It was a challenge posed to Mary Lou McDonald. Something she knew she couldn’t avoid.
The inn Féin has just presented the relatively obscure fugitive from Fianna Fáil with a nomination for a prized European seat, and the group wants to test her mettle.
It was September 2003 and she was invited by the organization to share the background in Fairview Park with Brian Keenan, a one-time member of the IRA Military Council.
The August event was a tribute to Seán Russell, a ruthless terrorist who boasted about 300 wartime raids by the IRA in Britain. The worst example is the 1939 murder of five people with a bomb placed in stores in Coventry. He was also a Nazi collaborator who took his last breath on a German U-boat in 1940.
McDonald, the Dubliner district in the young south, belongs to the middle class that Gerry Adams wishes to pursue quickly, is in a bind. Refusing to attend would expose her ideological weakness in the eyes of those who adhere to the party’s doctrine.
Sinn Féin grandees called the activists after the party’s Troubles “draft evaders” and instead, their mettle was tested in various ways. McDonald’s struggle is not an armed struggle. Instead, she will have to fight with her conscience.
McDonald’s suffered one of the most militant of all IRA leaders calling out Patrick Pearse’s name in praise of a fascist collaborator. Her presence and approval signal submission. Or at least that’s how it seems.
McDonald, the leader of the most popular party in the country and likely a future trainer, is just as she was two decades ago. To borrow a phrase Winston Churchill designed for Stalin’s Soviet Union, she is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery within a mystery. Is she a devoted republican, provo killer campaign supporter, an opportunist and shameless politician or someone truly committed to social justice?
You won’t find the answer by analyzing her speeches, or picking out Sinn Féin’s scattered populist policies. It’s best to go back, as Shane Ross does in this bio, to where she came from to find out where she can take us.
Mary Lou was less than a year old when, one summer night in 1970, her father Paddy was in a car accident that completely changed his life and destroyed his promising construction business. At the age of 10, her parents’ marriage broke down.
Whenever she was asked to recount her childhood in Rathgar, her father received little recognition. Instead, a consistent theme emerges of a girl shaped and molded by the powerful women around her at different times.
Her stoic mother, Joan, who raised four children in often difficult circumstances, is considered the main one among them. Mary Lou’s republican maternal grandmother Molly of Tipperary, her politically radical sister Joanne, and Nora Comiskey, a Fianna Fáil veteran, all provided believable stepping stones to what would become a unorthodox political pilgrimage.
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While leader Sinn Féin attributed the 1981 hunger strike to her political revelation, she kept this Damascene transition to herself through school and even university.
She blends comfortably into Notre Dame des Missions ethos and her teachers never see the slightest hint of republicanism or social radicalism. At Trinity, reading literature, she was completely out of line.
Neither contemporary Ivana Bacik nor David Norris, for whom she enjoyed lectures, have no vaguest recollection of her.
It was only when, in the mid-1990s, Mary Lou met Comiskey – a Fianna Fáil singer with strong connections to Joe Cahill, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams – that it happened.
McDonald then denied ever being a member of Fianna Fáil, even though she spoke at the 1998 convention. Perhaps it was young Brian Lenihan’s iron grip on the Dublin West constituency that prompted pushed her party switch and subsequent amnesia.
While carefully raised by Sinn Féin, it took her 11 years to get a Dáil seat, a hole in her resume interrupted by a position in the European Parliament best remembered for her poor attendance record.
McDonald won the third round of the 2011 general election. She has never looked back. To land a position on the prestigious Public Accounts Committee, she began to make a name for herself.
Ross sat on the same committee and watched her with growing fascination. He makes the reader doubt her dynamism.
No controversy over the construction of the Cabra ‘mansion’ she shares with husband Martin Lanigan and their two children, nor the embarrassing scandal of Máría Cahill that could dent McDonald’s long-term popularity.
When Gerry Adams finally stepped down from leading the Sinn Féin in February 2018, McDonald was the anointed. With the tedium of internal democracy so often overlooked in the organization, this was a coronation.
The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, most of it has yet to be written. Ross has written a fascinating story about this chameleon’s career so far. A good achievement considering the party slammed every possible door in his face.
Subsequent episodes will hopefully succeed in answering some of the questions posed here. In the meantime, McDonald’s will be happy if we keep guessing.
Biography: Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Quiz by Shane Ross
Atlantic book, 403 pages, paperback € 23.80; eBook £7.47
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/book-review-shane-ross-gets-us-closer-to-the-real-mary-lou-mcdonald-42036937.html Book Review: Shane Ross Brings Us Closer To The Real Mary Lou McDonald