Belfast Telegraph

She may be Sinn Fein's anointed one, but Mary Lou McDonald could yet find trouble ahead north and south

 

Is Sinn Fein leader-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald's row with the Taoiseach in the Dail this week a portent of difficult times ahead for the party when Gerry Adams finally steps down? Malachi O'Doherty and Andrew Lynch read the runes.

There must be a lot of people who would like one day to be the leader of Sinn Fein. It is, after all, a huge political party with the prospects of taking power on both sides of the border.

And the leader is touching 70 and already intimating that he will soon stand down, though not before he has put his stamp on the party for another decade.

Part of that stamp, it is widely assumed, will be the choice of new leader. The dogs on the street and the cats on the mats believe they know who that will be. It will be Mary Lou McDonald.

McDonald is a real credit to the party in that she is a vigorous parliamentary performer. She has also stuck loyally at the side of her leader, Gerry Adams, even through the darkest periods, as when he was challenged in the Dail for describing those who interrogated Mairia Cahill, a rape victim, as "decent people".

Ms McDonald might have been expected more widely to have rested her sympathies primarily with the victim, but she grasps the first essential of political survival; you defend the party.

Brutus didn't knife Caesar until he had backings and a leader in waiting has even less reason to finish off the incumbent, the one who will ultimately crown her if she is patient.

Designated successors have a bad record, however. Gordon Brown did not last long after Blair.

Peter Robinson waited years for Paisley to vacate the leadership of the DUP and then moved against him with only a few years of good health to spare.

Hillary Clinton was the candidate of right for the Democratic party, but the electorate did not fancy being taken for granted.

So, who wants to be leader of Sinn Fein when Adams goes?

Nobody, apparently, other than Mary Lou McDonald, the anointed one.

Of course, a contender does not declare an ambition until it is safe to do so.

But if Conor Murphy and Martina Anderson and Mairtin O Muilleoir and John O'Dowd and Michelle O'Neill don't want a whack at the top job, then they are very strange politicians.

As things go, they presumably live with the understanding that the job is taken.

The Sinn Fein MLAs in Stormont appear to have similarly assented happily to Michelle O'Neill being made the northern leader over their heads, without a vote.

But that may prove to be easier to endure while Stormont is in cold storage. Perhaps one of the advantages for Sinn Fein of not putting their MLAs and ministers back to work is that the strains that might arise from leaders being ordained rather than elected would begin to show.

And how much more would they show in the post-Gerry era with Ms McDonald in place to block the ambitions of party talent - if they have any - and to lead a party that straddles the border and has separate political projects on either side of it?

Can ambition be relied on to subserve itself to the leadership when that leader isn't Gerry Adams?

Adams leads the party now as someone with clout north and south. He has earned his standing in the south but done it the painful way, his weaknesses being exposed and scoffed at and his uncanny resilience surviving every attack.

And McDonald has had a presence in the north, attending negotiations with governments during past crises, so she may be able to shape up for a while as someone with a grasp of the issues.

And though it might be intensely annoying for unionists to be lectured by her when she is in the top job, that may well be something she would take pleasure in anyway.

But how would the local MLAs take it? Would they not be inclined to feel that they were better qualified to engage with the DUP on the big issues ahead, like Shared Future, dealing with the past and locally rooted crises as yet unforeseen?

The danger for Sinn Fein in the coming years is that it will be partitioned, that having to function in two different jurisdictions will make it appear to be two different parties. And this would be a peculiar irony for a party that exists to oppose partition.

And if a candidate emerged who was not so supine and docile as they all currently appear, who did want to pitch for the leadership, would she, or he, not be accused by the leadership of exposing it to precisely that danger.

A northerner who wanted Gerry's job would be slapped down and accused of splitting the party and jeopardising the all-Ireland project.

So what is an ambitious politician to do within Sinn Fein?

For now, if there are any hopefuls, they are keeping their heads down.

They are very strange politicians if they intend continuing to do that.

  • Malachi O'Doherty's book Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, Faber, £14.99 is out now

Andrew Lynch: Taoiseach on the offensive as he bites at McDonald

Leo Varadkar gave Sinn Fein fair warning. "I'm not putting out an olive branch to them," he declared during the Fine Gael leadership election last May. "I think Sinn Fein remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State. Part of my mission, if I have that opportunity as leader, is to take Sinn Fein on and expose them."

This was the week when Varadkar started to deliver on his promise. He did so, however, in a slightly unexpected way. For two days running, the Taoiseach launched stinging personal attacks on Sinn Fein's leader-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald - and gave us a preview of how he intends to deal with her if she succeeds Gerry Adams before the next general election.

The first Leo-Mary Lou clash took place on Tuesday afternoon. During a Dail exchange over childcare costs, Varadkar clearly shocked McDonald by comparing her to one of the most reviled politicians in Europe.

"Even though their politics is completely different, Deputy McDonald reminds me more and more of [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen," he declared. "Because she always goes back to her script. She delivers a scripted question and when I give her an answer and ask her a question, she goes straight back to the script again."

On this occasion, in fact, the Sinn Fein woman seemed to have lost her place - because she was temporarily rendered speechless.

Just 24 hours later, the pair had an even more bitter encounter. In response to a query from Mary Lou about AIB's tax practices, Leo began by saying: "I wish to compliment Deputy McDonald on the flawless delivery of your script. Pauses, intonation and everything was absolutely perfect as always. Hope you didn't spend too much time practising it this morning."

A visibly shaken McDonald then started heckling, prompting Varadkar to accuse Sinn Fein of having "an innate contempt for democracy and free speech". Later he remarked, "you're very cranky today," to which she retorted, "I find you facile and dismissive on important issues".

Finally, the Dail chairperson, Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell, became sick of McDonald's interruptions and asked her to leave the House. The Taoiseach gave her a mocking wave as she walked over to his seat, spoke a few more angry words and warned, "I'll write to you", before storming out of the chamber.

Bad-tempered spats in Leinster House are obviously nothing new. These ones, however, had much more political significance than usual. As members of the Taoiseach's inner circle privately acknowledge, he is using a strategy that can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece: define your opponent before they have a chance to define themselves.

In other words, Varadkar has already started planning for the Sinn Fein leadership change that everyone expects to take place in 2018.

While Gerry Adams is still regularly dogged by his alleged links to IRA atrocities, almost every voter in the country formed an opinion of him long ago.

By contrast, Mary Lou McDonald's public image is very much a work in progress - and the Taoiseach clearly thinks that she has weaknesses crying out to be exploited.

Varadkar stressed that his comparison of Mary Lou with Marine Le Pen was based on style, not substance. He could have chosen a more obvious example from the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May's habit of relying on stilted soundbites such as "strong and stable" has caused one parliamentary sketch writer to dub her The Maybot.

The nickname stuck and did May severe damage during June's general election, feeding into a widespread reception of her as cold, mechanical and unfeeling.

Many other politicians around the world have been undone by an inability to think on their feet. In early 2016, Marco Rubio looked like a strong contender for the US Republican presidential nomination. During a candidates' debate in New Hampshire, however, he seemed to freeze and repeated the same attack on Barack Obama word-for-word four times.

"There it is, everybody," his rival Chris Christie sneered. "The 25-second memorised speech." Rubio's poll numbers nosedived overnight and a few weeks later he dropped out of the race.

Could something similar happen to Mary Lou? Even her biggest critics would admit that she is always impeccably well briefed for media and parliamentary debates. Her chief weakness, as the Taoiseach's advisers have spotted, is that she sometimes appears to be trying too hard - speaking in lengthy sentences that sound rehearsed rather than spontaneous.

Leo Varadkar is not the only party leader who has McDonald in his sights. At the Fianna Fail think-in last week, Micheal Martin was asked if a change of Sinn Fein leadership would make it easier to share Government Buildings with them. He shot down the idea in no uncertain terms by pointing out: "Whatever Gerry says, Mary Lou will say."

This is another line of attack for which McDonald must start bracing herself. She has often been mocked as a Sinn Fein nodding dog who is slavishly devoted to her party leader and even backs up his ludicrous claim that he never actually joined the IRA.

Assuming that she does replace him in due course, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and others will insist nothing has really changed except the face on Sinn Fein's election posters.

There is a sinister undercurrent to all these charges. Micheal Martin maintains that while Sinn Fein has officially abandoned violence, its strings are still being secretly pulled by the IRA Army Council.

If so, then McDonald may find it difficult to persuade the hard men in west Belfast that their movement can be led by a middle-class Dublin woman who has never fired a gun in her life.

Younger Sinn Fein members must have watched this week's Dail rows with deep unease. For them, the whole point of choosing Mary Lou as leader is that she would represent a decisive break from the party's blood-soaked past. They have fond memories of her appearance in a 2013 TV3 documentary, where she was filmed shopping at her local Superquinn and quipping: "I'm just looking for Cheerios … Cheerios and a united Ireland."

Although Sinn Fein have certainly made electoral progress in the Republic under Gerry Adams's leadership, right now they seem to have hit a glass ceiling of around 15%. Mary Lou plans to offer herself as the 'Heineken candidate', capable of reaching voters that other leadership contenders just can't reach. Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin are well aware of the danger, which is precisely why their verbal assaults on her have already started to step up a gear.

The next general election is shaping up as a three-way contest between Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. McDonald's party has been quietly executing a U-turn in recent months, signalling that it is now ready to consider a coalition with one of the two big parties. Ironically, it may be Varadkar and Martin's shared contempt for her that finally pushes them together and brings almost a century of Civil War politics to an end.

"Neither cranky nor rattled!" Mary Lou McDonald tweeted after her bruising experience with the Taoiseach on Wednesday evening. "Would take more than that nonsense to rattle me. I'm well used to Leo-type carry on in the Dail."

She may have to get even more used to it in the years ahead - and if this week's scenes are anything to go by, the burgeoning Leo-Mary Lou feud will not make for pretty viewing.

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