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Lise Hand: Mary Lou was borne aloft in a tricolour-draped golden palanquin carved from the bones of fallen Elites

Lise Hand was at the Sinn Féin rally in Cork last night, the first in a series planned for this week.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

THE CHANDELIERS IN the Estuary Suite in the Rochestown Park Hotel suddenly darkened.

There was a blast of trumpets. Then, surrounded by a phalanx of fiery torches, Mary Lou McDonald was borne aloft in a tricolour-draped golden palanquin carved from the bones of fallen Elites and carried by shadowy figures shouting threats in an obscure dialect of ancient Gaelic.

Alas for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – if only wishing made it so. For upon hearing that Sinn Féin was embarking on a short celebratory tour of the four green fields with a series of public meetings this week, various members of the two parties promptly emulated a brace of decapitated barnyard fowl.

Earlier on Monday Leo Varadkar had issued a dire warning ahead of the first rally in Cork. “I think these rallies are designed to be the next stage of Sinn Féin’s campaign of intimidation and bullying. We have seen that online,” said the taoiseach.

Now we are seeing it in their rallies and I would not be surprised to see if their next step is to take it to the streets.”

Likewise, Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien issued the ultimate alert, deploring the planned rallies as “right out of the Trump playbook”. Mind, a Sinn Féin-politically correct version of the mantra, ‘Make Southern Ireland Great Again’ doesn’t have a great ring to it.

Moreover, Sinn Féin are no dummies. They’re all too aware that what has attracted a huge slew of new voters to the party is the hopey-changey stuff promised in their manifesto – a campaign cornucopia of pledges to fix the housing crisis and put money back in people’s pockets.

New voters engaged

These new voters are not minded to break into sudden chants of “Ooh Ah, up the ‘Ra”, nor do they regard Irish unity as the most pressing item on any Irish government’s to-do list. They want the broken bits of Irish society to change and change fast. And Sinn Féin has promised to deliver these changes.

Arriving at the Rochestown Park Hotel last night – a cheeky choice of venue, given it sits slap bang in the centre of Micheál Martin’s Cork South Central turf – McDonald dismissed the comments of Varadkar as “completely over the top” and accused him of “hysterical overreaction. I think for any reasonable or sensible person, the suggestion that holding public meetings is somehow an affront to democracy is just ridiculous,” she said.

And indeed, there was something familiar about what unfolded inside the huge Estuary Suite. A few hundred people had been expected, but by the 8 pm kick-off, about 800 attendees were crammed into the venue as workers scurried in and out with extra chairs.

There were pensioners and teenagers and young couples with small kids darting about. There was a wide mix of accents and ages. There were signs of some co-ordination in getting their people out, with some county banners on display in the crowd. But unlike previous Sinn Féin gatherings, before the party surfed the current zeitgeist, there was no tumultuous sea of flourished tricolours or cohort of hardy men scowling at the back of the hall.

It was familiar because it was just like any public meeting by a political party. For an hour and a half, there was a short speech from the party leader, followed by questions from the audience which were answered by Pearse Doherty, David Cullinane and Eoin O Broin.

And many of the themes were ones which have become familiar. McDonald took a swipe at the Fianna Fáil leader who put a ferocious boot into her party in the Dail last week. “He’s made it clear that he doesn’t like Sinn Féin. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I don’t care what he thinks,” she said, sparking laughter in the room. “The days of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael having it all their own way are over – not because I say so, not because Sinn Fein says so, but because the people have said so,” she added to cheers.

‘Change’, the message repeated

Time and again, the speakers referred to “the government for change” and “the people’s government” and reiterated that the two main parties had shut them out of government formation talks.

“We will not accept the exclusion of Sinn Féin,” declared McDonald. She described the previous confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as “a scam” and “the same rotten politics”. It would’ve been an inconvenient moment perhaps to remind the room that Sinn Féin had chosen not to participate in government formation talks on that occasion.

And the themes of the questions from the floor were familiar too, covering the same concerns which propelled voters towards the party: housing, health and childcare. One of the genuinely positive differences in this public meeting was the number of young women who asked questions when all-too-often the microphone at such gatherings is unabashedly hogged by garrulous men with a plethora of opinions to unload on their captive – and increasingly restive – audience.

And once again, the senior members of Sinn Féin promised to deliver on their election pledges. “The one message I want people to go away with is that the housing crisis can be solved,” said O’Broin. “We have to reduce rents, put money back in people’s pockets,” said. Beside him, David Cullinane told another questioner, “We mean to deliver on our promise to reduce the pension age to 65”. A short while later, Pearse Doherty vowed, “We want to make childcare a public service – it can be done within a decade.”

The room was silent as people listened. The only warning note was sounded by Solidarity Cork North Central TD Mick Barry who was one of eight non-Sinn Féin TDs who supported McDonald’s candidacy for the taoiseach’s job in the Dáil last week.

While he had a go at the current taoiseach’s scaremongering over the rallies – “The only intimidation and bullying I see, Leo Varadkar, is from a frightened establishment” he sniped – he bluntly told the Sinn Féin leader he will withdraw his support for her if she attempts to form a government with Fianna Fáil.

“When I cast my vote I was casting my vote for a government that excluded the parties . . . of the vested interests,” he said, claiming these parties were Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. “You will not hold on to my support if you agree to do a deal with Fianna Fáil.”

The Solidarity TD also said “people need to come out onto the streets in big numbers” if a government of the Left is kept out of power by the Other Big Two.

14 Tonight Show Leaders Debate Solidarity People-Before-Profit's Mick Barry sounded a warning that he would not support McDonald if she went into government with Fianna Fáil. Source: Leah Farrell

But this was one question which McDonald didn’t answer directly, knowing full well that any hint of a call for people to protest on the streets over any permutation of a formed government would - rightly – spark a flurry of ‘I-told-you-so’s” from the party’s opponents.

Otherwise, McDonald answered all questions, using her trademark plain language. “It always strikes me that when it comes to doing the right thing, the decent thing for citizens, it’s always about the price-tag,” she said.

But of course, at the end of the day, it is all about the price-tag. It was clear from the response and lack of cynicism of the audience that they have – as McDonald asked the room – made a “leap of faith” and placed their trust in Sinn Féin to fix the broken things.

If it does make it into power, it will enter Government Buildings burdened by the weight of huge public expectation that their promises – repeated and reinforced at these rallies – will be fulfilled.

It they should fail, then it may transpire that these public meetings were more dangerous for Sinn Féin than for those in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who wailed on fainting-couches yesterday.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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