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Noel Whelan: Pressure of leadership getting to Mary Lou McDonald

Testy exchanges with colleagues and media are hallmarks of general SF impotence

For someone who appeared to covet the position for so long, one would be forgiven for thinking that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald isn’t enjoying her new job.

Ten months into her leadership she exhibits classic signs of acute political stress. Her Dáil contributions are fixed at one high-pitched tone of outrage. Her media interviews are all testy and combative; at times even more combative than Gerry Adams used to be. Her response to criticism from opponents is increasingly hyperbolic.

Over the course of a six-minute piece with Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ radio on Tuesday, for example, McDonald roundly denounced the Taoiseach as “arrogant” and commentators as “insane” for daring to suggest that at this time of Brexit crisis Sinn Féin should revisit its policy of absenteeism in Westminster before going on to twice accuse O’Rourke himself of being “naive” and dismissing his questions as “ridiculous”.

Like Adams she uses the phrase "with the greatest of respect" to journalists more often than Rumple of the Bailey used to use it when addressing judges.


It's a pattern of late. There was much comment in Leinster House about Miriam Lord's piece last week which recounted the peculiar tale of a standoff between the Sinn Féin leader and former minister Mary Hanafin over seating arrangements for a photo call in the Dáil chamber. Even Fianna Fáilers raised a wry smile at the notion that McDonald had made Hanafin, herself well-known as a formidable and strong-willed politician, appear the more reasonable in that encounter.

Poor performance

Even though she served a long apprenticeship under Adams, it cannot be easy being the first new leader of Sinn Féin in almost half a century, and the first leader from South of the Border.

In the Republic, the McDonald leadership has performed below expectations. Unlike Fine Gael which gained from the generational shift which Leo Varadkar represented, there has been no Mary Lou bounce for Sinn Féin. The party’s support levels have gone up or down marginally in various polls in recent months. They may yet make slight gains when the next election comes, as many who voted for smaller parties and Independents gravitate to – or back to – the three main parties, but there is little sign of a specific Sinn Féin surge.

The mothballing of Stormont together with their continued absences from Westminster leaves Sinn Féin politicians politically neutered

The collapse of Sinn Féin support in the presidential election illustrates the difficulty which the party faces. Of course presidential elections are peculiar but the fact the Sinn Féin candidate polled less than half of what the party candidates got in either the last general or the last presidential election must be worrying for McDonald. Liadh Ní Riada was a personable candidate, and the party ran an expensive campaign behind her but the reality is she polled 30,000 more votes in Ireland’s South in the June 2014 European election than she polled in the whole country in last month’s presidential election.

Meanwhile under McDonald, Sinn Féin not only continues to lose councillors but has now also lost two TDs. One of those, Peadar Tóibín is now busy seeking to construct a new niche social conservative republican party, which threatens to be an irritant for Sinn Féin and a refuge for its defectors. Anyone seeking an insight into how personal the tensions within the Sinn Féin parliamentary party had become need only look back at the Dáil exchanges between Carol Nolan – who left the party over the summer after being suspended for voting against the abortion referendum – and her former party colleague, Louise O’Reilly, on Wednesday last.

Politically neutered

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin retains its electoral dominance on the nationalist side but is doing nothing with it. Although it prides itself on its capacity to negotiate deals, Sinn Féin has been out of government now in Northern Ireland for more than 22 months and there is no obvious pathway to a return to powersharing.

The mothballing of Stormont together with their continued absences from Westminster leaves Sinn Féin politicians politically neutered and their constituencies unrepresented at this most crucial time for Northern Ireland’s economy and its constitutional status. Because Stormont, with their connivance, is closed and they have no voice in Westminster, they must merely content themselves with occasional meetings to talk about the issue with Michel Barnier, with the Irish Government or on even rarer occasions with Theresa May. One of the reasons that taunts about taking seats at Westminster touch such a raw nerve with McDonald and other Sinn Féin spokespeople is because it is emblematic of their political impotence in resisting or even shaping Brexit.

There is much for McDonald to be politically stressed about. As president of Sinn Féin, she sits not only at the head of a national party but at the delicate interface between its southern and northern organisations and at the tense intersection between its modern purely parliamentary cohort and a rump moulded by decades of extra-constitutional activity.

Even in normal political times being Sinn Féin leader would be stressful – and we live in extraordinary political times. We can expect many more testy interviews with Mary Lou McDonald in the coming months.