in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square, Bríd Smith of People Before Profit (PBP) feared Sinn Féin might throw in its lot with one of the two main parties and go into government. It looks likely now that the party will hold the balance of power.

The Dublin South Central TD, battling hard to retain her seat, was launching PBP’s early childhood care and education policy in the square’s playground. She also took the opportunity to appeal to Sinn Féin to give the left a chance.

“We made a call last week to Sinn Féin – given their rise in popularity – not to prop up either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in government. That call still stands,” Bríd said.

“We want to emphasise that People Before Profit/Solidarity will not be propping up a right-wing government. We’d rather see the development of a left-wing administration and talk to all the parties who could offer a real historic alternative.”

From her time on the canvass Bríd is sure of one thing: “The appetite for change is massive, and now there exists the real possibility of a left-wing government for the first time in the history of the State. We think that if Sinn Féin would commit to that now it would enhance the results of the left in this election.”

Speaking of results, the Fianna Fáil leader was in “no panic” mode when he went to Dundrum Shopping Centre to canvass with Shay Brennan, son of the late Fianna Fáil minister, Seamus. He was refusing to submit to The Fear having slipped below Sinn Féin in the poll results. Instead he was on a last-gasp mission to push for a seat in Dublin Rathdown.

Brennan had not been fancied in this competitive constituency, but the bookies have slashed his odds in recent days and it seems feedback from the doorsteps indicates he is in contention.

‘Wreckers and reckless’

And so to the Fine Gael headquarters in the Irish Georgian Society’s building in Dublin’s South William Street. Or Melancholy Towers, as it was on Tuesday morning.

With a shocking poll result still fresh in the mind, there was nothing for it but to ratchet up Operation Fear, or Operation Reality as Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe certainly see it. The party’s two Cabinet heavyweights were not pulling their punches.

Never mind Fine Gael’s election prospects, they were sounding this alarm for the general public. Vote Sinn Féin into government and it really will be a case of “we’re doomed! we’re doomed!” was the gist of their stark message.

“This is why both Paschal and I are speaking very directly today,” said Simon, sounding very grave.

“We are now at a critical juncture. The risk of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in government – the wreckers and the reckless – is now a clear and present danger to our economy, to our society and to our future,” intoned Paschal.

They didn’t hold back.

“Before voting I want to make a direct appeal to everybody to consider this: our country has built something hugely valuable in the last nine years from a place of darkness and despair,” said Simon, cautioning against throwing that away on parties “promising to go wild with the State credit card”.

He said “the word change has been ambushed, abused in my view, voters are being promised levels of spending and policies that would cripple the Irish economy again”. Fianna Fáil would return to their worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger. Sinn Féin would drive business away and threaten hard-won jobs with their “tax and spend plans”.

Later in the day, on the Irish Times Election Daily podcast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also came out swinging. He claimed the Fianna Fáil leader would huff and puff and say he won’t go into government with Sinn Féin but he would do just that. “This is his third time as leader for his party in this election. He has to be taoiseach after this election or he is gone.”

He was photographed standing beside an old Cumann na nGaedheal election poster headed “His Master’s Voice”, with the emphasis on “His”. The ink cartoon shows an “IRA” gunman crouching behind the lanky form of Fianna Fáil leader Eamon De Valera and holding a gun to his back.

Fear everywhere. Not least all over the country, where fear that popcorn stocks might run out before the Big Debate fuelled panic buying not seen since the great sliced pan rush of 2018.

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