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Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew with a change of footwear as she begins her canvas in Dundalk Diarmuid Pepper/The Journal
Michelle Gildernew

Sinn Féin MP running in European elections says party 'won't be going centre-right'

Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew is hoping her ‘lived experience’ as a mother and carer will boost her campaign.

OVER 30 PRIMARY school pupils are sitting down to dinner in ‘The House’ in Cox’s Demesne in Dundalk, Co Louth.

The House is in fact two derelict houses that were renovated and joined together in the 90s to provide a place within the community for young people who were excluded from mainstream programmes.

This is where Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew makes a stop during a campaign visit to Dundalk in her bid to become an MEP in the Midlands-North West constituency.

She was given a tour of The House by Clodagh O’Mahony, a former nun and manager of the project, who pointed out the ‘Cozy Corner’ which was designed by one of the young girls in the room.

Gildernew told the young girl that this is exactly the type of leadership that would make her a great political candidate in the future.

It’s a message Gildernew was keen to push when going door to door on a canvass.

IMG_4751 Gildernew (2nd from right) with The House manager Clodagh O’Mahony (2nd from left), youth worker Garrett Weldon (c) and mother and son local election candidates Kathleen Byrne and Seán Ó Broin Diarmuid Pepper / The Journal Diarmuid Pepper / The Journal / The Journal

A 17-year-old girl spoke to her from one home, and Gildernew remarked that “women died for the vote” and encouraged the young girl to make the most of her vote when the time comes.

“I know all about the importance of every single vote,” said Gildernew to the young girl.

“I won one election by four votes. After it went to court, that went down to one single vote in my favour.”

She was referring to a 2010 UK general election and a court challenge brought on by unionist candidate Rodney Connor who lost by four votes after three recounts.

She told this story again when faced with a voter who said they’re so disillusioned that they plan to spoil their vote.

‘I get them, I’m juggling too’

At another door, Gildernew tells the homeowner: “Ordinary people get ordinary people”.

“I’m the mother of a child with ADHD, and I’m a carer,” Gildernew tells The Journal during an interview in The House.

Around two years ago, Gildernew’s husband suffered a stroke at work.

“The people that I am going to be connected with in this constituency are facing very similar challenges,” said Gildnernew.

“I get them and I understand those challenges and am juggling them too and hopefully that will give people confidence in me.

“It’s my lived experience that has made me a good, elected representative.”

Evidence of her juggling acts was seen during her tour of The House in Dundalk, when she had to take a phone call to arrange a lift home from an after-school activity for her child.

At another part of her tour of The House, a man from a neighbouring resource centre spoke to Gildernew and revealed that he works in mental health support.

He said that his character allows him to speak to men who might otherwise neglect their mental health and avoid therapy, such as bouncers and security guards.

He then reveals that around half of his classmates from secondary school have since died by suicide.

When asked about her decision to have an hour-long stop in The House, Gildernew said it’s “critically important” that she gets to know “the people who are looking after and caring for some of our most vulnerable children and adults”.

“I’m very keen to do this type of meeting, not just between now and 7 June, but this will be a big part of my constituency work afterwards,” she added.

Gildernew told The Journal that she was asked to run in the European elections by TD Matt Carthy.

He became an MEP in the 2014 election and was re-elected in 2019, but became a TD in the 2020 general election.

Chris MacManus was nominated to replace Carthy.

“When Matt puts his arm around you and says, ‘Michelle, we have a wee job for you’, it’s very hard to say no.”

Gildernew added: “I wouldn’t in a million years have put myself forward, as far as I was concerned, I was going to be the MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone until my successor was there and ready to take over.”

‘New blood’

While Gildernew said she is very committed to her MP seat, she remarked that “to be offered the chance to represent a constituency as big and diverse as this was something that was hard to say no to”.

“We have a job to do now around Irish unity, and I think I can make more of a difference this way,” she added.

However, when asked if she will simply return to being an MP should her European election bid be unsuccessful, Gildernew replied: “I don’t know.

“I think now that I’ve taken this step, maybe it’s time to allow new blood to come in.

“I’ve represented Fermanagh-South Tyrone since 1998, and have been MP since 2001, albeit with a two-year gap between 2015 and 2017.

“I’ve been a good public servant, and maybe it’s time for somebody else. I don’t know what the future holds for me.”

She added that her “focus is on being the MEP for Midlands-North West, I can’t really see beyond that at this stage”.

Gildernew also noted that she brings “30 years of experience as a public representative with me”.

“As agriculture minister in the north, I had to make decisions that affected agriculture on the island,” said Gildernew.

“When I was in the job for six weeks, there was a foot and mouth outbreak in England, and I avoided it coming to Ireland.

“When I meet farmer groups in Meath or Kildare, they don’t need to be told who I am, they know and they know I’m not afraid to make hard decisions and that I’ve already negotiated at European level.”

‘We are a left party’

On another stop on the canvass trail, one of the people at the doors tells Gildernew that they are upset with immigration figures.

Gildernew noted to the voter that when her husband was receiving care for a stroke, it was mostly foreign doctors and nurses who delivered his care.

Last week, Mary Lou McDonald defended her party’s use of the term “open borders”, following criticism from Taoiseach Simon Harris and other opposition TDs.

Sinn Féin had shared a video on social media featuring TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire speaking about the EU Migration Pact, in which he said Sinn Féin was “opposed to open borders”.

Meanwhile, a worker in The House in Dundalk remarked to Gildernew that he hopes Sinn Féin “doesn’t go centre-right”.

When asked about this remark and Sinn Féin’s use of the term “open borders”, Gildernew replies that she “can’t allow myself to be dragged down rabbit holes”.

“I have to focus on the people who matter, which is my electorate,” she added.

“We have an opportunity to transform Ireland. I can’t ever see us going to the centre-right, or any kind of right.

“We are a left party and we will be looking for left partners, and we will be hopefully trying to bring in a programme for government within the next 12 months with Mary Lou as Taoiseach and bringing together partners who have the same values and principles that we have.

“That’s certainly not Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, so we will always be a left party and I don’t think anybody has any worries on that score,” she added.

On the doors in Dundalk, health and housing dominated the discussions, something Gildernew perhaps won’t have too much say on as an MEP.

However, she told voters that a strong performance for Sinn Féin in the local and European elections would provide a springboard into the general election for the party.

She described a potential government led by Sinn Féin as one that works for “ordinary people” and not for “millionaires and land developers”.

Gildernew also told The Journal that she wants to “stand up for all the issues that matter to people in this constituency.

She listed Irish neutrality and “the shift to the right in the EU under Ursula von der Leyen and her support for a genocidal regime in Israel” as being among these issues.

On the doors, she twice voiced concern about von der Leyen, who she labelled “Europe’s Maggie Thatcher”.

“All of those things are important,” said Gildernew, “and if I get elected on 7 June I’ll be working hard to advance them all with a good team in Leinster House.”


This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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