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Jennifer O’Connell: Voters do not care if Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald is posh

A line can be crossed where public interest becomes invasive; Shane Ross has galloped through it

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Shakespeare has a furious King Lear say in the opening scene of a play that begins with a row about free speech and ends with no hope or redemption for any of its characters. Shane Ross is here to prove that thesis wrong.

Not since the days of section 31 has so much been said by so many about an interview that never actually aired. Ross, the former minister — and a dead ringer for Sesame Street’s Count von Count — spent the week simultaneously crushed by self-pity and combusting with joy over RTÉ's decision not to broadcast an interview with him over his book on Mary Lou McDonald.

Count along with him, folks, as he reels off the week’s little victories. Censored by the national broadcaster over his biography of the Sinn Féin leader. The subject of an intervention by the Taoiseach. The cause of an Oireachtas committee investigation into editorial independence. Storming the best-seller charts. He hasn’t been this relevant since the glory days of the 2011 Dublin South byelection.

It was Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s interjection in the episode which may have been Ross’s finest moment. It was, as Sinn Féin put it, “highly unusual”. He claimed RTÉ had “questions to answer” over the axing of the interview with Claire Byrne. This led others to suggest the Taoiseach himself now had questions to answer over using Dáil time to interfere in RTÉ's editorial policies, especially when he didn’t have his facts straight. And on and on it went, while 10 tragic funerals took place in Creeslough and missiles rained down on Ukraine.


McDonald herself, to paraphrase another great bard, said it best when she said nothing at all.

Her family history was ‘not allowed’ to be included in the interview

We don’t know the real reason that RTÉ decided to drop the interview. Sinn Féin does have a growing reputation for litigiousness, which always makes media organisations leery. So maybe it was a fear of being sued, again, by someone who’s already suing them for something else. Maybe it was, as sources told The Irish Times, because the interview was a “little bit boring”, although that has never bothered RTÉ before.

Surprisingly little attention was paid to another factor, hinted at by Ross in a Newstalk interview during the week. Her family history was “not allowed” to be included in the interview. “Why would they not allow that?” he thundered.

The question, along with Ross’s affectation of hurt surprise that no one from Sinn Féin turned up to the launch, makes you wonder whether he has actually read his own book. All biography is, to an extent, salacious and gossipy, otherwise no one at all would read it and this one is no exception.

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It’s important to say that there is clearly a public interest in understanding the forces that shaped an aspiring future taoiseach. But there is also a line at which public interest crosses into prurient, invasive and irrelevant and Ross has galloped right across it with the section on McDonald’s father.

In the introduction, he writes that when he approached McDonald about the book, she specifically asked him “not to go into details of her parents’ separation”. He assured her he had no interest in any animosity between her parents. She wasn’t convinced and she wasn’t wrong.

Chapter One of the book is entitled The Skeleton in the Cupboard. Its opening words are: “Mary Lou McDonald’s father …”

“I unearthed a wild, daredevil father,” he brags in an article in the Belfast Newsletter this week. (It’s always amusing to see victims of censorship complaining about it on every conceivable media platform.)

Ross’s deep dive into McDonald’s family background and social status doesn’t, in the end, tell us much about her. It certainly doesn’t deliver on his promise to show why “Mary Lou’s early life and activities do not sit comfortably with her political destination”. But it does offer an insight into a political culture that is oddly obsessed with class.

This class obsession is always framed as reverse snobbery

The “Republican Riddle” which Ross claims to solve is — in his words — “how did a middle-class, privately-educated woman, reared in one of Dublin’s most prosperous suburbs, end up as leader of Sinn Féin?” He’d presumably never have dared to ask “how did a working-class woman, educated in a non-fee paying school and reared in a disadvantaged suburb end up as leader” of the party, even if that would have made her far more of a rarity.

This class obsession is always framed as reverse snobbery. Fine Gael is fearful of its “posh boy image”, we’re constantly told. The fact that Richard Boyd Barrett, Paul Murphy, Eoghan Murphy, Eoin Ó Broin and McDonald were privately educated is treated as a slight stain.

Voters are, once again, way ahead of politicians on this. They didn’t dislike Eoghan Murphy because he was “posh”, they disliked him because they thought he was making a hames of housing. In the same way, they don’t care if McDonald grew up in a mansion or a flat inside one so long as they think she can do the job now. So far, the polls suggest they’re willing to give her a try. If Sinn Féin gave her social class any thought, it was possibly to recognise that not fitting neatly into any social milieu is usually an advantage.

Ross’s preoccupation with these issues reveals more about himself and a political culture that is out of touch with the things that matter to voters. The real riddle isn’t whether McDonald is posh. It’s why the legacy parties failed to spot Sinn Féin approaching at speed in their rearview mirrors before the last election, why even in hindsight they can’t seem to fully understand her appeal. Entirely by accident, Ross does offer at least one plausible answer — because they are fixated on all the wrong things.