This was a make or break election for Mary Lou McDonald whose leadership of Sinn Fein was on the line after a series of electoral setbacks.
oday, as she marks exactly two years since her coronation as party leader, she is celebrating her finest hour and preparing, perhaps, to lead Sinn Fein into government for the first time in Ireland.
Arriving amid an unprecedented media scrum at the RDS yesterday evening, she declared: “This is not a transient thing, this is just the beginning.”
The events of the last 48 hours are even more remarkable given that for much of the past two years Sinn Fein seemed to be going backwards under her leadership.
First she made a strategic error in pushing — against the views of others in Sinn Fein — to run a candidate in the presidential election who floundered.
Then the party took a hammering in the local and European elections losing dozens of local authority seats and two of its four MEPs.
Even as recently as last December, Sinn Fein’s vote share declined in all but one of the Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland.
No wonder the party entered this election on the defensive with a risk-averse strategy that was aimed at holding onto as many seats as possible. Days after the election was called it removed its second candidate in Sligo-Leitrim, Chris McManus, amid fears for the seat of incumbent TD Martin Kenny.
Mr Kenny topped the poll yesterday as did dozens of other Sinn Fein candidates across the country with massive surpluses.
Sinn Fein’s biggest regret is its failure to run enough candidates to capitalise on the surge but nonetheless Ms McDonald leads the most popular party in the State.
In an election where voters wanted change she successfully pitched herself and her party as the outsiders who could deliver that change and break the duopoly of Fine Gael, which has led the country for nearly a decade, and Fianna Fail, which sent the country off a cliff a decade ago.
Ms McDonald was born and raised in south Dublin, attended private school at Notre Dame in Churchtown, was educated at Trinity College and used to be a member of Fianna Fail.
In terms of background, she is a world away from her predecessor Gerry Adams and in this election that has made her more palatable to middle Ireland and women voters in particular.
One Sinn Fein member and former party staffer said Ms McDonald’s appeal to female voters was one of the striking aspects of this election campaign on the doors. Meanwhile, one Dublin-based EU diplomat described Ms McDonald as “personable and definitely not anti-European”.
Quite simply, she has broadened Sinn Fein’s appeal among voters in all age categories bar those over 65s.
The party presented credible spokespeople across a range of portfolios, including Eoin Ó Broin (housing), Pearse Doherty (finance) and Louise O’Reilly (health). None of them carry the baggage of the likes of Dessie Ellis, the former IRA prisoner, who sung ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ with his supporters in the RDS yesterday and had to be told by a party press officer to tone it down.
In Mr Ó Broin voters see a man who was not just giving out about how poor a job Eoghan Murphy was doing but was promising a different way of dealing with the seemingly intractable housing crisis. The party’s rent freeze proposal caught the public’s imagination particularly among younger voters getting hammered by monthly rents and unable to even dream of owning a home. Sinn Fein also called it right on one of the key election issues with its demand for the retirement age to be brought back to 65 leaving the other parties scrambling. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail both had to perform U-turns on their pensions policy in the course of the campaign amid a backlash on the doorsteps. Both parties derided the economic proposals of Sinn Fein, saying the party would introduce over a dozen new taxes that would hit the middle classes and lead to a flight of capital from Ireland. The business lobby group IBEC warned of the “grave” impact of Sinn Fein’s policies.
But as RTE’s election poll shows the voters were concerned less about tax and the economy and more about housing and health.
Sinn Fein was also likely bolstered by events north of the border where it finally re-entered power-sharing.
Voters also do not appear to have been put off by the questions about the party’s handling of the past which emerged in the final days of the campaign. Some within republicanism saw the fact Conor Murphy, once tipped as a Sinn Fein leader, was forced to apologise for comments labelling murder victim Paul Quinn as a criminal as evidence of Ms McDonald flexing her muscles.
Chris Donnelly, a political analyst and former Sinn Fein candidate, said: “Mary Lou’s decision to effectively call out Conor Murphy for not apologising clearly and decisively all those years ago was striking as it left no room for doubt as to where authority resided within the party.”
But this should not be overstated. In her acceptance speech this day two years ago, Ms McDonald proclaimed “up the rebels” and “tiocfaidh ar la”.
Its approach to victims of crimes committed in the name of republicanism remains questionable and these victims and their families will not remain silent in the coming weeks and months. In fact, their voice is likely to grow louder now.
Ms McDonald must handle that better than she did in the final week of the campaign.
There are also many outstanding questions about the party’s own ard chomhairle, how it functions and makes decisions. Ms McDonald was unclear as to how exactly it was decided to change Sinn Fein’s policy on the special criminal (Diplock-style) court — and the policy itself remains ambiguous. The party’s new Wexford TD Johnny Mythen has openly stated his opposition to the non-jury court.
���We need change, we need a new government, the best outcome is a government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. So that’s the first thing I want to test, whether or not that is possible,” Ms McDonald said last night.
This would appear ambitious in the circumstances but cannot be ruled out. Nor can Micheal Martin performing one of the most astonishing U-turns in Irish political history and forming a government with Sinn Fein be out of the question. He opened the door to that last night as Fine Gael firmly shut it.
But questions linger as to whether Sinn Fein actually wants to be in government. Will it set the bar too high for other parties in the hope that the stalemate triggers another election when it can run more candidates and win even more seats?
Ms McDonald will have to consider all these matters now that she has cemented her position and made history for her party.