What is Mary Lou McDonald up to in Australia? The Dáil had hardly adjourned for the summer recess before the Sinn Féin leader was jetting off to Oz. She never paused for breath; there was no weekend off after a tiring session, not to mention a family holiday in her beloved Spain. Mary Lou embarked on a punishing schedule on the other side of the world.
Sinn Féin sceptics suggest that it is a fundraiser, to milk a less well-tapped source than the USA. Stories emerged of €140-a plate dinners with much higher prices for guests who want to sit at the top table with Mary Lou. ‘Gold Tables’ could be bought for around €2,150.
Sinn Féin protested that it “would not be receiving any income from the tour.” All wide-eyed injured innocence, the party explained the trip was “to engage with the Irish community in Australia, with political representatives and with businesses and trade unions on issues in Ireland, North and south”. Many of the fixtures were arranged by the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce. One of the dinners, in Sydney last Thursday, was co-hosted by the local Trinity College Dublin graduates’ group, welcoming Mary Lou as a fellow graduate. All very above board.
Normally, it might be a very familiar story: an opposition political leader heads off on a visit abroad to gain a bit of profile at home, to make them look statesmanlike. Some unfortunate expatriate group in the host country is leaned on to organise a few dinners. Arms are twisted to make up the numbers at the events. Local dignitaries are dragooned into attending and told to be polite to the visitor who they will probably never set eyes on again. The visiting politician makes a banal speech, swearing eternal friendship between both nations. Stuffy conventions and protocols are observed.
She was making no bones about it. She, not Micheál Martin nor Leo Varadkar, is the authentic voice of Irish nationalism
Not for Mary Lou. She is no respecter of convention. She is on a mission down under. Mary Lou is overseas being provocative, mischievous and stirring the proverbial for the Irish Government. She is in blatant breach of the rather old-fashioned convention that politicians do not fight domestic political wars on overseas territory, nor are they expected to say anything that undermines the position of their home country. Last Wednesday, she was invited to address the influential National Press Club of Australia.
A fine orator, she did it with style. She let the Ireland of today have it with both barrels. After shamelessly flattering her audience of Irish emigrants about their great talents being unappreciated at home, she used their unproven misgivings about their distance from Ireland to turn her fire on the parties in power 17,000km away.
Mary Lou asserted that many emigrants had been forced out of Ireland against their will. Feeding their grudge — and possibly their unhappy voting parents still in Ireland — she and Sinn Féin were going to create an Ireland to which they could return.
They had been “robbed of a life in Ireland". She spoke of “extortionate rents and unaffordable homes” and very pointedly of “living costs that were out of control long before we experienced the inflationary crisis of today”. She was pointing her finger directly at Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar without naming them. She wanted our emigrants back. “We need you” she uttered without blushing.
Mary Lou did not tell her audience that she herself had a close relation who had been “forced out of Ireland” to Australia.
In 2013 she bemoaned the loss from Ireland of her younger brother Paddy to the southern hemisphere. She told Hashtag, the Dublin Business School students’ magazine, how five years earlier Paddy McDonald, a film producer and screen writer, "had to emigrate due to the economic downturn. He had a business that was doing well and when the crash happened his business suffered, and he was forced to emigrate like many people in Ireland.”
Today, 14 years later, Paddy is still in Brisbane, Australia. No doubt she will be seeing him soon as this coming Friday she will be speaking at a lunch in Brisbane, where his company Wolfhound Pictures is based. Her elder brother, Bernard, also emigrated, first of all to the USA but more recently closer to home to England, where he is an intellectual property lawyer. All three siblings received degrees from Trinity College Dublin.
While Mary Lou was delivering her short-term, but personally heartfelt, message that landed on a captive audience in Australia, wherever in the world she now visits she is no ordinary visiting opposition politician.
She may be leader of the opposition in the Republic of Ireland, but she is also the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland. She may not hold any executive office in Stormont, indeed no one does; but when, or if, Michelle O’Neill becomes first minister, Mary Lou will be her boss. The leader of Sinn Féin will be in a pivotal position, in charge of the largest party in government in the North while in command of the largest party — albeit in opposition — in the south.
Her speech to the National Press Club of Australia reflected the strength of her position.
She was making no bones about it. She, not Micheál Martin nor Leo Varadkar, is the authentic voice of Irish nationalism.
Last week, when addressing the Irish who had emigrated, she regularly used the royal ‘we’ as though she was speaking for the nation, not the party. She has assumed the manner of someone who, when abroad, speaks for the whole of the island, even if unity is still a long way off.
Her purpose now is to be recognised as the voice of Irish nationalism with a special status not enjoyed by any of the leaders actually in office in Dublin. How can Simon Coveney, Micheál Martin or Leo claim to be second guarantors of the interests of nationalists in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement when Mary Lou — their sworn enemy in southern politics — so obviously carries the nationalist endorsement given to her party by republican voters north of the Border?
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have both made half-hearted efforts to explore the possibility of a presence in Northern Ireland, but have failed to attract significant support. They have ceded the territory uncontested to Sinn Féin. In return, Sinn Féin has successfully captured swathes of their territory in the south.
The proof of Mary Lou’s political coup overseas is that in the last week she has managed to pack meetings, dinners and other events in the main cities of Australia, which might have been empty if Micheál or Leo were threatened on them as the guest speaker.
Her decision to beat the Irish unity drum globally is a message that plays well with the diaspora, whether it be in the USA or Australia. She has turned it to her advantage so that the Irish abroad wish to hear from her, not from Micheál or Leo, who permanently behave as though they are simply embarking on the latest trade mission.
She is portraying herself as a visionary while government ministers appear like travelling salesmen when abroad. Last week, while Mary Lou was causing a stir in Australia, Micheál was in Japan and Singapore. Nobody noticed.
Shane Ross is the author of an upcoming biography of the Sinn Féin leader. ‘Mary Lou McDonald, The Republican Riddle’ to be published by Atlantic Books on October 6