The making of Mary Lou McDonald: the story of the Sinn Féin chief’s early battle
Tracy Chapman’s Talkin ’Bout a Revolution was the theme track at Blanchardstown Community Centre as Mary Lou McDonald kicked off her first election run 20 years in the past this week. The temper music had modified 5 years later as she misplaced a second basic election. Awaiting her arrival on the RDS depend, a Sinn Féin activist recommended, with gallows humour, that they sing Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
n a disastrous nationwide marketing campaign for Sinn Féin in 2007, McDonald’s botched transfer to a brand new constituency stood out. Another shedding candidate, little-known exterior the celebration, was scathing. “Our dramatic failure to ballot properly in Dublin Central, not to mention win a seat, needs to be a lesson to us for the long run to not deviate from what has labored previously,” Eoin Ó Broin wrote within the celebration’s inside propaganda sheet An Phoblacht.
Biting again on the future housing guru, Joanne Spain — then a celebration adviser, now a famend crime novelist — mentioned: “Mary Lou as a candidate has succeeded for us earlier than and can achieve this once more.”
But worse would comply with two years later when McDonald misplaced her European Parliament seat. At the tip of her first decade in politics, she had misplaced three of her 4 elections. Now she is the chief of the biggest celebration within the Republic and Northern Ireland, together with her eyes set on changing into the primary feminine Taoiseach.
Rather than a “volunteer”, the title for individuals who served throughout the Provisional IRA marketing campaign, McDonald is what the hardjaws disparagingly consult with as a “truceteer”, becoming a member of after the Good Friday Agreement.
Much is fabricated from her defection from Fianna Fáil, however it was a brief sufficient stint. She signed as much as Bertie Ahern’s celebration when she and her husband, Martin Lanigan, purchased a home in Castleknock in west Dublin within the late Nineteen Nineties.
She discovered the discourse within the rare Kevin Barry Cumann conferences within the Wren’s Nest Pub frustratingly parochial.
“The lads have been speaking concerning the Snugborough Road extension, which was a giant deal regionally. She was extra within the Garvaghy Road,” an area Fianna Fáil supply says. The Orange Order parade by means of the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown was a flashpoint within the North in the summertime of 1998. “She was at all times banging that drum. She was a really ‘inexperienced’ republican — lots ‘greener’ than the celebration place at that stage.”
McDonald spoke on the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in late 1998 on the necessity for reform of the RUC, because it was “composed solely of individuals from one custom”.
She was sounded out about working within the 1999 native elections in Castleknock however had left Fianna Fáil by polling day.
After a interval within the wilderness, she joined Sinn Féin in Dublin West. She wasn’t totally a stranger to the celebration. Over the earlier variety of years, she had been a member of the Irish National Congress, a cross-party republican group. Prominent members included the artist Robert Ballagh and future unbiased TD and cupboard minister Finian McGrath. Sinn Féin figures have been additionally concerned.
The INC ran stunts resembling unofficial reopening of Border roads closed by the British military.
“She stood out, she was articulate and made good speeches, and we weren’t blessed with good orators,” a former member says. “Most individuals there have been Fianna Fáil. The joke was the Shinners have been at all times there attempting to recruit half the individuals within the room.”
Anti-partition republicanism was in McDonald’s blood. Her grand-uncle, James O’Connor, was lively within the IRA throughout the War of Independence and Civil War. He was executed aged 24 in 1922 by Free State forces following a sequence of operations in Kildare, when his Rathbride column was caught with weapons. Writing to his mom in Bansha, Co Tipperary, earlier than he was executed within the Curragh Camp on December 19, 1922, O’Connor, a railway employee, wrote: “I’m going to Eternal Glory tomorrow morning with six different true-hearted Irishmen.”
McDonald says the Provisional IRA starvation strikes in 1981 had an ideal affect upon her. Nowadays, she additionally says she would have joined the Provos as an grownup. But she didn’t even turn into concerned in Sinn Féin for one more 20 years.
Turn-of-the-millennium Sinn Féin noticed the potential of the university-educated younger girl who labored coaching commerce union representatives. Within a 12 months of becoming a member of, she was nominated to the ard comhairle and have become the celebration’s consultant in Dublin West and its candidate for the 2002 basic election. She was lively in neighborhood improvement teams in Blanchardstown, Liffey Valley and Corduff. She additionally spoke concerning the housing disaster and its impact on girls, as a result of excessive proportion who earned lower than the minimal wage.
McDonald performed a minor function in Sinn Féin’s marketing campaign within the defeated Nice Treaty referendum, writing letters to newspapers, however she did tackle a ‘No’ rally, displaying her spectacular public-speaking abilities.
She was the celebration’s spokeswoman on the 2001 abortion referendum, which was rejected. “Sinn Féin has lengthy argued that the structure just isn’t the suitable place to cope with the complicated problem of abortion,” she mentioned at a celebration occasion, presaging a job in future campaigns.
She was an ever-present beside Gerry Adams at any time when he got here south of the Border, photographed because the “designated smiler”, whose function gave the impression to be to gaze adoringly on the celebration chief. She was additionally rolled out in Belfast alongside Adams and former IRA chief Joe Cahill for an Easter Lily marketing campaign at Stormont.
Sinn Féin heavyweights Pat Doherty and Alex Maskey got here right down to launch her basic election marketing campaign. A projector flashed photos on the wall of the Bloody Sunday civil rights march and H-Blocks. McDonald talked about boarded-up housing, a two-tier well being system, neighborhood policing, amenities for younger individuals and bin fees.
In an acknowledgement of the celebration’s electoral difficulties, she mentioned its enchantment may transcend deprived communities.
“There isn’t any purpose to suppose that somebody who occurs to dwell in Castleknock, down the street from right here, is a mean-minded, grasping, individualistic Thatcherite, any greater than somebody who lives beside me in Blanchardstown,” she mentioned.
The portrayal of herself as residing on the coronary heart of a working-class neighborhood didn’t stack up. She was very a lot residing the middle-class idyll in a brand new red-brick home in a traditional Celtic Tiger-era property.
“The homes are set in winding cul-de-sacs and each second or third home is of a distinct design,” the property pages of The Irish Times gushed concerning the “pleasing village-style setting”.
And it was removed from a deprived space she was reared. Mary Louise Ann McDonald was born on May 1, 1969, and grew up within the prosperous suburb of Rathgar on Dublin’s southside. The household residence was off Orwell Road, across the nook from the now terribly acquainted Russian Embassy.
Her father, Patrick, a constructing contractor, separated from her mom, Joan, within the late Seventies. Mary Lou and her siblings — older brother Bernard and youthful twins Joanne and Patrick — stayed with their mom.
McDonald attended the fee-paying, Catholic Notre Dame des Missions School in Churchtown and skim English literature at Trinity College Dublin. A postgraduate diploma in European research adopted on the University of Limerick.
She met her future husband, Martin, in a pub throughout Italia ’90 and so they married in May 1996 within the University Church on St Stephen’s Green, together with her sister, Joanne, as maid of honour. At the time, McDonald was a PhD pupil in industrial relations in Dublin City University and he was a clerk with Bord Gáis.
The couple purchased their first home in Arbour Hill on Dublin’s northside however moved to a much bigger home in west Dublin within the late Nineteen Nineties. Throughout that decade, she bounced round jobs in non-governmental our bodies within the commerce union and European affairs areas. Entering politics full-time with Sinn Féin gave her a spotlight.
Come the 2002 basic election, there was already a giant beast of exhausting left-wing politics in Dublin West: Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party.
McDonald’s destiny was recognized shortly, as Dublin West was one in all three constituencies the place the notorious electronic-voting experiment befell. She got here fifth on the primary depend and seventh after transfers in a three-seat constituency. It was a promising begin, however not good.
The European star
After the final election, she turned Sinn Féin’s equality spokeswoman and performed a component within the National Forum on Europe, a speaking store arrange after the Nice defeat. She was comfy taking up skilled institution figures in debate, resembling European Commissioner David Byrne and National Economic and Social Forum chairwoman Maureen Gaffney. She trod the usual Sinn Féin line of criticising and praising the EU on the identical time.
Her curiosity in European affairs was evident and she or he was a pure candidate within the European elections. In the run-up, she constructed assist inside Sinn Féin in Dublin by travelling round to branches introducing herself. Local election candidates have been advised to incorporate her picture and title on their literature from a 12 months out.
The celebration ran a cultured and well-funded marketing campaign with their new candidate, who they labelled “the Sinn Féin girl with the great smile and the crimson jacket”. The nation and western traditional Hello Mary Lou was performed from the marketing campaign battle bus at canvassing stops.
“She was fed up listening to it,” a employee on that marketing campaign says. “She was very affable assembly individuals. It’s her confidence that stands out. Plenty of our lads are a bit nervous of talking and cautious of the media, however she was comfy as she was articulate.”
Her eldest youngster, Iseult, was simply 11 months previous, so McDonald made certain to get a few hours at residence every day throughout an arduous marketing campaign.
In McDonald, Sinn Féin had a candidate properly in a position to slug it out with the large celebration candidates, though there was some controversy about her description as a “peace negotiator” when she has by no means actually been a part of a peace course of delegation.
Some time after 3am on the evening of the depend in June 2004, she was elected, changing into Sinn Féin’s first ever MEP. She had confirmed her skill to safe votes past the normal base.
In these years, she made her loyalty to the celebration evident, holding the road on Provisional IRA atrocities, decommissioning of weapons and the homicide of Robert McCartney. She was clearly comfy with the language of the peace course of and have become Sinn Féin cathaoirleach or chairperson.
But there have been additionally controversies over her objection to a plaque commemorating the Orange Order’s first assembly in Dublin, her attendance at a memorial for the Nineteen Thirties IRA chief and Nazi collaborator Seán Russell and carrying the coffin of Joe Cahill simply weeks after being elected.
“She appeared to by no means be with out a coffin on her shoulder at IRA males’s funerals,” says a Sinn Féin activist from that point.
“You seen her due to who she was hanging round with. She was pushy and gravitated in direction of these with a little bit of clout. She was in what we used to name ‘The Muppet Show’, all of the heads on the prime desk on the ard fheis. There was at all times a suspicion in Belfast when Dubliners turned up. Where did she come from? But she was nice and good enjoyable and preferred to go for a drink.
“Her rise was meteoric, however Gerry noticed her as a automobile for growing the celebration profile down south.”
McDonald’s second youngster, Gerard, was born in February 2006 and she or he juggled the flights to Brussels and Strasbourg with household life in Dublin.
She clearly used her MEP standing as a platform for moving into the Dáil. The competitors in Dublin West had bought much more intense, although, as there was a brand new child on the block who bought the largest vote in Dublin within the native elections: a younger physician referred to as Leo Varadkar, son of the native GP.
A downpour on election day of May 17, 2002, performed a curious function in McDonald’s fortunes. Sinn Féin had a near-miss in Bertie Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency as his Drumcondra Mafia bought their vote-management maths mistaken. His working mate, Dermot Fitzpatrick, scraped throughout the traces solely 79 votes forward of Sinn Féin’s Nicky Kehoe, a Provisional IRA veteran who spent 12 years in jail after a shootout with gardaí throughout the foiled kidnap of Galen Weston. A principle on the time was the lashing rain saved away the late turnout of younger and working-class voters, which might have pushed Kehoe throughout the road. An Phoblacht firmly predicted: “Sinn Féin will take this seat subsequent time round.”
The celebration management had notions. Its Dáil staff was male and off and the celebration badly wanted McDonald’s presence. Busloads of Sinn Féin activists have been introduced down from Belfast and there are tales of them canvassing areas exterior the constituency.
Ahern’s machine noticed Sinn Féin’s transfer a mile off. They intentionally ran Fitzpatrick’s daughter, Mary, as a “blocker” candidate, as she was primarily based in the identical space as McDonald in Cabra. The technique was to not divide the constituency however to get voters to offer the Taoiseach the No 1 after which his transfers would herald Cyprian Brady, his working mate. Brady bought fewer than 1,000 first preferences, however bought swept in on Ahern’s transfers. McDonald was nowhere close to successful what had appeared a sure seat.
She tried to re-establish her European model within the Lisbon Treaty referendum, which was defeated in June 2008. She was distinguished within the marketing campaign and maintained the treaty might be renegotiated to ensure Ireland’s European Commissioner and shield the nation’s neutrality and taxation. “Like me, you understand very properly that there’s at all times a B plan in politics,” she mentioned.
After her Plan A to get into the Dáil failed, she appeared to the 2009 European elections. Her previous nemesis from Dublin West struck once more: Joe Higgins misplaced his seat as a TD, so aimed to turn into an MEP. His excessive profile and character helped him take the “Eurocritical” seat in Dublin.
McDonald had did not get elected to the Dáil and had now misplaced her seat in Europe.
As the last decade closed, she remained a high-profile determine in Sinn Féin and bought caught into the exhausting graft of constituency work. The financial crash would end result within the transformation of politics and McDonald was positioned to turn into a dominant determine.
“These issues formed her. She developed much more empathy,” a buddy says. “There have been a number of unfair depictions of Mary Lou as not having substance and of being a doughnut in pictures to take the sharp edge off Gerry and Martin McGuinness. The expertise of these elections made her stronger.”
Interviewed by this author 20 years in the past, McDonald mentioned she “initially didn’t have an enormous curiosity in celebration politics”, however the 32-county aspect attracted her to Sinn Féin. She was going to stay to the duty regardless of the end result. “My dedication is unquestionably long-term,” she mentioned.
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