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The making of Mary Lou McDonald: the story of the Sinn Féin leader’s early struggle

Fionnan Sheahan


Today, she leads the biggest party north and south of the Border. Twenty years ago this week, she was launching her first election bid. It would be the first of a tough few campaigns

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Mary Lou McDonald with fellow Sinn Féin party members Áine Ní Ghabhann and Nicky Kehoe on the streets of Cabra in 2004. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Mary Lou McDonald with fellow Sinn Féin party members Áine Ní Ghabhann and Nicky Kehoe on the streets of Cabra in 2004. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Joanne Spain (far left) and Mary Lou McDonald putting up an election poster in Dublin in 2007. Photo by Niall Carson/PA Wire

Joanne Spain (far left) and Mary Lou McDonald putting up an election poster in Dublin in 2007. Photo by Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald, then a Dublin Euro election candidate, in 2004. Photo by Tom Burke

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald, then a Dublin Euro election candidate, in 2004. Photo by Tom Burke

McDonalds’s early elections

McDonalds’s early elections

McDonald helps carry the coffin of veteran IRA man Joe Cahill to St John’s Church on the Falls Road in Belfast in 2004. Photo by Cathal McNaughton

McDonald helps carry the coffin of veteran IRA man Joe Cahill to St John’s Church on the Falls Road in Belfast in 2004. Photo by Cathal McNaughton

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Mary Lou McDonald with fellow Sinn Féin party members Áine Ní Ghabhann and Nicky Kehoe on the streets of Cabra in 2004. Photo by Gerry Mooney

Tracy Chapman’s Talkin ’Bout a Revolution was the theme song at Blanchardstown Community Centre as Mary Lou McDonald kicked off her first election run 20 years ago this week. The mood music had changed five years later as she lost a second general election. Awaiting her arrival at the RDS count, a Sinn Féin activist suggested, with gallows humour, that they sing Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

In a disastrous national campaign for Sinn Féin in 2007, McDonald’s botched move to a new constituency stood out. Another losing candidate, little-known outside the party, was scathing. “Our dramatic failure to poll well in Dublin Central, let alone win a seat, should be a lesson to us for the future not to deviate from what has worked in the past,” Eoin Ó Broin wrote in the party’s internal propaganda sheet An Phoblacht.


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