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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: “I would hope that our image has changed”

The republican leader on the path to Irish reunification and why Brexit has intensified the issue.  

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Mary Lou McDonald is still kicking herself about the Irish general election last February. “Kicking myself under the desk as we speak, yes!” she laughs. The leader of Sinn Féin, Ireland’s all-island republican party, could have been Taoiseach by now, if only she had played her cards differently. 

When the Republic of Ireland went to the polls earlier this year, McDonald’s party experienced a historic surge in support, receiving the highest number of first preference votes (24.5 per cent) and breaking the country’s long standing “two-party system”: it was the first time in over a century that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael, the two parties that dominate politics in the Republic of Ireland, won the most votes in a general election. But Sinn Féin didn’t stand enough candidates to fully capitalise on its surge in support.

Now, while a grand coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party navigates its way through the Covid-19 pandemic, McDonald finds herself in opposition for the time being, fighting for relevance in a new political landscape where the Sinn Féin surge, and the disruption to the established political order that it promised, threatens to be eclipsed by the yet more seismic changes wrought by coronavirus.  

But the 51-year-old Sinn Féin leader has spotted an opportunity. Since Boris Johnson reopened the debate about provisions for the Irish border through his contentious Internal Market Bill, McDonald positioned herself as a prominent voice in opposition to the legislation in the British and Irish media, while also advancing her argument that Irish reunification needs to be back on the agenda.

“We’re on that journey irrespective of Brexit,” she says, speaking via FaceTime from her home in Dublin. “But Brexit certainly has brought an immediacy, I suppose, and a stronger focus on this matter.”

Her push is two-pronged: for the UK government to clarify the terms under which a border poll would be held, and for the Irish government to begin preparations for that eventuality. “It’s the mechanism by which we believe we will achieve full self-determination and reunite the country,” she says. “It’s an ambitious vision, but it is one that I believe we will realise.”

As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, an explicit provision was made in UK law for holding a Northern Ireland border poll (a separate one would be held in the Republic), stating that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland must enable a border poll “if at any time it appears likely to them that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”. It is not entirely clear from the wording, however, what exactly would satisfy that requirement.

I have spoken to Boris Johnson on a number of occasions, just as I did with his predecessor, Theresa May, and I’ve asked them to set out very clearly the manner and the circumstances in which a border poll would be called,” McDonald says. “They’ve failed to give that clarity. I certainly think now, given the reckless kind of approach that they’re adopting [with Brexit and the Internal Market Bill], they have to set that out.” 

She objects to the framing of a border poll as simply within the gift of Brandon Lewis, the current Northern Ireland secretary. “It’s not like the British government is some kind of tooth fairy that can grant or concede or deny the referendum. The referendum is a settled matter. It’s contained within an international treaty. It is not reliant upon the goodwill or the political humour or complexion of a specific British government. What we need is the detailed assessment and benchmarks that might be applied to decide that now is the moment to hold the referendum.”

“I want us to achieve our objective of reunification in a way that is absolutely peaceful – let me emphasise – absolutely democratic, and in a way that is orderly and planned.” She is careful to draw a contrast between the “instability” of the Brexit process with the pathway towards Irish reunification, and argues that the “stress and tension” that arose with Brexit would be “completely avoidable” in a reunification process, even if a border poll were held within the next five years. That is “absolutely” a realistic timeframe, she argues, but “preparation for all of this is key”.

“I’ve said to the government here in Dublin that it is, at this stage, very irresponsible not to be actively preparing for the referendum, for sure, but also for all of the public service challenges in health and education and all of the political challenges that would face us in this process.” It is further irresponsible, she argues, “not to create a forum and a space that is inclusive” for the issue to be debated – “inclusive, by the way, to those who will not argue for Irish unity as their first option, but who may wish to come out and campaign for maintenance of the Union, as is their right”. 

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At the general election, the Sinn Féin surge was driven, not by a strident push for Irish reunification, but by the correct identification of the housing crisis and healthcare as the most pressing issues for Irish voters, and a professional alternative policy programme. The party’s politicians never denied their fundamental objective of eventual Irish reunification (a desire shared in principle by all the main parties in the Republic), but pitched themselves primarily as a progressive alternative that understood the issues that affect people in their everyday lives. 

How, then, does McDonald make the case to the party’s newer voters that the potential economic price of Irish reunification would be worth it? How, in particular, can she address concerns over the loss of the UK’s roughly £10bn annual subsidy to Northern Ireland through the Barnett Formula?

“Sometimes I get frustrated when people talk about that formula,” she replies. “You’d imagine no one in the north ever paid a shilling in tax, you know? They do: they work hard, they pay their taxes, corporations pay taxes. So the extent of subvention is something that is a matter of some controversy. I mean, we would argue that it’s not of the magnitude that some would present, but it is, nonetheless, substantial.

“But I would also say to you that those that are engaged in economic modelling and forecasting have defined that there is actually a huge economic windfall in reunification. So the question that is put very often is, 'Can you afford reunification?' I would ask a different question: ‘Can we afford not to have reunification? Can we still carry the real opportunity costs of partition and the lack of economy of scale that we can create, and the coherence of public services that we need?’”

“We need an Irish National Health Service,” she adds. “There is a recognition that health care is not working as it should, north or south, so therefore you have the strategic opportunity to craft something that does work, and, dare I say it, on a small island, with a relatively small population base, it is frankly a no-brainer that you craft that, an all-Ireland service.

“Will that involve investment? Yes, it will. But let me tell you, it’s the smartest money we will ever invest. It’s the wisest, wisest money that we will ever invest.”

McDonald is keen to emphasise that the party’s offer on socioeconomic issues and the goal of Irish unity have always been “two sides of the same coin”. “Yes, it’s about the bread-and-butter issues. Yes, it’s about the stability of a roof over your head and decent health care and stable work, decent work, you know, in what is increasingly a gig economy. All of those things matter, but the big vision piece of politics that distinguishes us from others is our active engagement and activism to achieve Irish unity.

“It’s not about the politics of rancour, it’s about the politics of vision and the massive opportunity on this island that we have to actually turn a new page and to write a really significant new chapter in history and to fix things that are wrong in our society.”

The question, then, is how to make the case to voters. Despite the steady erosion of the Protestant/Unionist majority in Northern Ireland through demographic changes, a majority for Irish unity is not guaranteed: the fastest-growing group of voters is the so-called “unaligned middle”, and being of Catholic descent is no longer a guarantee of support for Irish unity.  

The answer is straightforward, McDonald says: “you have the conversation by having the conversation. You present the issues and present the case, and then allow people the space to participate in it.” She draws a parallel with the recent referenda in the Republic on abortion rights and marriage equality, which saw so many younger people mobilised north and south. “Whereas there will be people who will have a very fixed traditional Unionist position, there is a whole cohort of society who are waiting, I believe, to be engaged in really exciting progressive conversation, and we need to go out and have that with them.”

Unlike some in her party, she accepts that Sinn Féin’s image has changed. “Well, I would hope that our image has changed. I think we’d have a real problem if we got stuck in some kind of 1970s groove, although that kind of retro thing might appeal. So of course, we’re an evolving organisation. We have grown enormously over the last number of years.” 

While Sinn Féin has seen huge growth in support in the south, and is the second-largest party in the north, there are many who will never countenance voting for the party given its past as the political wing of the IRA, and due to ongoing concerns about internal decision-making; in February 2020, the head of the Irish police force did not dissent from the view held by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that the IRA still exists, and that its army council oversees Sinn Féin. The election also highlighted concerns that, regardless of whether the IRA still exists, the old top-down culture of the republican movement continues to pervade Sinn Féin, with a party structure that “seeks to control its elected representatives rather than be led by them”.

McDonald is used to the question by now. “Sinn Féin and how we develop as a political party is very much in the hands of our members. You know, party conference where policy is debated and decided, and we have constantly new people joining and we have a new generation of political leadership, as you’ve seen. There’s nobody in the grip of some kind of shadowy figures or voices from the past: this is very much a party that is with it now, that is at the vanguard of driving things that are new.”

The “shadowy figures” she refers to are the many members of Sinn Fein’s governing body with IRA convictions. McDonald emphasises that “the success of the peace process is that we created democratic platforms and politics for everybody. That means you exclude nobody. It also means that you recognise former combatants have been absolutely critical players in building the peace.” 

“By the way, to answer the question, I know you’ll put it to me, because you’re a progressive woman, I’m sure, like myself: I’m in charge of the party ultimately. I’m the leader of the party, and this business that there are others running the show, frankly, when you boil it right down, is downright misogyny. The idea that a woman can’t be in charge, I’ve given up getting into that.”

Several of the most senior republicans, with IRA convictions, who sit on the Sinn Fein governing body are not actually elected by party members, but co-opted by McDonald herself, as party president. How does she make the case for their continued presence at the heart of decision-making in an evolving party? 

“Well, I’m not really sure that it requires explanation or justification. I rely on people on the basis of their ability, and it’s a huge task to run and to develop a large national organisation, so I’m a bit mystified by that question. I’m a great believer in merit, and Sinn Féin are a meritocracy, so for me, it’s all about ability, it’s all about talent, it’s all about getting the job done, and every decision that I make is made on that basis.”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman