Mary Lou McDonald: Who is Sinn Féin's new leader tasked with carrying Irish republicanism forward?

Ben Kelly
Mary Lou McDonald has been the Republican party’s vice president since 2009: Getty

Mary Lou McDonald is set to be named the new President of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin at a special Ard Fheis (party conference) in Dublin on Saturday.

At the same time Michelle O’Neill is poised to become her deputy, as the two women were the only nominees for their respective posts.

To many in Irish politics, this is unsurprising, in part because they have essentially been anointed by outgoing leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness over recent years.

It’s no secret that Saturday’s Ard Fheis is the culmination of what Sinn Féin have been describing as a 10-year period of “generational change” within the party – a refresh of the faces at the front to show they’re moving with the times.

It is also an apparent diminution of figures more associated with The Troubles – an effort to make the party more palatable to voters in the Republic of Ireland and to reach further into the centre ground between republicans and unionists in Northern Ireland.

Who is Mary Lou McDonald?

Ms McDonald was born in Dublin and had a private school education. She was initially a member of Fianna Fáil but joined Sinn Féin in 1998 and had since risen up their ranks, serving first as an MEP in Brussels from 2004 to 2009 before winning a seat in the Dáil (the Irish parliament) in 2011. She has been the party’s Vice President since 2009.

Her Dublin-based status means that the Sinn Féin leadership is now rooted in the Republic of Ireland, in contrast to the northern born Adams and McGuinness.

The 48-year-old represents a new generation who came of age politically after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and has had none of the involvement in The Troubles which coloured previous leadership.

One major challenge for the new President will be where she places herself on issues of the past. Sinn Féin are a party committed to peace, but who still honour members of the IRA. Ms McDonald will have to maintain this balance to please the party faithful, but it will be all too easy for political opponents to claim the party has not sufficiently rejected its historic links to violence.

Who is Michelle O’Neill?

Michelle O’Neill has previously been the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland

Michelle O’Neill was born in Tyrone, Northern Ireland, into a prominent republican family – her father was also a Sinn Féin councillor. She first became an MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 and served as Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development from 2011 to 2016. She was also named Minister of Health in 2016 before being elevated to lead the party in Northern Ireland after the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017.

Aged 41, Ms O’Neill is another of Sinn Féin’s fresh faces, aiming to move the party forward, but in April 2017 she attracted criticism for participating in an event which commemorated the deaths of eight IRA men in Loughall in 1987. She responded by saying, “I see no contradiction whatsoever in commemorating our republican dead while reaching out to our unionist neighbours to build the future.”

What does this change mean for Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland?

Saturday’s Ard Fheis comes just three months after Gerry Adams announced his intention to stand down before the next election in the Republic of Ireland – which is almost certain to happen this year.

The current confidence and supply agreement between the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, is seen as temporary and unstable, and almost collapsed over a political scandal in December 2017. As the third largest party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin are poised to become the effective opposition after the next election – that is, if they don’t make it into a coalition.

The party has gone from having just one member of the Dáil in 1997 to being an unavoidable force in the parliament in 2018. While the current ruling party Fine Gael would be highly unlikely to entertain Sinn Féin in coalition, Fianna Fáil appear more likely bedfellows and have hinted at this possibility.

In part, it is the divisive figure of Mr Adams which has put many voters and politicians off this prospect in the past, but now that’s all about to change.

A poll in January by Ipsos MRBI for the Irish Times found that a fifth of Irish voters are more likely to vote for Sinn Féin with Ms McDonald as leader, hence the need to hand over power before the country goes to the ballot boxes.

Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness

What does it mean for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland?

Sinn Féin have been steadily growing in strength in Northern Ireland in recent years, buoyed by a youth vote which has been attracted to their support for equal rights in groups such as the LGBT community and Irish language speakers, and more recently in their opposition to Brexit.

In the last Assembly elections in 2017, unionism lost its majority in Northern Ireland for the first time. In general, it looks like Sinn Féin are doing everything right north of the border, where their base is more inbuilt and unswerving. However, the loyalty of some of their more recent converts is at stake depending on how current talks to restore power-sharing with the Democratic Unionist Party play out.

Under Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin are engaged in a stand-off with the DUP, first triggered by the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017. They are refusing to reform the Executive – which requires the participation of both sides of the political divide – until the DUP agree to key equality measures such as same-sex marriage and a standalone Irish language act.

Those talks, chaired by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, are ongoing, but the stakes are high for Sinn Féin. If they are seen to concede on their demands to achieve a deal, they may face criticism and lose votes in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, if they allow the governing of the region to revert to London under direct rule, their opponents in the Republic of Ireland will reiterate their claims that the party is not ready for government.

Ms McDonald and Ms O’Neill are tasked with leading forward on Sinn Féin’s ultimate goal of uniting Ireland, but first they must stabilise the political system in the north, and prove their mettle in the south.