18 February 2021 Edition
Writing the next chapters in Ireland’s history
It has been a busy 12 months for Sinn Féin since the 2020 Leinster House elections. They are the second largest partner in a five party executive coalition in the North, while, in Leinster House, the party is leading the opposition.
So, with Mary Lou McDonald having key roles as party president, the first Sinn Féin opposition leader in Leinster House and the first woman in that role, An Phoblacht thought now was the time to sit down and get her views on this year of change and crisis.
In a free flowing discussion, Mary Lou talked to An Phoblacht editor Robbie Smyth about Sinn Féin’s determination in the next year to challenge the coalition establishment in Dublin. She highlighted key issues like Irish unity, housing in all its aspects, the health service, and building a just economy, while unwrapping her personal take on what it means to be an Irish republican in the 21st century.
The Politics of Change
The February 2020 election and “the huge victory for Sinn Fein marked a turning point” said Mary Lou, adding that, “the election marked an absolute highpoint in terms of the politics of change, not just for the South, but for the island as a whole”.
Focusing on the atmosphere during the election campaign in 2020, McDonald said there was “a sense that 100 years on” after “generations of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil”, that “there was a real sense in the last election that at last there is a viable alternative, that Sinn Féin can be in government, can lead a government, and people were prepared to back us on that basis, and give us that chance. That was huge”.
“I think that sense of political change has continued through 2020 and into this year” said McDonald, who believes that this “is an extraordinary and significant thing in itself”.
“The year has been really, really hard for people. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have their backs to the wall. People have been sick. People have lost their lives. Families have been bereaved. People have been left very, very isolated. Our frailties as human beings have been exposed”.
“It has been a tough year, a really, really hard year. So in the context of that huge human social and economic challenge, the fact that people are still up for the big change is remarkable. It has been an extraordinary year in so many ways”.
Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin
Turn towards Sinn Féin
Staying on the experience of the 2020 election campaign, An Phoblacht asked Mary Lou was she conscious of the turn towards Sinn Féin in the campaign?
“Absolutely, you couldn’t miss it. This is the great thing about Ireland and Irish people. If you go out and talk to people and ask people how things are, people will tell you. I think it’s probably the nature, the personality and the character of our party and our style of politics, there’s no standing on ceremony”.
“Everywhere we went, people told us ‘we want change’. We now believe you can lead this change”.
“Every moment has it its time. I believe the politics of reunification, of a new Ireland has now come of age. I think we are ready collectively as a society, nationally North and South, we are ready to take those steps forward. It would be shameful for us to miss the huge and obvious opportunities that are in front of us at this time”.
“We are writing the next chapters in Ireland’s history. I say that not to be grandiose. I am saying it because I believe it to be true”.
Turning to the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Green coalition, Mary Lou was clear on their failures:
“When I hear the timidity of the men who currently run government saying ‘’not now or ‘we can’t do this’, I just despair because if political progress is driven by anything, it is driven by a sense of purpose, and planning and prospects and understanding how ambitious we can be”.
“So, when Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar turn their head away from the change that’s happening and say no not now, that’s the most defeatists and destructive kind of politics that you could ever encounter. I want people to be energised, enthusiastic and optimistic about all of the things we can collectively achieve”.
“I really believe we are in our moment to make that a reality. It’s a big challenge, but it’s a huge opportunity. You read some of the mainstream commentators, and they talk about the prospects of reunification, or a referendum on unity. They invariably couch it in a language that is negative certainly, in some cases almost menacing, spectacularly missing the point that this is a moment of huge opportunity”.
Turning to the issue of health, Mary Lou frequently couched this in our interview as an all-Ireland issue. She said, “People look to our health systems North and South and say this isn’t good enough”. Voters understand as “that we need a national health service, we need a properly functioning public health service, and the way to achieve that is on an all-Ireland basis, and that you can only achieve that by working together, and by planning for it”.
“And any sensible person would say on the back of this Covid-19 emergency that the sensible pragmatic responsible thing to do is to start planning that collectively”.
Leading the Opposition
Mary Lou is the leader of the opposition in the Dáil. She is also the first woman to hold this post, so An Phoblacht asked about the significance of this.
“Yes, I think that is significant. The significance of it is properly best understood by reflecting that it took almost a century for that to happen. For women in public life, we have reflected on this, for me it seems endlessly, as a society that we want more women, that we want more diversity. I am a firm believer that you can’t be what you can’t see”.
“It is significant when women in leadership come to the fore”, and “being the first republican and the first woman to lead the opposition is doubly significant”. McDonald hopes “it sends out a real message to everybody that there are no places we cannot go anymore. There is no ambition we cannot fulfil. There is room in political life and leadership for everybody”.
Turning to the party team, Mary Lou said, “The new Sinn Féin representatives coming through are an incredibly diverse mix of people. We have urban and rural, from all sorts of backgrounds, men and women. We have made great progress on our gender balance, very talented young men and women coming through. It is very heartening”.
“I am really proud to play my part in the leadership of that journey, to change political life, to change not just who is elected but to change society’s view of politics, political leadership, and government and what is the right relationship between a government and those that are citizens”.
So, what is it like leading the opposition day to day in the Dáil? Firstly, Mary Lou said that, “Establishment politics in Ireland is still very, very male. Don’t miss that for a second. That’s still very true. And don’t miss either that those leading government don’t like to be questioned or held to account. They certainly like it even less when it is yours truly here doing it”.
“Is that their response to me as a woman, or as a Sinn Féin woman? I suspect it is a response to the potent mix of those two elements. I remember when I was first elected to the Dáil, going in on my first day as a TD, and just realising how much of a minority we were as women. Progress has been made since then, but it is still a very male environment”.
“I am very determined. It’s not just me the whole team, the whole party is determined that we play our part in redressing that, so we have huge talent elected in the party North and South, in the Assembly, in the Executive, in the Dáil, the Seanad, and very, very talented women.”
Michelle O’Neill, Conor Murphy, Carál Ní Chuilín and Deirdre Hargey
The Executive and Assembly
The restoration of the Executive and the Assembly was the result of “very long, very testing negotiations” said Mary Lou. She added that “These institutions are part and parcel of the jigsaw of governance on the island”. They are “very important platforms” because “we know that decisions taken that effect any of us who live on this island have to be taken on this island as close as is possible to the people that we represent”.
“The experience of being in a five party executive. That’s a very testing scenario for our team led by Michelle O’Neill. That’s a test for your political stamina, your political patience, your political skill, because you are in an administration with varied and, in the case of unionism, polar opposite political philosophical ideological views from yourself. So, that is a very challenging place to be”.
“And secondly, you are in an administration that doesn’t enjoy the full range of powers that you have for example in a sovereign government, such as in Dublin”.
“So, that’s a doubly challenging thing. I think on balance things have been challenging but our team have done very, very well. I am mindful for examples of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis that we had to make a very strong stand against the Unionist impulse to look to Boris Johnson. God help us, with his herd immunity notions, laissez faire approach, which would have been utterly disastrous not just for the North, but for the whole island. That meant there had to be some very direct conversations, some privately, but also some very direct stances taken publicly”.
“It has been challenging, but I look to the work of Conor in the Finance Department and the kind of choices he has stood over. For example, unlike in Dublin, not giving big pay hikes, or bonuses to the upper echelons of the civil service, but instead ensuring that workers on the front line get a small bonus, ensuring that students get a small bonus, ensuring that student nurse get a bonus. I am very proud of those choices. I think they are the right political choices.
“Equally with Deirdre Hargey in Community, and Carál Ní Chuilín who was there for a short while, the kind of support that has been afforded to communities is admirable. The plans to turn around public housing in the North. The most ambitious housing plan formed in 50 years. Those are measurable elements of progress for all of us.”
“I am saying all of that not to discount the difficulties that are there. In recent days, we have seen some of the evidence of the old problems that are still with us”.
Examples of these challenges included “Brexit, and Article 16 and the Unionist reaction to that, which was, to put it mildly, over the top, or what transpired on the Ormeau Road recently, with family members respectfully remembering their loved ones, remembering their dead, and the disgraceful, outrageous behaviour of the PSNI. Let me just note those two. I could note other examples that say in some respects elements of the past are still with us”.
“Our job, on one hand is to build a sense of social solidarity and social connectedness, right across society, right across the island, including people of the Unionist persuasion. But, on the other hand, also while doing that be sure that we don’t allow the ghosts of the past to come and haunt the present, and to derail the very necessary change that we need to deliver. That is the challenging proposition for us. But, I think we have managed things well”.
Boris Johnson and the British Government need to set out the threshold for the holding of a referendum and the government in Dublin has to actually put shape on the Unity process
United Ireland referendum
When asked about the prospects for a unity referendum, Mary Lou pointed to the last Ard Fheis in Derry, where “I set out what I called a decade of opportunity. Make no mistake that is what we are living through now”.
“I believe that we will have that referendum and that we can win that referendum, and win it well. Certainly within this decade. I note that former Taoisigh of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are now saying that they too believe the referendum will happen, can happen, and should happen within that time frame”.
“Perhaps more significantly, you are hearing from within Unionism itself, increasingly voices recognising the reality of the constitutional question” said McDonald, who believes that. “We are stepping our way through the initial stages of all of this. It is going to be a big challenge for everyone”.
Pointing to role that the British Government has to play, Mary Lou said, “Boris Johnson and his government, like Teresa May before him have not as of yet, despite numerous questions, and numerous requests, haven’t set out what in their view represents the threshold for the holding of a referendum”.
Mary Lou believes that this must be set and the British Government “also need to respect the fact that as a matter of international law we have agreement on the mechanism on which Partition would end and reunification occur. They need to be part of a constructive conversation and planning around all of that”.
The biggest responsibility according to Mary Lou falls upon the government in Dublin, to “actually put shape on the unity process”. She believes that one way of doing this would be “a citizens’ assembly or forum”
“We are absolutely clear that we now need a process to be established. We need that space for the planning and the multiple conversations that need to happen so that, when we go to the referendum, we have work done, and we have shared sense of what the new Ireland, the emerging Ireland will look like and as importantly the process by which we are going to get there”.
What transpired on the Ormeau Road recently was disgraceful, outrageous behaviour of the PSNI
Sinn Féin’s current priorities
Apart from the “the journey to constitutional change” which “is very much front and centre now”, Mary Lou highlighted the issues of housing in all its aspects, the pension age, the need for quality jobs and good working conditions. On housing:
“It is actually mind blowing, that despite an election we all agreed was about change, despite the fact that the issue about housing, the rental market, affordability was front and centre. Here we are, a year on. We have a Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Green Government that is still reaching for the same failed policies. And the affordability approach introduced by the Fianna Fáil Minister in this government was literally written by developers”.
“I am not saying that as a catch cry, that is literally the case. I am very concerned about that. We all know at first hand the level of suffering and stress of people who are living in their mother’s box room, in many cases with children and the stress involved because of a lack of access to affordable suitable accommodation”.
“We are also very determined on the issue of working people, decent wages and fair and secure terms and conditions of employment” said McDonald, pointing to how “the Covid-19 crisis exposed in a fairly dramatic way, the extent to which lower paid workers suffered disproportionately”.
“I think the extent of the gig economy has also been exposed and we need to get to grips with that. We need to understand that in building and rebuilding the economy, you don’t do that on the back of poverty wages and insecure jobs. You do that on the basis of quality employment, high levels of productivity, correct standards of employment protections and decent pay”.
Mary Lou also highlighted the issue of the pension age which “still looms large”. She believes that we have now a “classic Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael thing, wherein they are trying to convince people they have moved their position, when in fact they haven’t”.
Focusing on the all-Ireland aspects of these strategies, Mary Lou emphasised that, “These are national issues that Sinn Féin will be pursuing”.
“We are certainly a party that is about social equality, social progress about building a really robust, resilient economy, that has foreign direct investment for sure, and a multinational sector for sure as part of the economy, but we really need to focus correctly on small and medium sized enterprise, and micro enterprise, and really develop and feed that enterprising spirit of small enterprises, because they remain the backbone of the Irish economy”.
“It is certainly going to make for a very interesting year. Our job is at the earliest opportunity to deliver a change in government. I am deeply frustrated watching the chaos, the incompetence and at the moment the astonishing arrogance of this government, as they make the same mistakes again”.
“I find that frustrating. We are very determined that all of our campaigning and all of our work now is about getting ready, being prepared for government”.
Focusing on other Coalition failures, Mary Lou said that, “One of the things I have noticed in the course of the last year with the current government is how poor they are at communicating or informing or having any sense of sharing of ideas, with so many sectors”.
“You saw it with the hospitality sector, with the teachers, the special needs assistants, and that to me is the wrong way to do business. The right way to do business is to keep those channels of communication and contact and to be prepared to collaborate”. McDonald believes that, “There are answers to each of these dilemmas and there is experience and expertise right across Irish society, in communities up and down the country”. What’s needed is the “common sense and cop on to actually go and ask and when you ask to actually hear and listen to the responses”.
Considering the scale of the Sinn Féin agenda, Mary Lou stressed that, “None of this is beyond us. I think it is important that we say that. Nobody should feel despondent, much less defeated, by any of these things. We are able, well able, to get to grips with all of these matters”.
So, what does it mean to be a republican in the 21st century? “I believe it means for me and for us a commitment unambiguously to the concept of freedom and its delivery. I mean freedom in all of its dimensions. Obviously for us as a country to realise self-determination, for us as a country to realise our immense potential to deliver for each other, to care for each other, to support each other”.
It also means, “freedom from poverty” and “an economic and a social system that connects people and doesn’t divide them, that supports people and doesn’t abandon them”.
“For me, the Irish republican vision is on the one hand traditionally based in the core values of fraternity, equality, freedom, decency, citizenship and, at the same time, it is at the cutting edge of the politics of diversity and inclusion.”