Miriam Lord: Singing, swaying and dancing in the aisles as Mary Lou takes the helm

There was lots of talk of shoes too – as in not filling Gerry Adams’ Crocs – as the new leader of Sinn Féin was installed

As Sinn Fein welcomes its first new president in over 30 years party members look at where the party now falls on the left-right political divide.

 

Mary Lou opened with a little joke. “And . . . For the avoidance of doubt, this is no coronation” beamed the former heir apparent, newly installed as Sinn Féin leader following the friendly abdication of Gerry Adams, who was twinkling regally in the front row. Everyone in the hall laughed, because everyone was in on the joke.

The only thing missing from Saturday’s formal investiture in the Royal Dublin Society was a crown. But it was a comforting charade for the grassroots, packed in like sardines under the high ceiling and cheering to the rafters for Uachtaráins past and present.

So the ceremonials had to be done by the book, and very carefully too, because this was the first coronation to happen in Sinn Féin since the accession of Adams in 1983.

There were votes on all sorts of procedural matters, proposers proposing and seconders seconding and delegate cards going up in the air in quick-fire bursts of complete unanimity. Tellers were chosen.

Another joke here, this time from MEP Martina Anderson, who was doing a cracking job as MC. “I hope we don’t need the tellers today!” she quipped, and everyone laughed again because everyone was in on the joke.

Both positions were uncontested. Sinn Féin put on a two-hour show to celebrate the handover. Speakers couldn’t emphasise enough the historical significance of Mary Lou’s installation, repeatedly flagging it as “the next phase of our struggle”.

There was rousing music and poignant song and fiery speechifying; memorabilia for sale, flashing stagelights, Mary Lou in the limelight, Adams in the spotlight, Gerry Kelly clamped to his seat in the row behind. Images of Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Countess Markievicz, shout-outs for “the Risen People” who are going to be riz any time now and a big blast of the Eurythmics to finish up. Oh, and a lot of talk about shoes. As in the new leader not having to fill Gerry’s Crocs (he’s been spotting wearing them on quiet days around Leinster House) because she will be walking the leadership walk in her own heels.

They were only short of having Adams stride on to the platform bearing a glass slipper on a velvet cushion for Mary Lou.

Dancing in the aisles

The atmosphere was buoyant and celebratory, with women dancing in the aisles at the end and only the smallest handful of leather-jacketed aul fellas looking down dubiously at them from the stands.

If you were an idealistic young person and in the market to join a political party, the Sinn Féin family on display in the RDS could be a very attractive option compared to the bigger parties with their ambitious suits and more staid offerings. There was an energy in the hall, with a defiant edge to the home-crowd cheers whenever somebody shouted “Up the Rebels”.

There was a sense of certainty and comradeship along the rows of delegates with their shared martyrs and repainted past. Reverential mentions too for Martin McGuinness, who died last year. The grassroots heard he was looking down from heaven.

And also respectful mention for former SDLP leader John Hume, as Sinn Féin continues its stealthy gathering of the peaceful Northern Ireland Civil Rights Moment to its post-war bosom. Yes, an attractive option, what with so much struggling still left to do and thoroughly modern Mary Lou at the helm.

Anderson told members that Mary Lou and her deputy leader “will take us forward on to the next phase of our struggle”.

She pointed to the party’s growing political success over the years and predicted she “will take us into government, North and South, on our own terms”. A bullish Pearse Doherty went down a storm. “Beware! Beware of the Risen People!” he cried. In electing McDonald and O’Neill, Sinn Fein “will formalise the generational leadership change that will take us to the next phase in our struggle”.

After he spoke, Cara McGuinness, granddaughter of Martin, walked onstage and sang A Song for Ireland. Not a dry eye, etc. During the interlude, Mary Lou was escorted through the crowded aisles. Until her big entrance, the crowd had to be content with occasional flashes of Adams on the big screen. But they weren’t content. They were ecstatic. When the time came for the election/coronation, MEP Lynn Boylan explained the process. Deputy president first. Only one candidate with 232 nominations. That was Michelle O’Neill. “She was willing to put her name forward,” said Lynn. Phew. The Tyrone woman was proposed, seconded and duly elected.

She closed her acceptance speech by promising to work on building better national cohesion for the party “to defend the integrity of our struggle: to learn together, to struggle together”.

The US Masters

As a long and noisy standing ovation subsided, singer Brian Heavey burst into Something Inside So Strong and everyone sang and swayed. On the platform, Elisha McCallion, MP for Derry, began waving her arms in the air and tried to encourage TDs Eoin Ó Broin and Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire to do the same. Eventually, she took Ó Broin’s arm and waved it back and forth, but he wasn’t keen. Then suddenly the big screen cut to Adams. “We gonna do it anyway/We’re gonna do it anyway” warbled Heavey, as Adams looked into the camera and waved a clenched fist in the air. The crowd went wild. Then Anderson jumped to her feet, faced the audience and danced with her hands in the air while TD Louise O’Reilly sang her heart out on the platform. That certainly teed everyone up for the main event – the formal installation. Mary Lou. Sole nominee. 290 nominations.

“And she was willing to put her name forward.” Oh, thank God again. The camera cut to the Dublin Central TD, looking a million dollars in her bright green jacket. This could mean only one of two things: she was about to be crowned president of Sinn Féin or she had just won the US Masters at Augusta. There was a time when both options seemed equally remote.

North Dublin TD and crowd favourite Louise O’Reilly seconded “her fellow proud Dub”. In a swipe at the Taoiseach, she sneered at people who launched leadership campaigns over fancy lattes in PR stunts. “Mary Lou launched her campaign in Dublin, in the heart of the city centre, with a cup of tea.” There was a campaign? The crowd went “oooh!” when delegate cards went up in the air in a blanket vote for the only willing candidate, and, at three minutes to three, Mary Lou was elected president of Sinn Féin. Some feat for a privately-educated woman from south Co Dublin who was once a member of Fianna Fáil. As it happened, the next phase of the republican journey came very quickly.

‘Reaching out’

The new uachtaráin spoke for nearly 50 minutes, which was a struggle. It was a safe speech, saying all the right things without setting out any major shifts in direction. “I believe in reaching out,” she said. “I believe in standing my ground too.” No point in upsetting the (war) horses just yet. And for them, and all the delighted delegates, a happy ending in the form of a raised clenched fist and a lusty “Up the Republic! Up the Rebels! Tiochfaidh ár lá!” Ah, she had to do it. Although such statements might have a few genteel fingers clutching at pearls among some of the Notre Dame old girls who might have been tempted to vote Mary Lou.

After a mawkish belt of “Óró, sé do bheatha ’bhaile” and a respectful rendition of the national anthem, the show was over. But not before Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves boomed out from the speakers and a lot of women began to dance.

Mary Lou was mobbed on the platform, while below her, Adams was pinned to the spot by admirers handing him gifts, asking to sign books and bodhráns and pleading for selfies. A man from north Down tried to get through the throng with a gift from his cumann – an oak sapling. And out on Merrion Road, the Tricolour-waving and green-scarved rugby fans merged with the departing Shinners. “Tiocfaidh ár Grand Slam!” shouted a red-trousered supporter to them as they left.

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