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'I want the organisation to be friendly, respectful': Mary Lou McDonald on the continuing SF bullying claims

In a wide-ranging interview with TheJournal.ie, the Sinn Féin leader discusses bullying, the upcoming presidential election,and Gerry Adams’ cooking.

Mary Lou McDonald sits down with TheJournal.ie for a wide-ranging interview.
Mary Lou McDonald sits down with TheJournal.ie for a wide-ranging interview.
Image: TheJournal.ie

MARY LOU MCDONALD has had a busy few months.

When she took over from Gerry Adams as the leader of Sinn Féin seven months ago, many questioned would she succeed.

Would she be able to garner support from the membership, both north and south? How would she navigate the party through the abortion referendum? And would she boost the party’s numbers in the polls?

In her maiden speech at the RDS in Dublin as president of the party, she said Sinn Féin had to modernise, though her shouting of Tiocfaidh ár lá questioned whether it could.

But McDonald has faced down many of her critics and overtaken Fianna Fáil in the polls, with her own popularity has also risen, overtaking Micheál Martin.

She became one of the leading voices in the Yes Campaign in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment and was often seen clashing with the Taoiseach in the Dáil.

However, Sinn Féin still has many challenges on its hands.

In a wide-ranging interview with TheJournal.ie, the Dublin Central TD discussed bullying allegations that still persist in the party, the upcoming presidential election, the prospect of going back into power in the north and other issues.

When Adams was leader, he denied there was a “toxic” atmosphere in the party, despite the party being mired in bullying allegations at councillor level.

During her first speech as leader, McDonald appeared to acknowledge that change was needed from within, stating that her focus was to build Sinn Féin into an organisation that “is fit for purpose”.

So, what has been done to sort out bullying within the party? 

McDonald said two “distinct approaches” have been taken in the party since she took over. A consultation with councillors has begun in a bid to see what supports are needed at council level, something she admits has been lacking in the past.

“Councillors are out on the frontline, there is a lot expected of them and they need a lot of support from the organisation in order for them to carry out their role. I know from talking to many of them over the years, they don’t all necessarily feel they were getting that.

“We are well into a process of a very extensive dialogue with our councillors and with our party structures,” she said.

The consultation is due to be completed by next spring, but McDonald said she hopes it will be finished before then.

McDonald said she is also putting together a commission on equality and inclusion, which will be a conversation with the totality of the membership.

Learnings will be drawn from these two actions, and informed decisions will be made at that point as to how to proceed, she said. McDonald also said she wants to modernise the party.

The organisation is growing enormously and I suppose we have learned the lesson that you cannot run a much bigger organisation in the same way you run a smaller organisation – it just doesn’t work – you run into trouble.

New people are coming into the party, which is great, they are coming in with new energy, new ideas, new thinking and when that happens it is really positive thing, but there is a little bit of an art in blending the old with the new and making space for new members.

So, It is a work in  progress. I have said before that I want people’s membership of Sinn Féin to be a positive thing, I want the organisation to be friendly, respectful, to be professional for people to be allowed to enjoy their activism.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The most recent claim came this month when a Sinn Féin councillor claimed he had quit the party due to an unrelenting bullying campaign.

The former Mayor of Athlone, Paul Hogan, “a very heavy heart” after 20 years of membership. There have been other incidents both this year and last.

When asked does she agree that there appear to be more bullying allegations emerging from her party than any other, she said:

I don’t know is that the truth, I know there has been a focus on it and questions have been asked and that is fine. I also know that for the very, very most part Sinn Féin is a happy, respectful and welcoming space.

We have over 14,000 members and if you go to an Ard Fheis and talk to people, for the most part people are really happy and enjoy being members of Sinn Féin, but yes of course there have been incidents, and there will be in the future by the way.

And with the best will in the world  I can’t stop that happening. If adults fall out with each other of course the organisation has a responsibility to intervene. You would always want people to mend their differences in an amicable way and informally if possible. But if that is not possible, there are rules, there are processes, there are procedures, and they will be applied.

‘I can’t stop people falling out with each other’ 

McDonald said she has consistently stated that the party has a rule book and she will ensure the rules are applied.

“I can’t stop people if they have a clash or if there is an issue or a difficulty, we can intervene and apply the rules and protect people’s rights and hold the ring in that way, but I can’t stop people falling out with each other I am afraid that is beyond my capacities.”

When she took over from Adams in February, there was a lot of talk about when the next general election would be. But those conversations have morphed into talk about the presidential election this October.

Many observers reckon that Sinn Féin’s decision to put forward a candidate is a shrewd and smart move. If they get the right person, it could be a good six-week media campaign, promoting the ideals of the “new” Sinn Féin, though it will also be an expensive PR drive.

Sinn Féin presidential candidate

The party’s candidate will be announced in September – but who will it be?

McDonald was keeping tight-lipped on this one, but said she wouldn’t be surprised if there is a contest within the party for the nomination.

Names in the running include MEP Liadh Ní Ríada and TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

“I would not be surprised if there is. There is every chance that there would be, as leader of the party, I have set the process in train, and we will now let the process unfold and the candidate to be selected,” she said, adding that while there is always the option for the party to select an independent candidate, it is her “feeling” that the presidential candidate will be a member of Sinn Féin.

Back in February, when people were asking what role Gerry Adams would play in the party once he stepped down as president, questions were asked as to whether he might be interested in the job of president. At the time, McDonald said no way.

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I know he has not the remotest interest in that. In fact I think he would freak if somebody lifted the phone and suggested that. That could end our friendship if I even suggested that to him,” she laughed.

But she did say she had a few jobs in mind for the veteran former party leader. So, what has he been up to?

“He is very busy,” she said, adding that he is still a TD, is very active in the constituency, and speaks at many meetings and commemorations.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Adams also seems to have found time to get involved in another book – not a memoir, historical novel, or a book about his tweets. No, this time, he is delving into the world of cookery.

McDonald said she will be buying his book, stating that she has tried Gerry’s cooking.

“I have yeah, it was okay. I am not saying anything. Everyone should buy this book,” she laughed.

Power-sharing in the North

This week, DUP politician Simon Hamilton said Sinn Féin are delaying the re-starting of the institutions, which have been in hiatus since January of last year.

He said rights issues – such as marriage equality – should be dealt with by getting the Assembly back working first. However, McDonald said she wasn’t falling for it.

“We spent ten years waiting for the DUP to see the light and deal with these issues. The DUP aren’t dealing with these issues, their entire political strategy is to block and stop the kind of progress the people in the north are crying out for.

“The issue of marriage equality is not green or orange, it might be both green and orange but it is not a classic issue that falls in to one or two camps, it is a people issue, it is a fairness issue, it is a democratic issue and it has to be addressed,” she said.

McDonald added:

Simon makes the case that we should go back into the assembly and deal with these issues by and by – he is being disingenuous, he is being knowingly disingenuous – we have said consistently that is not going to happen.

The Dublin Central TD said she accepted there is frustration and concerns amongst members of the public in the north.

Cutting MLAs pay

When questioned about whether cutting the pay of MLAs might help focus minds and get politicians in the north back to work, McDonald admitted that it is a measure that should be considered.

Of course our MLAs are very busy out on the ground – it is not fair to say they are not doing anything, they are doing plenty, but can wages continue to be paid endlessly while the institutions are down? The answer to that is no. No they can’t.
And I think if it is a thing that the DUP think they can just saunter along and there will be no consequences for them taking an anti-democratic, rights-denying position, well then certainly, the authorities could do worse than step in and say ‘right, well let’s look at your wage packet folks’.

PTSB sale

Closer to home, issues such as the housing and homeless crisis as well as the treatment of mortgage-holders by Irish banks are coming across her desk on a daily basis, she said.

Last week, Permanent TSB announced that it had sold its controversial Project Glas loan portfolio to an affiliate of the so-called vulture fund Lone Star for around €1.3 billion. The affiliate is called Start Mortgages.

The portfolio contains 10,700 home loans, which the bank dubbed at the time “non-performing loans”. It has since emerged that the portfolio included performing loans.

McDonald called on the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to take action and help the sold off homeowners, and agreed with comments made by Transport Minister Shane Ross to this publication, that the timing of the announcement, when the Dáil was in recess, was despicable.

I think it was absolutely cynical, the timing of it… with an eye on the fact the Dáil wasn’t sitting. If the government think they are going to get away with a stroke like this and it would go unremarked by the general public then they were very, very wrong…

I have had correspondence myself with people in relation to the PTSB, people who have gone to great lengths to service their mortgage, who had made payments very, very recently and feel now they’ve been had.

They feel like they are under threat, despite the fact they have done all the right things, in terms of restructuring their loans, and servicing their loans and I think it is just further evidence of the fact that the government treats so many people, in what I can only describe, as contempt.

When asked should Donohoe, as the largest shareholder in the 75% State-owned bank, attend the bank’s AGM and demand answers, she said:

Absolutely, but it shouldn’t even come to that. He is the shareholder, not just on behalf of the State, some abstraction of the State, but on behalf of citizens, of taxpayers and this should not have been allowed to happen.

Rather than resolving the homelessness and housing crisis, she said the government is at every turn making matters worse.

“Even where they have an influence, where they are shareholders, [the government] is not intervening and saying ‘no, you are not selling that portfolio. No, you are not doing that to Irish families.”

Despite talk about caring about housing and homelessness, this government is allowing the country “go deeper and deeper into what is now a profound crisis”, said McDonald.

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