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Electorate should have a say before Taoiseach role rotates back to Varadkar, McDonald insists

The Sinn Féin leader says she’s preparing her party for government and says she believes utterances like Tiocfaidh ár lá will not put people off voting for change.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

MARY LOU MCDONALD not only wants to see a change in leadership when it comes to a new Taoiseach, but she also wants to see a new government take over in 2022. 

In a wide-ranging interview with The Journal, the Sinn Féin leader said her party is actively working on its electoral strategy and priming the party’s “talent” for a possible snap election. 

Having never shied away from stating that she wants to be the next Taoiseach, recent poll numbers have no doubt bolstered McDonald’s confidence that it might become a reality one day. 

The latest Behaviour and Attitudes survey for the Sunday Times two weeks ago put support for Sinn Féin at 34%.

This was well ahead of second-placed Fianna Fáil at 23% and Fine Gael in third at 20%. 

On the same weekend, the Ireland Thinks poll put her party at 31% support, followed by Fine Gael on 25% and Fianna Fáil on 17%.

While McDonald acknowledged that the poll numbers put a smile on her face, she repeated the age-old political line on polls, that they are only “snapshots” in time. They “absolutely reflect an appetite for change, that there is no doubt,” she added. But they’re not election results, insisted the Dublin Central TD, who seems wary of showing any smugness about the results. 

“How I regard this really is, it simply confirms for me the appetite and the need for change.

“And I would hope 2022 would prove the year where we get a change, not just a Taoiseach – that we actually get a change of government. I mean, the plan is that Micheál [Martin] hands over the keys of the castle to Leo [Varadkar].

“We have Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, a century on, and they’re still monopolising power – we need to break that and I hope that next year, not alone that we would have a new Taoiseach, that we’d have a new government, and that’s what the poll instils in me,” said McDonald. 

Under the programme for government, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreed to a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement – the first of its kind in Ireland – whereby they will swap roles again in December 2022.

“I don’t think that there should be a change of Taoiseach in that manner without reference back to the people, particularly from a government that has so abjectly failed on all of the key tasks – failed, and failed again,” she said. 

When asked whether she thinks this government won’t last and whether it could fall in 2022, she said: 

Well, I think a question mark does arise in circumstances where clearly, the government is not delivering. That there would be a change of the head of government in this cozy little arrangement that was cobbled together to keep change out is highly problematic in my view, I think that’s a problem.

“I think to make progress on housing, on the waiting lists, in our health system, on issues of real concern, like the cost of living crisis, I think we need to change of government to deliver it.

“So when I see the polling numbers, that’s the potential that I see,” she added.

While McDonald said she was never a great advocate of polls and is not one of those people that pours over them, she said ultimately, her job is to guide the party to the “strongest possible position where we can actually deliver for people”.

The preparations are already underway said the Sinn Féin leader.

New faces

Behind the scenes, she has her front bench prepping for a snap election in 2022 and is priming some of the party’s lesser-known TDs to be front and centre. 

In the last general election, McDonald faced criticism for not fielding enough candidates that most likely would have paid off for her party and delivered more seats.

“We have to get our electoral strategy right, we need to run the right number of candidates. I can’t walk the length of myself without getting lugged by the ears ‘you didn’t run enough candidates’ and I’ve given up trying to explain. I just say ‘I know I’m sorry, I won’t do that again’. So that’s the first thing,” she said. 

The Sinn Féin leader said she wants to present a program that is “credible and that is deliverable”.

“We need to get that right. And we need to be ready and prepared for government. So I have our senior team, our front bench team, actively preparing. I have said to them, ‘you need to now prepare’ – because when we go to the electorate, I want to say we’re ready.

“And I will only say we’re ready when I’m sure we’re ready. So that work is underway,” she said. 

Roscommon-Galway TD Claire Kerrane handled Leaders’ Questions for the party for the first time last week. She is the spokesperson for Social Protection and is seen as a rising star within the party. Giving deputies like this more exposure is just one of the party’s strategies to get prepare their team for election.

McDonald said it is part of a strategy to put the spotlight on some of the lesser-known faces within the party.

“Yes, absolutely. This is a team effort to deliver really good government. And to get the job done for the people, you need a really strong team. Absolutely. And one of my core objectives as a leader is to give and develop talent, to the very best of our ability.

“So yes, I will always actively do that. Obviously, for women within the party and within the structures, but also more broadly as well. You have Darren O’Rourke, Donnacha O’Laoghaire, Mairead Farrell… I mean, there is a whole range of people coming through… there’s big talent there, and they’re really finding their feet,” she said.

“I’m very keen to encourage that,” she said, adding that politics and political leadership “isn’t about an ego trip”.

“It’s not about the one great and glorious leader,” she added.

Screenshot (33) TD Claire Kerrane taking Leaders Questions' last Thursday. Source: Oireachtas TV

“I thought Claire was really, really impressive at Leaders’ Questions – she is a really impressive spokesperson – she knows her stuff inside out,” said McDonald. 

Sharing power

So who would Mary Lou like to be in government with if she gets the numbers? Perhaps a cobbling together of the smaller parties, or would she talk to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

“I’ve been consistent in saying I’ll talk to everyone. I think that’s what grown-ups do. Will we agree, will we find agreement? Well, I’m not sure about that. But I think that the position that was adopted by Fianna Fáil in particular, but also Fine Gael, that they wouldn’t even speak to Sinn Féin was wrong,” she said. 

During Leaders’ Questions recently, McDonald and the Taoiseach have had tetchy exchanges, with the Sinn Féin leader even accusing Micheál Martin of ‘mansplaining’ to her at one point.

Could she do business with Martin, or would a change in the Fianna Fáil party leadership be needed for the two parties to sit down and talk?

“I can pretty much work with anyone, I’m a professional, I will do my job. We are paid by the citizens to get work done. So that’s number one. But I mean, quite outside of any kind of personalities, the issue ultimately in informing a government is what does the programme for government look like? That’s the issue.

“So people say to me, what about you, FF and FG or anyone else? The actual question for those parties, those two in particular is, are they prepared to move away from policies that have failed with a capital F, big fail, and move on to our ground – yes or no. I think the jury is very much out on that,” she said. 

She said that Irish politics is changing and there is a whole array of other parties now who “broadly share Sinn Féin’s agenda and program”, citing how last week in the Dáil many parties came together to support a Bill drafted by the Simon Community on homelessness. 

“I thought it was interesting… so Irish politics, the game has now changed. It’s not just FF and FG as we know, it’s much more diverse. And I think there’s a real opportunity for government change, what precisely that will look like, I don’t have a crystal ball – that’s very much in the people’s hands,” she said. 

sinn-fein-leader-mary-lou-mcdonald-during-an-interview-in-her-office-at-leinster-house-in-dublin-mcdonald-has-said-she-will-not-call-on-gerry-adams-to-apologise-for-his-controversial-comedy-sketch-vi McDonald accuses the government of garbled messages throughout the pandemic. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Unsurprisingly, McDonald has a whole host of criticisms to level at the government’s feet. 

Speaking before Friday’s announcement on the latest restrictions, McDonald said the government’s handling of the pandemic has been “a mess” of late.

While the Sinn Féin leader would not go so far as stating that the Taoiseach has been overly cautious in his handling of the pandemic, she said there have been times the government has “kind of fluffed it” and “said ‘well, we can’t decide because of NPHET’”. 

“Advisors advise,” she said, stating that the job of NPHET is to make professional assessments, identify trends but then the government decides.

“Ultimately, the government has to make the calls. And I think sometimes, it’s been kind of a convenience to sort of pass the buck to NPHET.

“NPHET are not elected, the CMO isn’t, these are professional doctors. We have the scientific community, they have to do their job, and we have to listen and take full heed of their advice. Ultimately, the government, the Cabinet, the Taoiseach are the people who are charged with taking the decisions. So there needs to be clarity in that. And I’m not sure that that has always been clear,” said McDonald. 

She hit out at the “garbled messaging 24/7″, the mixed messages, and the lack of proper long-term planning on dealing with Covid-19. 

“It’s just been a mess, like a mess. I hope that changes into next year,” she said.

sinn-fein-leader-mary-lou-mcdonald-speaking-during-the-sinn-fein-ard-fheis-at-the-helix-in-dublin-picture-date-saturday-october-30-2021 McDonald: 'Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - they all have pasts, they all have pasts, so we could talk for a long time about them.' Source: Alamy Stock Photo

She said she is also concerned about Irish democracy, stating that it is a “very serious matter” that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has over-arching powers when it comes to Covid-19 emergency legislation.

McDonald said the government has the power to frame regulations that restrict “fundamental liberties that people enjoy” and criticised the lack of Dáil oversight of the new measures, which were only recently amalgamated and rolled over into next year.

Housing

But housing is where Sinn Féin has much of its focus and is keenly aware that it is a weak point for this government if they don’t make a dent in the housing crisis. 

“Of all the policy areas, if I were to identify one that alarmed me most, it’s the whole area of housing and I’ll tell you why. Because I thought after the last election, we all agreed that housing was arguably the big ticket item. And I thought that I heard everyone say, we are going to sort this and yet I sit and I have a ringside seat watching every day the same, same, same again.

“I mean, you had a budget that behaved as though renters didn’t exist – you’d never imagined listening to that was a crisis in rent levels,” she said. 

Investment funds buying up properties is also a big concern.

“They will make a fortune… even Dermot Desmond is saying it, and Dermot and I don’t have a whole lot in common, but we have this, saying this is crazy,” she said.

“You don’t deliver houses overnight. We all know this, we’re all grownups. There are certain things that you can do, by means of just taking a decision. And for me, one of those is certainly at support for people who are renting. I mean, that just needs to be nailed,” she said, adding that the government only dealt with the issue of rising rents in a “half-hearted manner”. 

The party’s past

Even with housing being hammered home as the big issue by her party at every opportunity, does McDonald believe that her party’s role in issues of the past, as well as recent utterances by the former party leader Gerry Adams will put people off voting for Sinn Féin? 

“Not in the least, not in the least,” she said.

Adams took part in a Christmas sketch where he visits a household as a Christmas carol singer, with the homeowner repeating a slogan first used by Adams in relation to the Provisional IRA in 1995.

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McDonald told The Journal that she would not be seeking an apology from Adams on the issue. 

She said voters would be more concerned to read about Fianna Fáil declaring itself as a ‘charity’ to get a licence to run its private raffle, as revealed by the Irish Independent recently. 

Fianna Fáil has since called off its controversial ‘charity’ fundraising raffle which was intended to raise €500,000 for the party, it is reported. 

McDonald said the party declaring itself a charity is a “mind-boggling turn of events”. 

When asked would statements whether statements like ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ being used by her party TDs isolate and put people off voting for her party, she said:

“I don’t think so. I give people far more credit than that. I don’t think that’s the case. Actually speaking of Tiocfaidh ár lá, Peter Robinson, former leader of the DUP, in his final press conferences at a North- South Ministerial meeting, his closing words where Tiocfaidh ár lá, so I mean, this is a political slogan that’s actually Joycean in its origins, but I won’t bore you with that,” she said. 

The public is more concerned with the crises in housing and with the cost of living, she said.

“I don’t think issues or people misspeaking or something landing badly, I don’t think for a second that clouds people’s understanding of where we’re at and what needs to change for the simple reason that people live that reality,” she said. 

Last week, the Taoiseach hit out against Sinn Féin stating that “it is time that Sinn Féin stopped pedalling the narrative that this was some just war that went on for 25 years. It was anything but and a lot, a lot of people were hurt”.

When put to McDonald, she Sinn Féin has “never portrayed what happened as anything other than what actually happened”. 

“If you look at the verdict from the courts in respect of the hooded men, I think it tells you what you need to know and certainly that part of the story around Britain’s involvement here, in the conflict, which is over, that’s over, thank God, that is over, and we live now, and we move for the future.

“I suppose it suits some to constantly hark back to the Troubles, to the conflict. I’m very mindful of victims, by the way. And I’m very mindful that in the new year, we are in all likelihood facing into a scenario where the British government, not SF, the British government, Boris Johnson, Number 10 are going to move legislation for a general amnesty in respect of British soldiers, British agents and their proxies, and what they did and that’s shocking. I mean, everybody rightly is shocked by that.

The UK supreme court ruled last week that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) decision in 2014 to discontinue an investigation into allegations of controversial interrogation techniques against the “hooded men” was unlawful.

The 14 hooded men were subjected to a series of controversial interrogation techniques when they were interned without trial by the Army in Northern Ireland in 1971.

Mechanisms to deal with issues of the past is dealt with in the Stormont Agreement, said McDonald. 

“We need to do now something which wasn’t done in the time of the Civil War in this jurisdiction, where the past wasn’t talked about. And by the way, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael they all have pasts, they all have pasts, so we could talk for a long time about them, but I accept that we need to do now what wasn’t done then and respect to dealing with victims and survivors and there’s no question about that…

“But by and far the bigger concern is what’s happening in the here and now and anybody who desperately reaches as Micheál [Martin] does and others, Leo Varadkar, for the past, to constantly trawl this, it’s just a reflection of their failures in the present. That’s my view.”

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