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Next in line: Mary Lou talks McGuinness, great women and 'cutting the crap' in the North

It’s been a big week for Sinn Féin. It’s deputy leader tells us what’s next for the party and admits links to past put off voters.

Mary Lou McDonald with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at last year's Ard Fheis.
Mary Lou McDonald with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at last year's Ard Fheis.
Image: sam boal

IT’S BEEN A historic week for the Sinn Féin party.

After 10 years of power sharing with the DUP, Martin McGuinness called time on the government in Stormont, stepping down as Deputy First Minister.

On Thursday – the day TheJournal.ie sits down to chat to the party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald – McGuinness announced he is stepping away from politics and will not run in the upcoming elections in Northern Ireland.

With the departure of one of the party’s leading figures, there is a sense that times are-a-changin’ for the political party, which currently holds 23 seats in the Dáil.

Front and centre through this tumultuous time has been McDonald. She said herself this month that her party is one “in transition” – a transition she hopes will be “seamless and productive”.

While she is adamant there is no vacancy for the leadership of Sinn Féin, she is not shy in saying she wants her name to be considered when there is.

“There is no vacancy, readers of TheJournal,” she says with a grin, but in the same breath admits that nobody is immortal.

While Gerry Adams is more often-than-not the party’s leading voice when it comes to politics in the north, it was McDonald who was out in force this week with scathing words for DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Assessing recent events, the Dublin Central TD is asked how did the north get to the position it is now, and could Sinn Féin have done more to pull it back from the brink of an election?

“In all honesty no,” she responds.

In this particular instance of the RHI (renewable heat incentive) scandal. Arlene Foster was given the opportunity privately and then publicly to do the right thing. She refused to do that and she was backed up by her party. I don’t think we were hugely surprised by that, as that is their form and we have seen them do that the last number of years.

Over the last 10 years, McDonald maintains her party did everything it could to keep the show on the road. She gives the majority of the credit to one man in particular.

“Martin McGuinness has done everything that could be reasonably expected of him and couldn’t do more to make it work. Some people would say it is a miracle that it was kept up and functioned for 10 years.”

So, did things go sour when Foster became leader of the DUP?

I think it has been difficult throughout, but it has also been a testament to good faith and patience and to endurance, not least to Martin McGuinness, that things were held together and progress was made.

“It is never been an easy relationship given the fact that we have diametric views… we come from a progressive left position and the DUP are very, very distinctly a party of the right.”

Despite being of the opinion that things were not always rosy in Stormont, she believes the power-sharing government did deliver.

The institutions, despite the criticisms, have delivered. In the absence of the institutions and in the absence of Sinn Féin being in government, the Tories would absolutely have run like a dose of salts through very disadvantaged and vulnerable societies with their welfare reform, which is their welfare cuts.

90416246_90416246 Source: Sam Boal

McDonald believes Northern Ireland has reached a point where the people want to see some action – and agreements both governments signed up to delivered upon.

“I think there is a sense now in the North in particular that people have run out of patience. I think we are at a moment that is very difficult. I don’t underestimate that, but I also hope we are at a moment that is decisive.

Arlene Foster, I think very unfortunately said that it is going to be a brutal election. I don’t see it like that at all. I think it is going to be a unifying election for the following reason.

“The specific reasons behind the RHI scandal are neither orange or green – they are about good government, about public money, about people being accountable… This idea now that any old thing will do. That was never good enough. The institutions don’t have to be [just] up and running, they have to be functioning.

“For there to be public confidence, to have credibility, we need to cut a lot of the crap quite frankly,” said McDonald.

The leadership of Sinn Féin

With McGuinness stepping aside and mutterings that Gerry Adams might follow him – will there be a new party leader in the north and the south this year?

I think we have been really upfront – not least Gerry and Martin – that we are clearly a party that is in transition. We are a party that is growing we are a party that is changing and developing and that includes our leadership.

Irish general election Source: PA Archive/PA Images

McDonald admits that her party is in discussions about who the next leader could be and what direction it is likely to go in.

“We’ve actively gone out to our base in consultation in respect of a 10-year plan and we have been very proactive about that.

“This a very natural kind of thing… we will deal with our party’s leadership in our time and in the way that is best for the party, best for developing the party, developing the policies and best for delivering for the people – that’s the bottom line here.

“We don’t make a secret of it, it is self-evident that we have developed and grown greatly. No human person in any walk of life, including politics, goes on forever.”

A role for Gerry Adams in the future 

Adams has been at the helm of Sinn Féin since 1983, seeing it through the Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement and making it the Republic’s third-largest party. What’s in his future after he steps aside? Will he ever fully relinquish power?

McDonald won’t give anything away on this one, saying it’s for him alone to decide.

I think there are people in public life – and I absolutely believe that Gerry is one of these – who looms larger than just the day-to-day current politics. In my view, himself and Martin McGuinness, and others, but those two in particular are among the, if not the leading political figures of their generation… they are larger-than-life figures.

She does concede it may be difficult for him.

I think all us in political life you get so caught up in it. If this is your thing and this is what you are passionate about, you get very caught up in it… It’s hard… It’s hard even to go home and switch off at times, that’s a human thing.

Sinn Fein ard fheis Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The future

McDonald believes the party still hasn’t reached its full potential. If (or when) McDonald takes over as leader, many believe the party’s current stride could turn into a strut, with political pundits predicting she could attract a whole new cohort of voters.

With a leader a middle-class woman from the south (she grew up in Rathgar, Dublin) in charge, the party’s links to the past – which are so often held against its members – could dissipate.

But even a hint at a question about her leadership is dismissed as presumptuous.

I don’t know. You are asking me a question about myself that I can’t answer – that is for others to decide. First of all there is no vacancy. Secondly, I have no doubt that when the time arises that there will be interest, we have plenty of talent.

“I have simply expressed that when that moment arises, yes, I would like my name to be considered. I don’t assume that I automatically have some entitlement – I don’t. That is a decision for the party.”

Links to the IRA 

The links to the past and the IRA are consistently raised, not least by those in government and Fianna Fáil. Just when the party thinks it has escaped one drama, another hits the headlines.

Last December, the son of murdered prison officer Brian Stack confronted Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at a party press conference in Dublin.

Stack was shot by members of the Provisional IRA as he left a boxing match in Dublin in 1983. No one was ever convicted for his murder.

Austin Stack accused Adams of lying about what he knows in relation to the murder of his father. He called on Adams to hand over any information he has to the gardaí.

Related to that same issue, Fine Gael’s Alan Farrell used Dáil privilege to call for Sinn Féin TDs Martin Ferris and Dessie Ellis to make a statement about the murder.

Irish general election Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, meets street trader Lovina Donavan. Source: Niall Carson

Does McDonald think this feeds into voters minds to deter them from supporting Sinn Féin?

I suppose it might. You would be naive to think or imagine that it didn’t. I think people quite correctly feel profound sympathy with families who have suffered. I feel that myself. I completely understand that. I think increasingly though people can identify a political stunt or a political ruse or play for what it is.

“I can only be as good as my word. We can only be as good as our word and to say completely without a doubt – without a moment’s hesitation – that people deserve truth and that we are committed to deliver the mechanism and the system to make that happen.”

McDonald makes the point that she doesn’t believe political parties raise these matters in the Dáil to help victims.

I am very conscious that it is raised in the way it is raised by people, because they believe that it damages Sinn Fein. That’s why it is done.

“It is not done, let me assure you, with any concern for victims, of whom there are thousands, from across the political divide, from across Ireland all of whom deserve respect, all of whom deserve whatever form of closure can be delivered and can only be done if we are true to the agreements that were made.

They clearly think it damages us.

Despite Taoiseach Enda Kenny claiming on Thursday that there will be no general election this year, this minority government is by no means stable.

The Dublin Central TD says her party want to be in government – despite what those in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil say.

They’re wrong. They say that for their own political purposes.

However, she adds Sinn Féin is very much aware that minority parties in past coalition governments ended up in the political wilderness, seeing their seats plummet during the following campaign.

With Sinn Féin building their numbers in the last few decades, it is mindful of who to go into power with.

“What we don’t want is to be in government just for the thrill of it, for the personal advancement of it. We don’t want to be in a government that actually can’t keep faith and deliver on things that really matter to people.

“We are conscience of the fact that in previous coalition arrangements, different parties have really failed to carry their politics and deliver.

Of course it is a concern. You would have to be incredibly foolish not to have that concern… But that is not to say we don’t want to be in government, of course we do.
“You don’t take positions, champion things, campaign for things, work for things and then turn your nose up at the opportunity to deliver them. But I think the reason why people – particularly on the left – are very suspicious of coalition is because the experience is that people have gone in and sold out in the minds of some or just failed and underperformed.

It would be as and when it emerges a big, big challenge for us – but it is a challenge we have to take on.

‘Fabulous’ people in Sinn Féin

There have been kinder words for Sinn Féin from Fine Gael’s Chief Whip recently – though Regina Doherty does not have much love for McDonald herself.

This month Doherty has come in for criticism from her own party for publicly stating that there were “fabulous” people within the rival organisation.

However, she told TheJournal.ie in December that she hasn’t spoken to McDonald in over a year and a half, adding that there are many other credible women in Sinn Féin who are now outshining McDonald.

When her remarks were repeated to McDonald, she replied:

To be honest, I wasn’t aware that Deputy Doherty was looking to speak to me. I speak to everybody. If she wants to speak to me, she is quite welcome. I wouldn’t really have a reason to be speaking or not to be speaking to her.

She agrees with Doherty that there are a lot of talented women in her party.

I think that is great. She is absolutely on the button in that respect. There is no shortage of talent, let me tell you.

The deputy leader says the party hopes to build that pool of talent in the next election.

How many seats do they want?

“As many as possible. As big a mandate as possible. Every single vote will be precious to us. We want to be in government. I want us to be in government.”

Read: A day with Simon Coveney: The contender for Taoiseach who has to first fix Ireland’s housing mess>

Read: Ruth Coppinger: ‘The TDs who decided women’s destinies in 1983 abortion debate still hold office’>

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