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Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Opinion Mary Lou would elevate Sinn Féin to the political elite as party leader

It’s obvious to observers on the side-line that it makes sense for Adams to step aside and make way for a leader who can elevate the party into the political establishment, south of the border.


In the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, Sinn Féin received the most first preference votes of all political parties and Gerry Adams received the largest share of party leader support, despite a 9% fall from the previous poll. Though, interestingly, 32% of those said they were less likely to vote for Sinn Féin after their handling over the Mairia Cahill affair.

The last few weeks and months have been rocky for Sinn Féin and it’s not the first time that the party has been involved in controversy, nor Adams’ leadership called into question. However, it is obvious for observers on the side-line that it makes sense for Adams to step aside and make way for a leader who can elevate the party into the political establishment, south of the border.

Seasoned performer

For what it’s worth I find Mary Lou McDonald one of the most impressive and consistent performers in the Dáil. McDonald’s background and political career is fascinating; born and bred in one of Dublin’s leafiest suburbs, a third level education that many dream of (she is a graduate of three universities), an initial political dalliance with Fianna Fáil and her biggest role yet, as deputy leader of Sinn Féin.

What the polls don’t tell you is that there is an innate sense of distrust that is felt among the electorate about Adams. I would go further and say that if a Sinn Féin leader was from outside the six counties then they would be more accepted by the electorate in the Republic. This in effect would allow the all-Ireland party to penetrate the electorate and gain a larger following and more votes.

Why would this matter? Two reasons, firstly Adams grew up in the Troubles and represents a past which not many empathise with (not to mention Adams’ alleged IRA involvement). Two, I would argue that being a ‘nordie’ sits uneasy among certain types and thus being from the Republic, and specifically Dublin, would add a certain credence to a Sinn Féin party leader.

‘Sinn Féin stigma’

This is something that Sinn Féin lacks. If McDonald was leader it would be more ‘acceptable’ to be a Sinn Féin voter and supporter. Under Adams’ leadership, this cannot be achieved. Adams’ past and what he represents isn’t appealing outside of Louth and traditional Republican counties. If Adams was to step down tomorrow, would Sinn Féin automatically lose their ‘stigma’? No, but I believe with fresh and innovative leadership it wouldn’t take long for them to lose that old ‘Shinners’ tag.

Sinn Féin are acutely aware of Pearse Doherty and McDonald being their standout performers, there is no doubt they are articulate, have the ability and intelligence to be leaders of their party. Ardent Adams’ supporters argue that no other individual could have led the party to such a level for 31 years, and the party do cleverly play up the old and new wing of the party to ensure cross-section appeal.

Sinn Féin now is a community activist, left-wing party that has its support in grassroots, however, the mind-set needs to change and Adams and Martin McGuinness are to many the unacceptable face of the political IRA. They are arguable holding the party back from a crucial next stage of development, which is at government level. McDonald doesn’t carry the baggage that her counterparts do and is the ideal candidature; female, aggressive where necessary, and a stand-out performer.

A well-organised party

The Sinn Féin political machine continues, again being one of the most well-organised and run parties, regularly update their YouTube channel with videos that include edited versions of McDonald’s successful media interviews and Dáil performances. The title of said videos say it all: ‘McDonald puts Rabbitte back into his box – Frontline’ and ‘Tánaiste rattled as Mary Lou McDonald confronts her over threatening water charges letters.’ Whilst these titles might be light-hearted, they are very effective with some attracting tens of thousands of hits and garnering considerable online support.

Whatever happens in the coming months or years, whenever Gerry Adams does step aside; McDonald, Doherty or whoever else would have to face the grassroots members of Sinn Féin who choose their next leader. This will no doubt prove a fascinating contest and mark a new era of Sinn Féin. Whether that leads to government remains to be seen.

Natalie Tennyson is an Account Manager at PSG Plus, specialists in corporate, financial, healthcare PR, reputation management and public affairs. She is from Armagh and studied politics at the University of Manchester having specialised in British politics and analysing political campaigns. Natalie works with clients from the education, health, legal  and financial sectors in the Corporate team at PSG Plus. Twitter: @n_tenn

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