We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

We caught up with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald this week in Cabra to chat about climate justice, Brexit and whether she is on good speaking terms with the Taoiseach.

Interview: Mary Lou on a united Ireland, the carbon tax and why she'll be a 'grownup' after the next election

In a wide-ranging interview the Sinn Fein leader discusses carbon tax, the local elections fallout and a united Ireland.

MARY LOU MCDONALD’s daughter was one of the students out protesting against the government’s response to what the Dáil has declared a climate emergency.

The Sinn Féin leader told this week that her daughter has told her “in no uncertain terms that politicians need to understand that they were out protesting against the current social policies, and that things need to change”. 

Thousands of students took to the streets around the world, including outside Leinster House this year, to demand change. 

Standing in the middle of Cabra Community Garden, which is in full bloom, McDonald acknowledged that it is important for political leaders to be questioned about what they are personally doing to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar caused outrage among farmers when he said he was trying to reduce the amount of meat he eats (something a high-level report has called for this week).

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said he is trying to walk a lot more. 

As for McDonald, she tells this publication that her “other half is a committed environmentalist”.

What Mary Lou is doing to reduce her carbon footprint

In her own household, the family is assessing its waste management, as well as fuel efficiency.

“And all of that is very good. And I think it’s important that you put that question to people like me, but we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture, which is, if we are serious about the climate emergency, then it’s actually the big, structural pieces that are going to make the big difference.

“And that’s not to let any of us off the hook. Because we are all responsible for this planet.”

However, she added that there’s very little point in urging people individually to change their behaviours when the government is refusing to deal with big industry. / YouTube

“In Irish political life, we have the announcement of a climate emergency – fantastic. You have a series of policies set forward by government, some good, some bad – okay. And in the next breath, you have a system that suggests that the Mercosur deal is a good idea, that you puncture the lung of the world to graze beef, which you import from thousands of miles away to here. Look at that for a carbon footprint,” she said, claiming it’s an “insane” plan that benefits the German car manufacturers.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s the level at which the big changes need to happen to make the big difference,” she said. 

A negative gaze on agriculture

In a week where farmers have been protesting about beef prices, hoping highlight serious concerns in the industry, the Sinn Féin leader said climate justice is not about turning a “negative gaze on agriculture”. 

It’s about the methods of agriculture. So obviously, very, very intensive farming is hugely problematic, not just in Ireland, but internationally. I think the model that we have to adopt is to support the small family farm. That hasn’t been the case through Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), through successive governments policies, they’ve pumped huge resources into the really, really big producers, and the family farm has struggled.
And I think we need to now very consciously change that emphasis and change that model to support responsible, sustainable cultivation of the land and agriculture, to make sure that we sustain our rural communities as well.

mary lou

Carbon tax is also a non-runner for her party. 

Walking through the garden, which is in her constituency, just next to the Royal Canal, she said there are two reasons she is opposed to it. 

“Number one, because they don’t work,” she said, adding that “the reality is, a there is a carbon tax already here. And I know other jurisdictions where there are carbon taxes, they have not had the effect of reducing emissions. That’s the fact”.

Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) claims a levy could reduce emissions by up to 10%, though there are differing academic opinions on the impact.

Putting a financial burden on households

The second reason McDonald is against a carbon tax is because the financial burden is being placed back on households rather than big industry producers. 

“We have a problem with the idea that you place the burden of all of this financially back on households, lots of whom are struggling and lots of whom can’t afford to drive an electric car, lots of whom can’t do that. So why penalise people for that?”

The only way her party will have a say in such matters is if they enter government.

This week, McDonald took part in a debate with the Taoiseach, and other politicians, at Féile an Phobail. Photos emerged of the pair sitting side by side, with some reporting that their demeanor towards each other seemed more harmonious that in the past. 

Leo Varadkar visit to Northern Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald taking part in Féile an Phobail this week. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

So, are Mary Lou and Leo on good terms right now?

“Well, yeah, I mean, I don’t think I was ever on bad speaking terms with the Taoiseach. I mean, the criticisms that we have of government extend not just to Fine Gael, but also Fianna Fáil, because they’re in this together.

“I just think that they have gotten it wrong on any number of policy issues. I believe they’ll continue to get things wrong, not least because they don’t really listen when others come forward with good propositions. They’re very locked into a particular way of seeing the world. That’s really evident on something like housing, where manifestly the policy is failing and failing and failing again, and yes, they seem to insist on pursuing failure,” she said.

Speaking about the controversial issue of co-living, which Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has been criticised for championing, McDonald said the government thinks it is a good idea.

“I mean, you know, you really have to question how?”

Going into government with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil

While both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both ruled out Sinn Féin as a possible coalition partner in government, McDonald said she isn’t a fan of either party, adding neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil are “ideal partners” for her party.

“And it would be very difficult for us to agree a programme for a government with them, because we’re about the big picture, of a big change in health and housing, at we’re about dealing with our island’s future in a real way and in a planned way, which they’re,  resisting,” she said.

She hit out at both parties for stating that they would not speak to Sinn Fein after the next general election result, calling it “undemocratic”.

McDonald said for both party leaders to say that any party, such as Sinn Féin, isn’t as entitled as anybody else to be at the decision-making table “is just wrong”.

“I don’t take it personally. But that’s wrong in terms of the citizens and the very considerable number of people who vote for us… And I think no political party should just be ruled out in that kind of high-handed fashion.”

The next general election “could be anytime, because politics is quite volatile at the moment”, said McDonald, adding that after it is over she will talk to any party interested in forming a government.

“Yes, of course I will speak to them. I think that’s what grown ups do.”

European Parliament election Mary Lou McDonald speaking to the media after the bruising local election results came in for her party. Niall Carson Niall Carson

An election could be a daunting prospect after Sinn Féin’s poor result in the local elections this year.

“It certainly was bruising, and people were hurt by it,” she admits.

“We’ve done our review, and we’ve tried to pinpoint as best we can, the areas where we made mistakes, the areas where we need to change things. And the job now is to get about doing that.

“It was a really bad day out for us. But sometimes that happens in politics, and it’s a test for you. I mean it’s a test for me personally, obviously, as the leader.”

Mixed messaging was a part of it, she admits, as was a lack of messaging, but she added:

“I think our conclusion is that it wasn’t one single thing, actually it would be more straightforward if it was. I think there was a whole set of things that we need to go back and revisit, obviously, our messaging, the manner of our activism.

“I think Sinn Féin is a party that is about social justice, it’s about all of the bread and butter issues. It’s about human rights issues. We’re about Irish unity, we’re about that big picture project, which is so important at this time in particular, and maybe we’ve mixed our metaphors or the clarity of our messaging hasn’t been what it should be been washed, it should be.” / YouTube

One message McDonald has been loud and clear on is her calls for the government to start planning for the future of a united Ireland.

Leo Varadkar said this week that a united Ireland would result in people living in a “different State” with a different Constitution, adding that talks of border polls around the time of Brexit are unhelpful. McDonald believes an all-island forum on the issue must be held now. 

And I’ve said this to the Taoiseach publicly, I’ve said it to him privately. And by the way, this isn’t to cause a problem for him or to embarrass them. I’m saying this because I really think it needs to happen. I mean, we have to not just these political debates at summer schools, about the future of Ireland. The head of government, the Irish state, needs to lead that conversation.

“We’ve suggested a forum for that purpose, to talk about Ireland post-Brexit, because Brexit is happening, and it’s for keeps, and it is an absolute game changer. So the responsible thing for government to do is to assess that and to plan ahead.

“The worst thing that could happen, I think, is that we move from a chaotic Brexit, I hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s in prospect, a hard Brexit. And then we bounce from that into a chaotic, disorderly process around constitutional change. I think we need to be just very, very clear-headed and clear-eyed now and recognise that things have changed utterly.

And how do we best manage that in an inclusive way that benefits all of us not just on the high-level issues of symbols and flags and all of the things that people immediately reach for, but on things like health, and our jobs and, and our agriculture. 

McDonald has previously said that if discussions about a united Ireland are to take place, then so should debate about Ireland joining the Commonwealth.  When asked if Ireland should lead the way in that debate also, she said: 

All of those issues will of course arise in the course of any such discussion. Of course, they’re going to. I imagine that discussions and ideas on symbols and celebration from everything from A to Z, and why wouldn’t they be, and that that’s okay.

While she said she is not advocating change on any of those issues, she respects that people will have ideas and they will want to bring them to the table.

“But it’s not just about symbols. It’s not just about those pieces like what’s our anthem? What’s our flag? It’s about also what kind of society do we live in? How do we provide education, childcare? What does a national health service for Ireland look like? And how do we find answers? And how do we deliver it?” she said. 

“These are big, big questions. And I mean, certain politicians, political leaders, including the government have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and nearly to pretend that you can stop the momentum of change. I don’t believe you can I think for those who, who would say, ‘well, now isn’t the time’, they need to be reminded that on the 31st of October, we are potentially looking at something absolutely defining and it defining breach in terms of this island.”

“And we need to be prepared not just in the short-term, not just ambulance actions, but we need to plan, we need a game plan for Ireland.” was speaking to McDonald as party of a series of interviews with party leaders on the political response to the climate emergency. 

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel