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Mary Lou McDonald: behind the respectable face of Sinn Féin

A new biography charts the rapid political rise – and moral compromises – of Sinn Féin’s leader.

By Martin Fletcher

“Mary Lou McDonald never wore a balaclava. She never pulled a trigger. She never planted a bomb. She has never been in prison. Indeed, it is unlikely she has ever incurred as much as a speeding fine.”

Thus begins Shane Ross’s timely new biography of the woman who replaced Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Féin in 2018 and is now odds-on favourite to become taoiseach following Ireland’s next election. Indeed, she might well be the woman who finally achieves the reunification of her country after a century of bitter and violent partition.

[See also: Is a united Ireland now inevitable?]

Ross could have continued in similar vein. Born in 1969, McDonald is a privately educated, middle-class Dubliner. She does not come from a republican family. She is not a fluent Irish speaker. She showed zero interest in politics until her late twenties. She was never a grass-roots activist and never served on a council. So how has she come to lead a party that served for decades as the political wing of the Provisional IRA and still reveres its shadowy “army” veterans?

“Is she mistress or servant?” Ross asks. Is she simply a presentable public face for a movement whose violent past remains an electoral liability, and for all those hard men from Northern Ireland with their grisly records of bombing and killing? Or is it she who is shamelessly advancing her own ambitions by exploiting Sinn Féin’s paramount need to soften its image?

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The answer is both, suggests Ross, who is almost as improbable a biographer as McDonald is Sinn Féin leader. He is an Irish Protestant who was educated at Rugby School in England before becoming a business journalist, stockbroker and independent member of the Dáil (the Irish parliament). His mother worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

He describes how Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness saw McDonald – articulate, photogenic and untainted by violence – as “manna from heaven”. They duly chose her as the instrument with which to end Sinn Féin’s political pariah-hood and woo “Middle Ireland”. They launched “Project Mary Lou” to promote her. “Gerry Adams, the master strategist, had a long-term plan: the ‘relative unknown’ was going to be a name on everybody’s lips within a year,” Ross writes.

Largely airbrushed from her otherwise wholesome CV was a renegade father, Patrick, who succumbed to a cycle of debt and drink that led to his separation from McDonald’s mother when Mary Lou was ten. And a sister, Joanne, who left Sinn Féin for “a far more militant republican socialist group” called Éirígí. And, indeed, McDonald’s own active membership of Fianna Fáil from 1998 until she defected to Sinn Féin in early 2000.

Within a year McDonald was put on the party’s Ard Chomhairle (national executive). Within five she was party chair and within nine its vice-president, second only to Adams.

Party stalwarts were shunted aside to give her parliamentary and European constituencies to fight. She was awarded prime speaking spots at the party’s ard fheis (conference). She was put on Sinn Féin’s peace talks team and appeared beside Adams and McGuinness at stage-managed photocalls, even joining them for meetings with Tony Blair at Hillsborough Castle and in No 10. Finally, in 2018, she was elected unopposed to succeed Adams as Sinn Féin president after her rivals were discouraged from standing. “In Sinn Féin they know how to organise ‘democracy’,” Ross observes archly.

Ross also dwells at some length on the luxury Dublin home McDonald purchased in 2010 with her husband, Martin Lanigan. Lanigan has since threatened to sue him for breaching their financial privacy (which Ross has denied).

The quid pro quo for all this preferential treatment within the party was that McDonald had to become Adams’s “house-trained poodle”, according to Ross. He is sceptical of McDonald’s oft-repeated claim that she underwent, aged 12, a “Damascene conversion” to republicanism during the IRA hunger strikes of 1981. She showed no sign of republican sympathies at her private Notre Dame des Missions convent school in Dublin – Ross notes wryly that “leadership of Sinn Féin was not an ambition for which the school would have prepared its pupils”.

She went on to Trinity College Dublin, where “there is no recorded instance of her nursing or suppressing any dormant republican fervour or any remotely connected sense of injustice,” he writes. Indeed, “she caused no waves, not even a ripple, either within or outside her lectures”.

In 1996 she married Lanigan, who had no political affiliations either. She had a grandmother, Molly, whose half-brother was executed for his republicanism in 1922, but many Irish families have some such ancestor. When McDonald did finally become politically active she was nearly 30 and joined not Sinn Féin but Fianna Fáil, whose republicanism was little more than nominal.

[See also: Burning the bastards out]

Why, less than two years later, did she defect to what Ross calls “a small party with a dark past and a doubtful future”? Sinn Féin may have signed up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but, he says, it “still had an armed wing and arsenals galore at the time when Mary Lou swore allegiance to it”.

He speculates that Sinn Féin wanted “educated, articulate candidates with no ‘war’ records” to fight on conventional social issues, meaning McDonald could skirt the lowly drudgery and political dynasties of Fianna Fáil. Moreover it “offered her two highly attractive prizes: a permanent job and a potential path to the top”. And so “she bit her tongue, held her nose, blocked her ears and joined the party with her eyes open”. The price for being fast-tracked to party leadership was that she had to make some acute moral compromises in order to court the movement’s hardliners and to demonstrate her loyalty to the cause.

McDonald had to appear at commemorations of violent men, though most of these took place in Northern Ireland and went largely unnoticed in the Republic. In 2003, for example, she had to speak alongside Brian Keenan, a former IRA chief of staff who masterminded multiple bombings in Britain, at a ceremony remembering the prominent IRA member Seán Russell, who had been a Nazi collaborator. Ross describes Keenan and Russell as “two of the most unsavoury supporters of terrorism in the history of the republican movement”. 

McDonald became adept at playing “cemetery politics”, attending funerals and carrying the coffins of deceased IRA heroes. She ended fiery speeches with the IRA war cry “Our time will come”. And she stayed silent, or worse, in the face of more recent republican outrages: the IRA’s £26.5m Northern Bank robbery in 2004; the murder of Robert McCartney in 2005; the cover-up of the rape of Máiría Cahill when she was 16 by a senior IRA man; Adams’s disavowal of the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten children. She even professed to believe Adams’s insistence that he had never belonged to the IRA. McDonald found herself “shamelessly defending the indefensible”, Ross asserts. She was “required to show blind loyalty to the leader and to party policy”.

Ross knows and claims to like McDonald. They both sat on the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee for several years, and joined forces to expose the cronyism, opacity and vested interests of Ireland’s political establishment. When he asked for her cooperation on this biography she had to “consult” unnamed colleagues before saying no, Ross records. Every other member of the ultra-secretive and controlling Sinn Féin hierarchy said no too. And, by her own admission, she still consults Adams “every week”.

But here’s the funny thing. This marriage of convenience has worked. Ross acknowledges that McDonald has developed into a formidable politician despite her unlikely background. She has presence. She can be charming. She is an accomplished public and parliamentary performer. She is well briefed. She learns from mistakes. She uses the media to her advantage and “doesn’t do dull and boring”, he says. She is “box office”.

By focusing on the bread-and-butter issues of housing, health and rents she has done much to sanitise Sinn Féin; the party won the biggest share of the vote in Ireland’s 2020 general election and routinely tops the opinion polls as the 2025 election nears.

As for McDonald, she is now the bookmakers’ favourite to become Ireland’s first female taoiseach. “Mary Lou rigidly kept the faith for 18 years,” Ross concludes. “It paid off. She had done a political deal. She had taken the Shinners’ shilling. Once she was bought she stayed bought.”

Under the leadership of Sinn Féin’s vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, another presentable woman with clean hands, the party has also risen to become the biggest party in Northern Ireland. Thus Irish reunification is beginning to look like a distinct possibility, and no longer a sentimental dream nursed by aged republicans over their pints of Guinness.

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle
By Shane Ross
Atlantic Books, 416pp, £16.99

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[See also: How Britain’s dark history with Ireland haunts Brexit]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink