Mary Lou MacDonald: An Taoiseach? – by Dónal Lavery

“Patience is power”. – Fulton Sheen

Having been born in 1991, when the conflict in the North was coming to a close and nationalism on the island of Ireland was making peace with itself about the way forward, I naturally have only known one leader of Sinn Fein – Gerry Adams. But now that he has been replaced by another, it begs one to analyse the intrigue and asks the difficult question(s).

The second most seminal question of all is whether Mary Lou is capable of being Taoiseach? And in that regard, I have no doubt she could exercise her abilities over that office in a way that would blow many of her predecessors out of the proverbial “water”. She’s articulate, she knows her stuff and she can speak to ordinary people about everyday things. I met her at Saint Mary’s University College during a debate with Leo Varadkar and afterwards I shook her hand and whispered in her ear that she was going to be the first female Taoiseach. She may not recall this as she meets many people each day in her role but she gazed at me with a canny smile that brought energy to my spine and said “I certainly hope so”. There was an authoritative conviction to her voice that has always stuck with me.

This was at a time when Varadkar and his party were running high in the polls (with an electric government-funded PR machine at that) and people were amazed at how Ireland had both a biracial doctor and gay man as Prime Minister of a country that had been largely backward and conservative for a century. I certainly did not dislike Leo as a person and I actually hold him in some higher regard than the current Taoiseach – who, in my opinion, will probably sacrifice his party’s very electoral existence simply to cling on to the railings of Leinster House in a bid for high office. But that’s just my view from the wilderness – arguably supported by numerous Fianna Fáil TD’s who are unhappy with the current coalition arrangements but are being told to stay loyal to a chaotic government that trips from one crisis to another.

What stood out at that debate was the capability for Mary Lou to wipe the floor with political opponents with such ease and still emerge smiling and smelling of roses. She isn’t perfect, none of us are, but she has a masterly capacity to see a problem for what it is and raise it in such a way that makes an audience pay attention, always having a solution at hand for any media pundit with a forensic eye for detail. Leo Varadkar is no idiot or man to be underestimated – in fact, he’s a very intelligent and shrewd guy who also knows his stuff irrespective of what he may say at times or the skullduggery in debates. Privately, I would guess he might concede to the view that Ms McDonald is possibly the finest orator the Dail has witnessed in decades and has a determination for the top job rivalled only by Sean Lemass.

So, yes. She will be Ireland’s very first female Taoiseach and she will bring a confidence and assertiveness to Irish and foreign affairs that many of her often dull political opponents simply cannot do. Whatever form that government will take is a matter for Irish people in the 26 counties – I imagine, and don’t hold me to this, that the next election will produce a “hung Dail” but with Sinn Fein as by far the largest party. They may (and I would much prefer this) seek to govern as a minority government on a vote by vote basis, with popular budgets and measures that the smaller parties and independents feel able to vote for – or at least not vote against. In voting against a popular administration and risking an election, such people would experience the wrath of the Irish electorate once they have had an enticing taste of a genuinely centre-left, progressive government that introduces the necessities people need to advance their lives after the decade of austerity and a global pandemic depressing us all.

The alternative to a Sinn Fein minority government would be to form a progressive coalition with smaller parties and independents. I admit, I do not favour such an outcome but it may become necessary pending the eventual arithmetic in the Dáil. The red line in all of it or any negotiation and one which will undoubtedly be top on Mary Lou’s “To Do” list is a referendum on Irish reunification in the 26 counties – as that, coupled with the Brexit vote in the North and a potential Sinn Fein First Minister, is tangible proof to any British government that the threshold has been reached for a border poll in the North to take place.

The second and most pertinent question of all, is whether Mary Lou can win a referendum that ends the partition of the island once and for all? I cannot answer that in full. I believe she’s capable but I am no medium. If she wants to do it and to do it convincingly, she will need to commence the work now by having an economist commissioned to begin the financial and resource planning for reunification and the constitutional structure that will take – which must be done in consultation with fair minded Unionist people. Just like when the Berlin Wall fell, she needs a coherent approach to reassure the population and business that people in the North will be rejoining the European Union and will still hold the benefits they possess under the National Health Service – being free at the point of need. Perhaps a clause in a new constitution which guarantees an Irish National Health Service, that is free at the point of need, would do much to assure and safeguard the concerns of Unionists and Nationalists alike in the North that they will not be hit with unprecedented medical bills. She needs to, without question, converse with the current German Chancellor and EU Commission President on utilising the expertise European and German civil servants have in managing the transition from East Germany and West Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany. This was a much greater division as the two German economies were far more diverse than that of the two Irish states. But nonetheless, we should reach out to our European neighbour and seek their guidance on areas of concern and forward planning.

If she does what I’m saying and communicates at length with notable people, like Dr Wolfgang Schauble (the Minister who took a bullet for overseeing German reunification and is the current President of the German Parliament), then she will be in a very strong position to pitch to the electorate North and South that she understands their struggles and has the wherewithal to rectify that which can be corrected or improved while standing up for their interests in Brussels, London or Washington.

Mr Ahern has his finger on the Fianna Fáil pulse, and he too predicted that Mary Lou becoming leader of Sinn Fein would be a ‘game changer’. The task now, in the power-game, is to make her an inevitable ‘game winner’, and put to test her talents against those weaklings who daily snap at her heels and engage in petty bickering over things that have little to nothing to do with people’s present plight. The current scandal in Dublin on how the Department of Health used private information of autism patients to compose dossiers against them in the face of mounting legal challenges of parents asserting their rights, shows without any measure of doubt, that a new government is needed with fresh leadership and ideas. She needs to reach out to those families and develop a more comprehensive Autism strategy that will become government policy.

All in all, I rate her highly and I think she will go down in the history books, for what it’s worth. When you compare her flaws to those of her opponents, I think it’s fair to say she’s still head and shoulders above the rest – surrounded by a young and skilled team (like Pearse Doherty, Eoin O’Broin and Matt Carthy, as well as Lynn Boylan). This is a new generation of Sinn Fein for a new generation of Ireland – hungry for change and keen to see what a progressive government will do to lift them out of poverty, squalor, stress or insecurity. Ms McDonald’s star is most certainly shining, with a constellation of others around her. But it’s up to you all to make it happen and hold her to it!

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