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Suzanne Breen: Forthright McDonald knows remarks won't lose party single vote

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at a press conference in Belfast on Monday. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at a press conference in Belfast on Monday. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

By Suzanne Breen

Mary Lou McDonald told a gathering of civic unionists at Queen's University on Monday that she was a peace-maker in the tradition of Martin McGuinness.

The former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister's friendship with the Rev Ian Paisley has been well chronicled.

But, for me, it wasn't his most striking contribution to political stability in Northern Ireland.

Rather, that came in March 2009 just after the Real IRA attack on Massereene Army base in which two soldiers were killed, and the Continuity IRA murder of Constable Stephen Carroll in Lurgan.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with then-PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, Mr McGuinness denounced those responsible as "traitors to the island of Ireland".

The ferocity of his language, and the manner in which it was delivered was a huge boost to police in their battle against dissident republicans.

By contrast, Ms McDonald's claim that there is no credible PSNI candidate to replace George Hamilton as Chief Constable is a major blow to the force in its struggle for nationalist hearts and minds.

With an already existent chill effect in relations between the police and that community, the temperature just plunged a few degrees further.

Ms McDonald yesterday stood by her controversial comments, but Gerry Kelly was on the BBC's Nolan Show clarifying them. "Who speaks for Sinn Fein?" asked the DUP, who mischievously suggested a split could exist.

There isn't a cigarette paper between Ms McDonald and other party figures on policing. The Sinn Fein president simply said too much on Monday.

If Mr Kelly didn't row the party back a bit from her position, it could find its Policing Board members barred from sitting on the selection panel for the Chief Constable job.

Whereas her colleagues up here are masters in evasiveness, Ms McDonald takes a more direct approach to answering questions. She said she didn't believe there was a PSNI candidate worthy of succeeding Hamilton.

Yet Mr Kelly revealed to the BBC that she didn't know the force's top brass bar two senior officers, whom she met only on Monday.

So if Ms McDonald doesn't know the individuals who might apply for the job, why did she think them unsuitable? Clearly, she based her opinion on what others in the party believe and say freely behind closed doors.

The Police Federation branded Ms McDonald's remarks "wholly inappropriate and offensive".

That criticism won't cause her to bat an eyelid. But the Equality Commission expressed concern about her comments. It's surely uncomfortable territory for Sinn Fein to find itself on the opposite side from that organisation.

Ms McDonald's remarks have deeply damaged her party's relationship with senior police and with unionists. Yet they won't cost Sinn Fein a single vote. Her sentiments aren't out of touch with those of grassroots nationalists.

Ms McDonald has adopted a very hands-on approach to Northern Ireland since becoming Sinn Fein president. She is due back here again later this week.

She shoots from the hip and this certainly won't be her last controversy.

Belfast Telegraph

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