Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Sinn Fein leader facing her biggest challenge

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Not so long ago it was Hello Mary Lou. After Sinn Fein's disastrous election results in the Republic, there's now speculation of a quick goodbye to Ms McDonald.

This wasn't the expected narrative when Gerry Adams handed over the baton to his successor. The new Sinn Fein president was meant to sweep the party into power in Leinster House, not lose almost half its council seats and (likely) two of its three MEPs in elections the following year.

Ms McDonald yesterday insisted that her leadership wasn't under threat. Her position is safe in the short-term, but if she doesn't deliver a markedly improved performance in the next Dail elections, expect her to be given her marching orders. In the meantime, her influence within the party's ranks is likely to be restricted.

The Sinn Fein president has been battling certain formidable forces behind-closed-doors.

Those on this side of the border, whose careers in the republican movement were not built in its political wing, will now be attempting to exert greater control again.

Sinn Fein held a lengthy post-mortem after its poor result in the Irish presidential election last year. Liadh Ni Riada managed only a 6% vote, less than half of Martin McGuinness's 14% in 2011.

Throughout that election the former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister was haunted by his IRA past. Yet it seems that the electorate preferred the former combatants, warts and all, than the current crop of cliché laden representatives heavy on identity politics.

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It was bizarre to hear Ms McDonald this week say that her party is "not simply about winning elections", because the desire for electoral success has been her party's driving force over the past two decades. The dumping of so much ideological baggage has been justified on the grounds that it makes Sinn Fein more electable.

The party has a superb electoral machine and there will be a lengthy inquest into what went wrong and how to put it rapidly right for a Dail election.

Sinn Fein's problem in the Republic is that it is being hit on all fronts. The Greens, strong socialist candidates like Clare Daly, and even Fianna Fail are making gains at the party's cost.

While its vote didn't fall as dramatically in Northern Ireland's EU election, success south of the border and the possibility of being in government in Dublin is integral to the party's selling point here.

McDonald remains an extremely polished and capable operator, but she's facing by far the greatest challenging of her political career.

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