Pat Leahy: Mary Lou McDonald’s political strategy is unravelling

Presidential election disaster and stalemate in North pose challenges for Sinn Féin leader

A fiery exchange between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald took place in the Dail as Varadkar defended his remarks that he is open to considering a review clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Video: Oireachtas TV


This is the most difficult period so far in Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership of Sinn Féin.

The presidential election was a disaster for the party. Brexit is focusing attention on the party’s abdication of its responsibility to form an administration at Stormont. And, perhaps most significantly, Brexit has undermined her medium-term political strategy of coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

This is not a crisis for McDonald’s leadership; her polling numbers are high (if a bit flaky, I think) and party discipline wouldn’t permit open opposition. But it is a significant challenge.

First the election debacle. Not surprisingly, there are significant misgivings within the party over the dreadful result it achieved in the presidential election. The party’s candidate Liadh Ní Riada won just 6 per cent of the vote, less than half the party’s 2016 general election support.

The expectation at leadership level that she would pocket the party’s 15 per cent base and win enough extra votes to bring her over 20 per cent was badly misjudged, and the execution of the campaign was poor. She began talking about a united Ireland, and ended talking about fighting austerity – and neither message remotely connected with the voters.

After every election, Sinn Féin conducts what I understand is a pretty frank postmortem to ascertain lessons from the campaign end result, in order to improve its future performance. Though it is always difficult to see inside the party (especially at times of stress) we can presume that this process is taking place at the moment. It is unlikely to be a comfortable one for McDonald and her leadership team.

Normally in such circumstances, the party hunkers down and reassures its base. Last week, with the arrest on an extradition warrant of John Downey, saw the party do just that – several TDs turned up at the court hearing to support the former IRA man, who faces charges in the North in relation to the killing of two British soldiers in 1972.

This was a message to the grassroots: we stand by our people, no matter what. It will reassure the footsoldiers – but it makes it harder for the McDonald project of reaching out to the middle-class swing voters who have time for her, but not for her party’s past.


Being an effective leader requires additional skills and judgment not required of ordinary TDs. McDonald is an able parliamentary and media performer, quick on her feet, unruffled under fire and possessed of a sharp tongue. But her tendency to flog every minor political controversy or story of the day for political advantage undermines her ability to land real political hits on big issues. After all, if everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis.

For one example, her judgment when the cervical screening controversy first broke was seriously questionable. She repeatedly suggested that the Health Service Executive’s failure to inform women about their missed smears had retarded or impeded their treatment, with possibly fatal results. This was utterly untrue, but in the febrile atmosphere of the time she got away with it.

A more serious challenge for her will be the unravelling of the coalition strategy in the face of Brexit.

McDonald’s political strategy is to make Sinn Féin available as a coalition partner for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil after the next election – on the basis that Fianna Fáil (probably the smaller party) will not want a repeat of the current confidence-and-supply arrangement in the likely event of another hung Dáil.

Coalition in Dublin would be saleable to the party grassroots only if the move advanced its united Ireland agenda. So the price for Sinn Féin’s support for a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil taoiseach would be a White Paper on Irish unity within a year or two of taking office, and probably McDonald herself as minister for foreign affairs to promote that process.

McDonald stands accused – along with the DUP – of ducking the responsibilities of office in the North

With Sinn Féin in Government in Dublin, and soon afterwards, if not before, in government in Stormont as well, Sinn Féin ministers would embark on unprecedented formal and informal North-South co-operation.

But in a post-Brexit world, with unionist nerves on a hair trigger, would Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil really bring Sinn Féin into government?

Perhaps they would. The prospect of power can overcome a lot of scruples. But senior figures in both parties tell me: absolutely not.

There is reason to think they may not be bluffing: Micheál Martin has already demonstrated a willingness to forgo office. Fine Gael’s cultural resistance to Sinn Féin remains immense. Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe talk a lot about the virtues of the responsible centre of politics. Senior people in both parties believe that turbocharging the united Ireland agenda at government level would risk a dangerous alienation of unionists during a time of instability and uncertainty.

Responsibilities in North

At the same time as her coalition strategy is unravelling, McDonald stands accused – along with the DUP – of ducking the responsibilities of office in the North.

Whatever Sinn Féin’s scruples over the renewable-heat incentive controversy, and its concerns over same-sex marriage and an Irish language Act, the continuing refusal to form an administration that would give the North a voice is like refusing to put on a life jacket when the ship is sinking because you don’t like the colour.

The North is at the very centre of the process, yet it remains without a voice – not because its politicians have been deliberately excluded from the process, but because they cannot agree with one another.

They are behaving like children, content to let the adults in Dublin, London and Brussels decide what is best for them, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions, taking control of their own future. But they are not children. They are adults, with adult responsibilities. They should live up to them.

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