Sinn Féin’s new leader Mary Lou McDonald made a whistle-stop visit to Galway last Thursday and, despite that day’s chaotic traffic and torrential rain, she found time to sit with me and talk about issues like Brexit, Stormont, and entering government in the Republic.
McDonald comes across as warm and personable, though her replies also have the well-drilled air of the seasoned political operative she is. I began by asking what issues will Sinn Féin be campaigning on in Galway at the next election.
“Housing, health service provision, and decent work,” McDonald replies. “Lots of people are in insecure or low-paid work, many families worry about being able to pay their bills. We have to get these basics right; it is shocking the level of rent in Galway and a scandal that people are left on housing waiting lists. For many people now, home ownership is beyond their achievement. Decades ago when Ireland was poor we could still put roofs over people’s heads. This is all about political leadership and having a plan with the State and the public authorities doing the heavy lifting. Private developers have their role but the State has to lead and impose real rent control.
"In terms of health it is about attracting staff and retaining nurses and other medical professionals and providing equal pay. Lots of young nurses, and teachers as well, are on what once was called a yellow pack wage. Those issues need to be addressed, and they are not unique to Galway but they are big issues here alongside infrastructural issues around traffic and cultural amenities.”
Last November, Galway senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh quit Sinn Féin citing "serious disciplinary issues" within the party. He is one of a raft of party members who have left in similar circumstances, or amid claims of bullying, over the past year or so. McDonald gives her response to this issue.
“I firmly wish that everyone who joins SF has a positive experience. Yes there have been some clashes and people have left. For me it’s always a disappointment when someone like Trevor, who I rate enormously and am personally fond of, leaves. We do need to look at ourselves honestly and ask how can we do things better. I have initiated a consultation with our councillors across the country and I am opening up a whole party conversation where we can talk about these issues. There is an art to blending those things and most times we get it right. We are a bigger party than five or 10 years ago; we now have a membership of over 14,000 people and most of those have a good experience of SF. If there are disagreements. I would always like people to be adults and be respectful but if they can’t do that there is a rulebook and as party leader I am very clear that the rules will be applied fairly without fear or favour.”
Brexit and Acht na Gaeilge
Sinn Féin argues that, post-Brexit, Northern Ireland should retain a Special Designated Status within the EU. “Some 6,500 companies trade north to south but the same number trade east to west between Ireland and the UK,” McDonald points out. “In cash terms that is much more valuable, but the north to south trade is much more jobs intensive. It is absolutely critical that jobs aren’t lost, that standards of living are protected, and that the legal underpinnings of the peace process are not undermined.
'There’s a generational change now where people don’t want to live in a confessional state at the behest of the DUP, and have their rights denied because they are not in line with someone’s theological view of the world'
"The Good Friday Agreement can’t be put through the shredder. These things are far too serious for us to concede on so the biggest plank of our Brexit contingency plan is to have a conversation on, our relationship with Michel Barnier and with the European partners. The best strategy for Ireland is to have common cause about protection of the Good Friday Agreement as European objectives and not just Dublin objectives. This is not a party political football for us, this is about getting it right; it is an issue in the national interest of generational importance.”
If Brexit is not a party political football for Sinn Féin, some might argue the Irish language act is, given just 0.2 per cent of the population in Northern Ireland use it as their main home language. Yet it remains one of the factors preventing SF going back into government in Stormont and addressing Brexit there.
“We had an accommodation on Acht na Gaeilge last February which was not perfect from the nationalist view but we regarded it as representing sufficient progress,” McDonald notes. “Also, in the first instance Stormont came down because of the corrupt RHI ‘cash for ash’ scheme which came from within the DUP and if a similar scenario had unfolded in this jurisdiction the Government would have fallen. That concern, not just among northern nationalists, about low standards in high places is very real and has been fuelled again in recent days by the carry-on of Ian Paisley jr.
"Acht na Gaeilge is part of the parity of esteem that is hard-wired into the Good Friday Agreement. One could say also what’s the big deal about marriage equality but the biggest parade now in the North is Pride. There’s a generational switch now where people don’t want to live in a confessional state at the behest of the DUP, and have their rights denied because they are not in line with someone’s theological view of the world. The legacy issue is also massive across northern society, it’s not just a republican issue. Yes people want government to resume, but what we’re hearing from people on the doorsteps is get the institutions back but get them right, don’t just go back in on a wing and a prayer hoping that things will be different."
'I don’t accept Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar telling me as a Sinn Féin woman or the people who voted for us that we are somehow unworthy'
I’ve arrived at the conclusion that neither the British government nor DUP want the institutions back,” McDonald continues. “It suits them not to have them at this time and that’s directly related to Brexit. Polling tells us that if there was a referendum tomorrow there’d be an even bigger pro-EU majority in NI. The DUP are recklessly arguing a Brexit position and I don’t believe they want to be in an executive where ministerial colleagues would call them out on that issue. They’ve gone into hiding in Westminster, Theresa May has taken them under her wing and I have said that to her. She has put zero pressure on them to straighten things out to get the institutions back.”
Going into government?
While power-sharing is in limbo in the North, here in the Republic the main parties always come out in a rash when asked if they would consider sharing power with Sinn Féin, a stance that exasperates McDonald. “We are a party that is fit for government and ready for government,” she asserts. “After the next election I will talk to anyone, all of the parties, all of the independents. I want to see can we establish a programme for government that can deliver better outcomes for people right across the country. I don’t accept Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar telling me as a Sinn Féin woman or the people who voted for us that we are somehow unworthy. That is just the political old guard wanting everything for themselves and Irish politics isn’t like that anymore.”
Gerry Adams’ leadership of Sinn Féin brought the party on a journey few could have predicted. As she assumes the reins, what is McDonald’s roadmap for the future? “Entering government is one of the critical milestones,” she states. “We have grown and matured enormously in the last 10 years and I have no doubt that over the next 10 we will outpace that again. We need to be at the decision-making table to bring a new approach to government. I believe we are on a trajectory toward a referendum on Irish unity and we need to work toward that, which means a whole-island conversation about Ireland now and in the future. It’s about all of us moving in step into the next chapter. I think that is the era we are in and it is exciting. Some of these things are deeply complicated by Brexit but also given greater impetus by it. I am in the job five months. I don’t have every step figured out, but we have a strong sense of purpose and direction; if I do as well as Gerry I’ll be doing well!”