© Joe Cummings

Mary Lou McDonald, a formidable force rises in Irish politics

The Sinn Féin leader’s impact on the doorstep helped propel her party to victory


Mary Lou McDonald does a sharp line in scorn. When Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, and other party chiefs said they would not rule with her nationalist Sinn Féin party, she retorted: “These three wise men of failed government and broken promises still believe that they’re going to have things all their own way.”

As it turned out, it was Ms McDonald who got her own way — in a seismic election victory last weekend that took her party, long on the fringes, to the brink of power in Dublin. Sinn Féin was a political pariah for decades because of its support for the IRA’s deadly 30-year campaign to force Britain out of Northern Ireland. Now Ms McDonald has engineered a historic leap forward for the party in the Irish Republic, breaking the duopoly of established parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, that have dominated since the 1920s.

This made her a contender to succeed Mr Varadkar, becoming the first female taoiseach, after winning the popular vote and the second-highest number of seats in the Dáil assembly. She would use a place in government to campaign for referendum on a united Ireland, the party’s number one objective. “Now is our time,” she told a packed meeting of newly elected MPs on Thursday. It was an echo of the IRA war cry “Tiocfaidh ár lá”, or “Our day will come”.

Yet Ms McDonald, aged 50, presents a different image to the generation of leaders who took the IRA into the peace agreement. Sinn Féin’s many critics recoil at the IRA’s legacy of murder and lawlessness. Ms McDonald insists the war is over. Once she took a television crew on a supermarket shopping trip. The image was far removed from balaclava-wearing paramilitaries. Instead it was of a busy working mother of two checking the price of prawns and seeking out a breakfast cereal. “The Mary Lou factor is huge, especially among a lot of women,” said Aengus Ó Snodaigh, a Sinn Féin MP since 2002.

Ms McDonald grew up in Rathgar, a middle-class suburb of Dublin. She was educated at a private Catholic school before attending Trinity College Dublin, an elite university that was a bastion of British rule for centuries. She first joined Fianna Fáil, long the country’s biggest party. But her friend Nora Comiskey, a veteran Fianna Fáil activist, said her departure was no surprise: “One night she was talking about united Ireland ideas and the way people should be treated by their government, and I said to her casually: ‘You’re in the wrong party, Mary Lou. I don’t think that’s Fianna Fáil at all.’ I missed her greatly.”

Gerry Adams, Ms McDonald’s predecessor, marked her out early as a potential Sinn Féin leader. As a young politician on the rise in 2004, she helped carry the coffin of Joe Cahill, a veteran IRA chief who was a colossus in the republican movement. Her rhetoric can be strident but her down-to-earth manner and personal warmth on the doorsteps cut through with voters and made a stark contrast with the stiff Mr Varadkar.

“She’s a breath of fresh air,” said Jamie Morrissey, a personal trainer from Limerick, one of many young people who turned to Sinn Féin at the ballot box, put off by the stale politics of the established parties. “She is good on the canvass trail and comes across as friendly and good-humoured, and communicates well with the ordinary voter,” said Deaglán de Bréadún, author of a book on Sinn Féin’s rise in mainstream politics. “She can also be tough and formidable.”

Ms McDonald now holds the balance of power in a highly fragmented parliament but lacks allies for a majority. Her efforts to team up with the Greens and other leftwing parties came to nothing on Friday as the party accepted it will need to align with one of its big rivals. Neither Fine Gael’s Mr Varadkar, nor Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, will work with her because of Sinn Féin’s IRA links and its promises to ramp up spending and taxes on the wealthy and business. The established parties claim Sinn Féin’s leftist agenda will put Ireland’s economy, which is highly dependent on foreign direct investment, at risk.

Barely eight months ago, Sinn Féin did not seem like much of a threat. Ms McDonald’s leadership was in trouble after the party sunk to less than 10 per cent in local elections. But they changed tactics. “They were all about shouting from the sidelines and crying crisis, and suddenly they came up with solutions,” said Ipsos pollster Kieran O’Leary.

Ms McDonald’s party stressed its own proposals to improve the health service and address Ireland’s chronic shortage of affordable housing. Her political opponents said these were unrealistic but they struck a chord, especially with the young.

In the years of austerity following Ireland’s 2008 crash, Ms McDonald threw herself into social causes. She backed the repeal of a constitutional ban on abortion, becoming a prominent liberal face in a 2018 referendum that passed by a two-thirds majority. “Sinn Féin captured the mood quite well: that we cannot be prisoners of our past,” says Mr O’Leary.

One persistent criticism is that Ms McDonald is not fully in control of a party that is still in thrall to people with IRA links. Peadar Tóibín, who left Sinn Féin over its support for abortion, said its discipline was a strength but also a weakness. “There’s no room for dissent . . . she’s a cog in the system rather than the driver of the vehicle. She doesn’t have the same political gravity that Gerry Adams had, in the sense that not all wings of the party would really warm to her,” he said. “That could cause her problems in the future.”