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29 April 2014 Edition

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Stand up and be counted get out and vote

‘Putting Ireland First’ isn’t just a slogan – it’s a statement of intent, says Mary Lou McDonald about May’s elections, North and South

• Mary Lou McDonald

‘Sinn Féin is the only party that has the political will to really challenge the system and I think you see that in our work in the Dáil, the Executive, the Assembly and local authorities. But we can only be as effective as the support we have on the ground’

AS European and local elections take place in May across Ireland, North and South, An Phoblacht’s MARK MOLONEY spoke to Sinn Féin deputy leader MARY LOU McDONALD TD at her constituency office in Dublin’s north inner city to talk about candidates, opinion polls and the hectic final run-in to polling day.

IT’S EARLY on Monday and Mary Lou’s constituency staff are preparing to open her advice centre on Dublin’s North Strand, the continuation of the road running from Connolly Station in Amiens Street towards Fairview Park. Already there is a queue of people waiting, seeking help with issues ranging from housing, healthcare and social welfare payments.

I sit down with the Dublin Central TD and possibly the most formidable member to have sat on the Oireachtas’s Public Accounts Committee (Mary Lou laughs when I suggest she is ‘feared’).

We are in an office adorned with photos of Constance Markievicz, the 1981 Hunger Strikers and Volunteer Máiread Farrell.

Mary Lou says her first message to the public is obvious but needs to be said: “Get out and vote!”

She’s very aware that in the last few months people may be disillusioned with politics and politicans, she tells me.

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Sinn Féin is standing 350 candidates in local elections and is contesting all four EU constituencies

“They see a lot of backslapping and cronyism in the Establishment and certain political parties, but the only way to change that is to use your vote.

“Sinn Féin is the only party, I believe, that has the political will to really challenge the system and I think you see that in our work in the Dáil, the Executive, the Assembly and local authorities – that Sinn Féin representatives are not afraid to stand up and be counted, and to advocate on behalf of our communities and in the interests of Ireland without fear or favour. But we can only be as effective as the support we have on the ground.”

On the doors in her constituency, it is issues such as Property Tax, Water charges, social welfare cuts, lack of jobs and healthcare that are still the big issues.

“Despite all the Government propaganda from Fine Gael and Labour, there is still a major problem about unemployment, emigration is at a historic high, and we have a general neglect of communities. We need investment, we need confidence and to build a politics of hope. Our stance is identifying and challenging those things that are wrong in the current system and offering an alternative,” she says.

For the first time, Sinn Féin will field candidates in every single local electoral ward in Ireland. No other party has ever done that.

“Every county, every community will have the opportunity to back a Sinn Féin candidate,” Mary Lou says with a smile of satisfaction. “And while that’s an achievement for us as a political party, it will be a real positive for communities if – and only if – people come out and vote.”

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Driving the republican agenda, Jennifer McCann talks to An Phoblacht during a Belfast women’s canvass

Mary Lou makes particular mention of sitting councillors and new candidates going up for election, the ones who toil away like their counterparts in the Oireachtas, the Assembly or the European Parliament but often go unrecognised.

“For all those candidates running for the first time, I want to commend them. It’s a big deal and it takes courage. It’s a big ask on an individual and their family so I just want to congratulate all those women and men who have come forward in record numbers to be Sinn Féin candidates. And, of course, to their support teams who help get them elected and provide the back-up in the offices and communities they represent. You can feel the camaraderie between our people at election time and it brings out the best in Sinn Féin activists.”

I ask her about the growth of Sinn Féin in the South of Ireland.

Recent opinion polls placed the party at almost twice what it received in the local and European elections of 2009. Mary Lou says she recognises that the Dáil general election breakthrough of 2011 and subsequent impressive performances from Sinn Féin TDs and senators have been a factor. But it’s much more than that, she says.

“I don’t think it’s down to individuals. It’s very much a team effort. Having said that, we have huge individual talents within our team. For every TD, MLA or senator you see, there are plenty of others coming up the line.”

“Since our team entered the Oireachtas, the trends have been consistently positive. Under Gerry Adams’s leadership our entire team has made a big impact in the Dáil. Year on year we have presented an alternative costed Budget, so when the Government cries crocodile tears and claims they have no other option but these cuts, we’ve shown them very plainly what the options are, what they cost and how to manage a sustainable recovery in a way that doesn’t heap more pain on working people and families.”

It’s this practical work in demonstrating an alternative that Mary Lou believes is bringing people around to the Sinn Féin message.

And what of the batch of recent polls predicting big things for the party?

“Everyone who knows me knows I am virtually allergic to opinion polls,” she laughs, “but to coin a cliché: the only poll that actually matters in terms of changing politics and changing the quality of people’s lives will be in May, so there is no time for complacency.”

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Lynn Boylan, Matt Carthy, Martina Anderson and Liadh Ní Riada at the Sinn Féin candidate conference

She says it is absolutely vital that people who want change keep the momentum going on the ground, especially people who are already Sinn Féin activists and supporters.

“We have the people, we have the politics, we have the heart for it. We need to have the stamina in the run-in to the elections and to keep it going until the last ballot is put into the last box. Make sure we push ourselves that bit extra until we get to the finish line.”

We turn to the European elections.

Sinn Féin is standing a candidate in each of Ireland’s four constituencies: Marinta Anderson MEP in the Six Counties, Lynn Boylan in Dublin, Matt Carthy in the Midlands North West, and Liadh Ní Riada in the South constituency.

As a former Member of the European Parliament, Mary Lou says that returning an all-Ireland team to advocate for the country, defend Ireland’s interests and carry on the sterling work of Martina Anderson and her predecessor Bairbre de Brún is very important.

“People need to understand that a lot of the things that affect your daily life begin in Europe, including the austerity agenda,” Mary Lou stresses. “That thinking and notion of protecting banks, protecting developers and punishing citizens has its roots very much in the European system. And I believe the current crop of Irish MEPs (with the exception of Martina Anderson) have not challenged that agenda in any effective way.”

So what if Sinn Féin managed to return an MEP in every Irish constituency?

“They would still be four amidst 750, but it would represent a very strong team. That’s what marks out our politics – we are nationally organised. Our slogan might be ‘Putting Ireland First’ but it’s more than just a slogan: it’s a statement of intent from our representatives – whether they’re standing for a local council or aiming for Brussels.”

The fact that three of Sinn Féin’s four EU candidates are women, and that the party is standing an increased number of women candidates in the local elections, is something that has been remarked upon by many commentators. Mary Lou, as one of the people with responsibility for gender equality in the party, says it’s a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

“We have made very significant progress. I am very happy to report that we will meet our 30% quota for women candidates; in some parts of the country we will exceed that,” she tells me, “but we won’t be happy until we have perfect parity, in other words 50/50 between men and women.”

I put it to Mary Lou that many self-styled ‘experts’ in the mainstream media often trot out the line that ‘Sinn Féin is not ready for government’.

“That is rubbish,” she fires back. “We are in government in the North in a power-sharing executive with people [the DUP] whose politics are very, very different from ours. We have managed to make that work. It’s not perfect, it can be frustrating, but I think our party has shown very considerable political skill and maturity in how we have managed matters north of the Border.

“We stopped domestic water charges, we have stood up against Westminster’s attempts to force through welfare cuts similar to those that have ravaged the economy and people’s domestic lives in the South.”

She says commentary about not being ready or fit for Government should instead be aimed at the incumbent parties of Fine Gael and Labour.

“When you look at what the Labour Party promised before the last election, and see what they’re up to now, are you telling me they were fit or ready for government? I don’t believe they are fit to be in government.

“I don’t believe Fine Gael – with their slavish adherence to the policies of Fianna Fáil – are fit to be there. Did they show any real political  conviction or courage? No.”

Mary Lou McDonald has a message for those who want to continually portray the idea of Sinn Féin in government, North and South, as something to be fearful of:

“For those who wish to keep us in our box, or keep Sinn Féin on the margins, well we have news for them. They are not going to succeed. We are here, we are at the very centre of political life North and South, and we’re going to continue to make change.”

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