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
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.
Biting back at the future housing guru, Joanne Spain — then a party adviser, now a renowned crime novelist — said: “Mary Lou as a candidate has succeeded for us before and will do so again.”
But worse would follow two years later when McDonald lost her European Parliament seat. At the end of her first decade in politics, she had lost three of her four elections. Now she is the leader of the largest party in the Republic and Northern Ireland, with her eyes set on becoming the first female Taoiseach.
Rather than a “volunteer”, the title for those who served during the Provisional IRA campaign, McDonald is what the hardjaws disparagingly refer to as a “truceteer”, joining after the Good Friday Agreement.
Much is made of her defection from Fianna Fáil, but it was a short enough stint. She signed up to Bertie Ahern’s party when she and her husband, Martin Lanigan, bought a house in Castleknock in west Dublin in the late 1990s.
She found the discourse in the infrequent Kevin Barry Cumann meetings in the Wren’s Nest Pub frustratingly parochial.
“The lads were talking about the Snugborough Road extension, which was a big deal locally. She was more interested in the Garvaghy Road,” a local Fianna Fáil source says. The Orange Order parade through the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown was a flashpoint in the North in the summer of 1998. “She was always banging that drum. She was a very ‘green’ republican — a lot ‘greener’ than the party position at that stage.”
McDonald spoke at the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in late 1998 on the need for reform of the RUC, as it was “composed exclusively of people from one tradition”.
She was sounded out about running in the 1999 local elections in Castleknock but had left Fianna Fáil by polling day.
After a period in the wilderness, she joined Sinn Féin in Dublin West. She wasn’t entirely a stranger to the party. Over the previous number of years, she had been a member of the Irish National Congress, a cross-party republican group. Prominent members included the artist Robert Ballagh and future independent TD and cabinet minister Finian McGrath. Sinn Féin figures were also involved.
The INC ran stunts such as unofficial reopening of Border roads closed by the British army.
“She stood out, she was articulate and made good speeches, and we weren’t blessed with good orators,” a former member says. “Most people there were Fianna Fáil. The joke was the Shinners were always there trying to recruit half the people in the room.”
Anti-partition republicanism was in McDonald’s blood. Her grand-uncle, James O’Connor, was active in the IRA during the War of Independence and Civil War. He was executed aged 24 in 1922 by Free State forces following a series of operations in Kildare, when his Rathbride column was caught with weapons. Writing to his mother in Bansha, Co Tipperary, before he was executed in the Curragh Camp on December 19, 1922, O’Connor, a railway worker, wrote: “I am going to Eternal Glory tomorrow morning with six other true-hearted Irishmen.”
McDonald says the Provisional IRA hunger strikes in 1981 had a great impact upon her. Nowadays, she also says she would have joined the Provos as an adult. But she didn’t even become involved in Sinn Féin for another 20 years.
Turn-of-the-millennium Sinn Féin saw the potential of the university-educated young woman who worked training trade union representatives. Within a year of joining, she was nominated to the ard comhairle and became the party’s representative in Dublin West and its candidate for the 2002 general election. She was active in community development groups in Blanchardstown, Liffey Valley and Corduff. She also spoke about the housing crisis and its effect on women, due to the high proportion who earned less than the minimum wage.
McDonald played a minor role in Sinn Féin’s campaign in the defeated Nice Treaty referendum, writing letters to newspapers, but she did address a ‘No’ rally, displaying her impressive public-speaking skills.
She was the party’s spokeswoman on the 2001 abortion referendum, which was rejected. “Sinn Féin has long argued that the constitution is not the appropriate place to deal with the complex issue of abortion,” she said at a party event, presaging a role in future campaigns.
She was an ever-present beside Gerry Adams whenever he came south of the Border, photographed as the “designated smiler”, whose role seemed to be to gaze adoringly at the party leader. She was also rolled out in Belfast alongside Adams and former IRA leader Joe Cahill for an Easter Lily campaign at Stormont.
Sinn Féin heavyweights Pat Doherty and Alex Maskey came down to launch her general election campaign. A projector flashed images on the wall of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march and H-Blocks. McDonald talked about boarded-up housing, a two-tier health system, community policing, facilities for young people and bin charges.
In an acknowledgement of the party’s electoral difficulties, she said its appeal could go beyond disadvantaged communities.
“There is no reason to suppose that someone who happens to live in Castleknock, down the road from here, is a mean-minded, greedy, individualistic Thatcherite, any more than someone who lives beside me in Blanchardstown,” she said.
The portrayal of herself as living at the heart of a working-class community did not stack up. She was very much living the middle-class idyll in a new red-brick house in a classic Celtic Tiger-era estate.
“The houses are set in winding cul-de-sacs and every second or third house is of a different design,” the property pages of The Irish Times gushed about the “pleasing village-style setting”.
And it was far from a disadvantaged area she was reared. Mary Louise Ann McDonald was born on May 1, 1969, and grew up in the affluent suburb of Rathgar on Dublin’s southside. The family home was off Orwell Road, around the corner from the now terribly familiar Russian Embassy.
Her father, Patrick, a building contractor, separated from her mother, Joan, in the late 1970s. Mary Lou and her siblings — older brother Bernard and younger twins Joanne and Patrick — stayed with their mother.
McDonald attended the fee-paying, Catholic Notre Dame des Missions School in Churchtown and read English literature at Trinity College Dublin. A postgraduate degree in European studies followed at the University of Limerick.
She met her future husband, Martin, in a pub during Italia ’90 and they married in May 1996 in the University Church on St Stephen’s Green, with her sister, Joanne, as maid of honour. At the time, McDonald was a PhD student in industrial relations in Dublin City University and he was a clerk with Bord Gáis.
The couple bought their first house in Arbour Hill on Dublin’s northside but moved to a bigger house in west Dublin in the late 1990s. Throughout that decade, she bounced around jobs in non-governmental bodies in the trade union and European affairs spaces. Entering politics full-time with Sinn Féin gave her a focus.
Come the 2002 general election, there was already a big beast of hard left-wing politics in Dublin West: Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party.
McDonald’s fate was known quickly, as Dublin West was one of three constituencies where the infamous electronic-voting experiment took place. She came fifth on the first count and seventh after transfers in a three-seat constituency. It was a promising start, but not brilliant.
The European star
After the general election, she became Sinn Féin’s equality spokeswoman and played a part in the National Forum on Europe, a talking shop set up after the Nice defeat. She was comfortable taking on experienced establishment figures in debate, such as European Commissioner David Byrne and National Economic and Social Forum chairwoman Maureen Gaffney. She trod the standard Sinn Féin line of criticising and praising the EU at the same time.
Her interest in European affairs was evident and she was a natural candidate in the European elections. In the run-up, she built support within Sinn Féin in Dublin by travelling around to branches introducing herself. Local election candidates were told to include her photo and name on their literature from a year out.
The party ran a polished and well-funded campaign with their new candidate, who they labelled “the Sinn Féin woman with the nice smile and the red jacket”. The country and western classic Hello Mary Lou was played from the campaign battle bus at canvassing stops.
“She was fed up listening to it,” a worker on that campaign says. “She was very affable meeting people. It’s her confidence that stands out. A lot of our lads are a bit nervous of speaking and wary of the media, but she was comfortable as she was articulate.”
Her eldest child, Iseult, was just 11 months old, so McDonald made sure to get a couple of hours at home each day during an arduous campaign.
In McDonald, Sinn Féin had a candidate well able to slug it out with the big party candidates, although there was some controversy about her description as a “peace negotiator” when she has never really been part of a peace process delegation.
Some time after 3am on the night of the count in June 2004, she was elected, becoming Sinn Féin’s first ever MEP. She had proven her ability to secure votes beyond the traditional base.
In these years, she made her loyalty to the party evident, holding the line on Provisional IRA atrocities, decommissioning of weapons and the murder of Robert McCartney. She was clearly at ease with the language of the peace process and became Sinn Féin cathaoirleach or chairperson.
But there were also controversies over her objection to a plaque commemorating the Orange Order’s first meeting in Dublin, her attendance at a memorial for the 1930s IRA leader and Nazi collaborator Seán Russell and carrying the coffin of Joe Cahill just weeks after being elected.
“She seemed to never be without a coffin on her shoulder at IRA men’s funerals,” says a Sinn Féin activist from that time.
“You noticed her because of who she was hanging around with. She was pushy and gravitated towards those with a bit of clout. She was in what we used to call ‘The Muppet Show’, all the heads at the top table at the ard fheis. There was always a suspicion in Belfast when Dubliners turned up. Where did she come from? But she was pleasant and good fun and liked to go for a drink.
“Her rise was meteoric, but Gerry saw her as a vehicle for increasing the party profile down south.”
McDonald’s second child, Gerard, was born in February 2006 and she juggled the flights to Brussels and Strasbourg with family life in Dublin.
She clearly used her MEP status as a platform for getting into the Dáil. The competition in Dublin West had got even more intense, though, as there was a new kid on the block who got the biggest vote in Dublin in the local elections: a young doctor called Leo Varadkar, son of the local GP.
A downpour on election day of May 17, 2002, played a curious role in McDonald’s fortunes. Sinn Féin had a near-miss in Bertie Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency as his Drumcondra Mafia got their vote-management maths wrong. His running mate, Dermot Fitzpatrick, scraped across the lines only 79 votes ahead of Sinn Féin’s Nicky Kehoe, a Provisional IRA veteran who spent 12 years in prison after a shootout with gardaí during the foiled kidnap of Galen Weston. A theory at the time was the lashing rain kept away the late turnout of young and working-class voters, which would have pushed Kehoe across the line. An Phoblacht firmly predicted: “Sinn Féin will take this seat next time around.”
The party leadership had notions. Its Dáil team was male and stale and the party badly needed McDonald’s presence. Busloads of Sinn Féin activists were brought down from Belfast and there are stories of them canvassing areas outside the constituency.
Ahern’s machine saw Sinn Féin’s move a mile off. They deliberately ran Fitzpatrick’s daughter, Mary, as a “blocker” candidate, as she was based in the same area as McDonald in Cabra. The strategy was to not divide the constituency but to get voters to give the Taoiseach the No 1 and then his transfers would bring in Cyprian Brady, his running mate. Brady got fewer than 1,000 first preferences, but got swept in on Ahern’s transfers. McDonald was nowhere near winning what had seemed a certain seat.
She tried to re-establish her European brand in the Lisbon Treaty referendum, which was defeated in June 2008. She was prominent in the campaign and maintained the treaty could be renegotiated to guarantee Ireland’s European Commissioner and protect the country’s neutrality and taxation. “Like me, you know very well that there is always a B plan in politics,” she said.
After her Plan A to get into the Dáil failed, she looked to the 2009 European elections. Her old nemesis from Dublin West struck again: Joe Higgins lost his seat as a TD, so aimed to become an MEP. His high profile and personality helped him take the “Eurocritical” seat in Dublin.
McDonald had failed to get elected to the Dáil and had now lost her seat in Europe.
As the decade closed, she remained a high-profile figure in Sinn Féin and got stuck into the hard graft of constituency work. The economic crash would result in the transformation of politics and McDonald was positioned to become a dominant figure.
“These things shaped her. She developed a lot more empathy,” a friend says. “There were a lot of unfair depictions of Mary Lou as not having substance and of being a doughnut in photographs to take the sharp edge off Gerry and Martin McGuinness. The experience of those elections made her stronger.”
Interviewed by this writer 20 years ago, McDonald said she “initially didn’t have a huge interest in party politics”, but the 32-county element attracted her to Sinn Féin. She was going to stick to the task no matter the outcome. “My commitment is definitely long-term,” she said.