Mary Lou McDonald’s mother is from a dairy farm in south Tipperary, but she’s still expecting “terrible stick” for her wellies at the National Ploughing Championships this week.
I land in and they say ‘here comes this one from Dublin’… it’s the first thing I’m asked — people actually have taken pictures of my wellies,” she says. “I’ve got a selection. I’ve got very nice floral wellingtons, so I think I might wear them.”
The Sinn Féin leader, who grew up in Rathgar in South Dublin, says it was her Tipperary mother who raised her and her siblings to have an interest in what’s happening around them, including politics.
“I’m not sure that it’s even a case of being attracted to politics as such,” says Ms McDonald. “I’ve always been very interested in the world around me. I mean, that’s how I was raised. I come from a household where there always would have been a debate, discussion, arguments if I’m honest about it too.
“So for me, there wasn’t a moment where all of a sudden I got interested in what was happening. I always would have had that. I come from a Republican family.”
Her grandmother’s brother James was executed in the Curragh almost a century ago. “So I come from strong republican stock. So I have I suppose, as a matter of DNA, but also as a matter of political belief, a very strong view on the national question — the need for national reunification. I believe and I’ve always believed that is the best plan for all of us.
“And I also believe in social justice, fairness, equality, all of those things. So although I didn’t grow up with, you know, in a ‘Sinn Féin family’, whatever that might be, Sinn Féin was and remains the obvious political party for me because it’s that blend of national politics, the issue of ending partition, Irish reunification, but also social justice, equality and fairness.”
She will lead the charge, along with the party’s spokesperson on agriculture Matt Carthy, at the Ploughing this week to deliver their message to farmers and rural Ireland.
“Almost all farmers will be much better off under a Sinn Féin government,” she says, with their alternative budget proposals including increased supports to suckler farmers, improvements to the sheep welfare and ANC schemes, and emergency crisis funding for vulnerable sectors, while she confirmed the party supports the extension of the existing agriculture reliefs. She says the farming vote has always been important to Sinn Féin: “That is why we took the Department of Agriculture in the Northern Ireland Executive twice.
“Sinn Féin wants to deliver for our family farmers, and those rural communities that depend on them, in government. We believe that farmers deserve change as much as anyone — too many of them have been let down by successive governments.”
The current inflation crisis and the cost of living, which is hitting all voters’ pockets she cites is worse than that of the 1970s and her message is that Sinn Fein could do a better job than the incumbent government.
“My first message would be that we in Sinn Féin, more than the Government, have a closer understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground,” she says. “That we have brought forward policies, positions and ideas that would be of benefit to those families in those communities.
“I’m anxious that the message is heard that rural communities matter, the loss of services — everything from banking services to Garda stations, there’s been a loss of services by stealth over the last number of years — and I’ve been in the Dail while a lot of that happened and we’ve been very, very consistent in pushing back against that.”
But there is no such thing as a free lunch, she says, and the party is proposing that anyone earning more than €140,000 would pay “slightly more income tax because you’ve broader shoulders, you have deeper pockets, so you can pay a bit more”.
That would impact a lot of dairy farmers this year who are enjoying record milk prices. However, she says the party is very clear that a wealth tax would exclude businesses and working farmland.
“My mother comes from a dairy farm in south Tipperary and we are very clear that there is a distinction to be made between farmers that are out working the land.
“Farmers are not a homogenous group. There are very large concerns and then there are very small farmers. So as with any other section of society, of course there are differentials in terms of income, so it’s income based,” she says.
“Our taxation policies will benefit lower and middle earners, which includes the vast majority of farmers. In order to fund public services during this time, we will ask high-earners to pay a three per cent solidarity surcharge only on individual earnings over €140,000. I believe most farmers will consider that fair.
“Our wealth tax proposal does not apply to working farmland.”
Ms McDonald has met the Ulster Farmers Union recently, but not the main farming organisations south of the border to hear their concerns. Recent criticism of Sinn Féin has centred around its position on climate change policies and with agriculture facing a 25pc reduction in emissions, Ms McDonald does not say if the target is fair or not, but that the focus now must be on how to achieve it.
“I think every sector has to lift their fair share of the load,” she says. “And agriculture is no different to other sections of society. I think setting targets is one thing, but realising and achieving targets is another.
“So I think what needs to happen in respect of agriculture, instead of people trading numbers at a high level, we actually need to figure out how do you actually do this and what’s the methodology.
“I’ve heard both sets of those arguments and the benchmark has been set at 25pc, so the question now is, in real time to find methods to get to that or as close to that as we can.”
She says much of the blame for where the sector finds itself can be laid at the feet of previous governments, especially with dairy.
“Here’s the question for the political system — having driven this policy of intensification very aggressively, very actively, domestically and at a European level, now Houston, we have a problem and the question is what do we do about it?
“The answer clearly is not to come along, shaking a big stick at farmers who simply followed the trajectory of Irish policy. We do need to change things, we do need viable pathways to diversification.”
As regards food inflation and the price farmers receive or their produce, she recalls visiting the Beef Plan protests outside factory gates in 2019.
“Matt [Carthy] and I, a couple of years ago at the Beef Plan Protest, heard how let down they [farmers] felt.”
While the Minister for Agriculture is creating the role of a Food Ombudsman, she says all this will do is publish available information .
“That’s not what we need — we need a food regulator,” she says. “We actually need an entity with real powers, with real scope and with real teeth, that can get to the full facts, get to things like beneficial ownership, that can actually see the books and that would have powers of corporate enforcement.
“You need something with teeth if farms are to be viable. Suckler farms, in terms of environmental damage, do not do a whole pile, but are not viable. So who is getting fat in this chain? Where’s the money going? We need to know about that.”
‘I think it’s wrong for Micheál to just pass the baton to Leo’
While the Government will currently be “reading the political tea leaves”, according to Mary Lou McDonald, she doesn’t believe they will be in any hurry to the electorate.
“The evidence is that they’re limbering up now to hand the baton from Micheál to Leo on December 15, which I think is wrong,” she says.
“I passionately believe that we don’t need simply a change of Taoiseach, we need a change of government. And I think that change in the office of the Taoiseach should only happen with the say so of the electorate. I think it’s wrong to kind of have it as almost a personal fiefdom that’s passed between one hand to the other.”
According to Ms McDonald, Sinn Féin’s success in the 2020 General Election took all politicians, including herself, by surprise.
“I think, on reflection, the electors were well ahead of all the political parties in that election, ourselves included if I’m really honest. I think people in great numbers decided that they wished to see a change. I think people in great numbers came to the conclusion that it doesn’t have to be, you know, a choice between Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael — that in fact Sinn Féin is now a viable alternative and option.
“I think people, and this sentiment has increased actually even since that election, want to give someone else, want to give Sinn Féin a chance just to do things differently.
“Because if you look at the kind of social difficulties that we face, whether that’s the treatment of rural Ireland, the successive failures, for example, at decentralisation even though there’s been a lot of rhetoric around that, the catastrophic failure around housing and accommodation — what you see is these crises have been very, very long in the making.
“It’s not that one government or one administration took bad calls. It’s a whole succession of governments have taken bad calls and then reinforced those bad calls again and again. And I think we managed to communicate in a number of key policy areas that we had a different approach.”
Commentary that the party didn’t run enough candidates in the last general election is something she’s given up trying to explain. “And in the beginning, I used to try and explain so it — ‘well in fairness to me, we’ve had the local and European elections’. I’ve given that up now, so I just issue a full and wholesome apology for making that mistake and let me reassure you, I will not, and we will not, make that mistake again.
“I’d like to say this very clearly — I’m not one bit arrogant about our political fortunes. I’m at this a long time and I know you earn your place, you earn people’s trust. So at the moment, our focus is on working very, very hard and when the next election comes, whenever that might be, we will go and say to people, ‘there is an alternative’.”
When asked about those who may be reticent about voting for Sinn Féin and how she intends to change attitudes among those living in rural Ireland who associate the party with paramilitaries, she says she has lived through those times as well.
“I think all of us recognise that Ireland has moved on and things have changed. Next year, we will mark 25 years of peace. Generations of people born on this island who have never, thank God, seen conflict or known a day’s trouble.
“We will continue to work in partnership with others. People in rural Ireland and elsewhere will have seen Michelle O’Neill, our Deputy Leader and First Minister Designate in the North, meet King Charles so warmly. I hope that people have a sense of confidence in terms of the incredible progress that has been made.
“And it’s important that people have a sense of that progress, not simply so they’ll vote for Sinn Féin. People are fully entitled to vote for whomsoever they wish and to make their political choices, but this is something that’s bigger than party politics.”
Ms McDonald admits that while their polling numbers are very strong, she says: “It takes a lot, you know, to win outright an overall majority. That would be a stunning and historic result.
“I’m conscious of the need for us to work with others. And if the Irish people are so minded and give us that mandate, that would be a historic achievement. I wouldn’t bet my house on it. That’s a big ask. That’s a big, big ask.”
She says the best outcome from the next election would be a new government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
“I also said at that time [the last general election], the worst outcome would be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together and I really feel that my position on that has been vindicated over the last number of years with these two in government together.
“So after the election, when the votes are counted, we’ll talk to everybody. I say that because I believe that when the votes are counted, you have to be respectful of people’s democratic choices and wishes.
“You also have to conduct yourself like an adult. I remember after the last election and during the election, the two men leading Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were tripping over each other to rule us out and to rule me out. I don’t think that’s the way to go about things. We would talk to everyone.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/news/politics/mary-lou-mcdonald-interview-almost-all-farmers-will-be-much-better-off-under-a-sinn-fein-government-says-sinn-fein-leader-42002343.html Mary-Lou McDonald interview: ‘Almost all farmers will be much better off under a Sinn Féin government,’ says Sinn Féin leader