Belfast Telegraph

After sparking unease, can Mary Lou McDonald still reach across the political divide?

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill
Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill

By Suzanne Breen

No matter how tough the going gets for Mary Lou McDonald, the one question the new Sinn Fein president will never face from an interviewer or political opponent is: "Were you a member of the IRA?"

McDonald was born in 1969, the year the Troubles broke out. And with her personal background - growing up in south county Dublin and attending a private fee-paying school - even Sinn Fein's starkest critics must acknowledge there are no Provo skeletons in her closet.

So is she a woman with whom unionists can easily do business? McDonald is largely an unknown quantity to the wider unionist community. Until recently, even leading DUP figures had few dealings with her. In the previous talks last autumn, she attended several meetings but wasn't intensely involved in the process. This time round, she has been at Stormont almost every day.

She is still finding her feet on the detail but unionist negotiators view her as positive and constructive.

They certainly regard her as more of a political and intellectual heavyweight than Michelle O'Neill.

In her acceptance speech as new party president at the special ard fheis on Saturday, McDonald pointedly referred to having attended the Remembrance Sunday Service at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin last November.

More such high-profile gestures to reach out to the unionist community will surely follow.

Yet this is not entirely new ground for Sinn Fein. Five years ago, the party's Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir attended an Armistice Day ceremony at City Hall. He walked shoulder to shoulder with DUP Deputy Lord Mayor Christopher Stalford and British Legion officials to pay his respects at the Cenotaph.

McDonald's unscripted 'Up the rebels' and 'Tiocfaidh ár lá' remarks as she closed her speech have caused unionist unease. But the new Sinn Fein president has to keep the party's traditional base on board and is surely mindful that some may still see her as a political blow-in given her previous history in Fianna Fail.

It was noticeable that she wore an Easter Lily on her jacket on Saturday even though Easter is six weeks away. Such a premature act of symbolism is similar to those unionists who choose to wear poppies in October to make a point.

On Saturday, Gerry Adams wisely adopted a low profile and allowed McDonald to enjoy her moment in the sun.

She received a rapturous reception from party members. But the real test will be if Sinn Fein rises in the opinion polls now, and if the party can make significant gains in the next Dail election.

In a poll a fortnight ago, 61% of all voters said McDonald's leadership would make no difference to whether they'd vote Sinn Fein.

A total of 21% said they'd be more inclined to support the party with her at the helm, but 12% said they'd be less likely to. So the jury's still out on how big a bounce Sinn Fein can expect under her.

Just before becoming party president, McDonald tweeted a photo of her morning coffee in a Wonder Woman mug. The epic adventures of Mary Lou (in her own shoes) are about to begin.

Belfast Telegraph

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