I’ve met Mary Lou McDonald on a number of occasions. I’ve done an interview with her at least three times – most recently for my forthcoming book on Martin McGuinness – and at this point the Hello-Mary-Lou /Hey Jude exchange is getting threadbare. I still wouldn’t say I know her, but I can give you a few thoughts on qualities she brings to the job.
She’s tough. Which is just as well, since already the Sindo brigade have begun practicing their knife-throwing skills. She hasn’t disassociated herself from the actions of the Provisional IRA; she’s said a three-month ban was “appropriate and proportionate” for Barry McElduff putting a loaf on his head; she has supported Gerry Adams “during a string of controversies” over the years…Oh, and she “had to deny” that she “smirked” at Mairia Cahill once when they passed each other in Leinster House. Get the picture? the Sindo boys and girls will now accuse Mary Lou of the unforgivable sin: she “associated herself with” Gerry Adams. How will Mary Lou react? Impossible to say, but I do know Conor McGregor isn’t afraid of mice.
No rush. In my experience, she possesses that quality which Bobby Moore exemplified when he played for England: unhurried certainty. She always sounds at ease, as though she’s got any amount of God’s time available, even when she has two more speaking engagements to do in Derry and one in Belfast before heading home to Dublin just past midnight.
She’s educated-smart. Many people have remarked on the fact that she’ll be the first woman to lead Sinn Féin. Not as many have noted that she is from a middle-class background. That’s not typical of Sinn Féin territory. But besides opening wider the Sinn Féin doors to thoughtful middle-class voters, it means the party is led by a woman who is not just articulate but who is the match of anyone who feels like discussing the economics of Ireland or Europe.
She’s fearless. On TV panels and radio programmes, there are interviewers keen to display their acceptable bias by wading in, knee and elbow, to any Shinner who is set before them. This is a mistake in the case of the president-elect of Sinn Féin. Mary Lou doesn’t let interviewers steam-roll over her. Once she starts a sentence, it’s going to take the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and at least three Darth Vadars to stop her.
She chose the road less- travelled. Traditionally, Sinn Féin members and leaders have come through the Troubles, or have been affected directly or indirectly through family connections. This is not the case with Mary Lou. She was a member of Fianna Fail for a year. Then she opted – chose – to join Sinn Féin. She could have stayed with Fianna Fail or any other southern party and could no doubt have forged a successful career within those ranks. But she chose Sinn Féin, knowing the accusations that’d be flung at her, knowing there’d be some in Sinn Féin itself who would have their doubts about her, knowing that the Shinner road is and will be a rocky road. But like Martin McGuinness, when she set out on a political path, she kept going. This lady’s not for turning.