McDon­ald’s po­lit­i­cal strat­egy start­ing to un­ravel

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Pat Leahy

This is the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod so far in Mary Lou McDon­ald’s lead­er­ship of Sinn Féin.

The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was a dis­as­ter for the party. Brexit is fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion on the party’s ab­di­ca­tion of its re­spon­si­bil­ity to form an ad­min­is­tra­tion at Stor­mont. And, per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, Brexit has un­der­mined her medium-term po­lit­i­cal strat­egy of coali­tion with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

This is not a cri­sis for McDon­ald’s lead­er­ship; her polling num­bers are high (if a bit flaky, I think) and party dis­ci­pline wouldn’t per­mit open op­po­si­tion. But it is a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. First the elec­tion de­ba­cle. Not sur­pris­ingly, there are sig­nif­i­cant mis­giv­ings within the party over the dread­ful re­sult it achieved in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The party’s can­di­date Li­adh Ní Ri­ada won just 6 per cent of the vote, less than half the party’s 2016 gen­eral elec­tion sup­port. The ex­pec­ta­tion at lead­er­ship level that she would pocket the party’s 15 per cent base and win enough ex­tra votes to bring her over 20 per cent was badly mis­judged, and the ex­e­cu­tion of the cam­paign was poor. She be­gan talk­ing about a united Ire­land, and ended talk­ing about fight­ing aus­ter­ity – and nei­ther mes­sage re­motely con­nected with the vot­ers. Af­ter ev­ery elec­tion, Sinn Féin con­ducts what I un­der­stand is a pretty frank post­mortem to as­cer­tain les­sons from the cam­paign. Though it is al­ways dif­fi­cult to see in­side the party (es­pe­cially at times of stress) we can pre­sume this process is tak­ing place at the mo­ment. It is un­likely to be a com­fort­able one for McDon­ald and her lead­er­ship team.

Ex­tra­di­tion warrant

Nor­mally in such cir­cum­stances, the party hun­kers down and re­as­sures its base. Last week, with the ar­rest on an ex­tra­di­tion warrant of John Downey, saw the party do just that – sev­eral TDs turned up at the court hear­ing to sup­port the for­mer IRA man, who faces charges in the North in re­la­tion to the killing of two British sol­diers in 1972. This was a mes­sage to the grass­roots: we stand by our peo­ple, no mat­ter what. It will re­as­sure the foot­sol­diers – but it makes it harder for the McDon­ald project of reach­ing out to the mid­dle-class swing vot­ers who have time for her, but not for her party’s past. Be­ing an ef­fec­tive leader re­quires ad­di­tional skills and judg­ment not re­quired of or­di­nary TDs. McDon­ald is an able par­lia­men­tary and me­dia per­former, quick on her feet, un­ruf­fled un­der fire and pos­sessed of a sharp tongue. But her ten­dency to flog ev­ery mi­nor po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy or story of the day for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage un­der­mines her abil­ity to land real po­lit­i­cal hits on big is­sues. Af­ter all, if ev­ery­thing is a cri­sis, noth­ing is a cri­sis.

For one ex­am­ple, her judg­ment when the cer­vi­cal screen­ing con­tro­versy first broke was se­ri­ously ques­tion­able. She re­peat­edly sug­gested that the HSE’s fail­ure to in­form women about their missed smears had re­tarded or im­peded their treat­ment, with pos­si­bly fa­tal re­sults. This was ut­terly un­true, but in the febrile at­mos­phere of the time she got away with it.

A more se­ri­ous chal­lenge for her will be the un­rav­el­ling of the coali­tion strat­egy in the face of Brexit. McDon­ald’s po­lit­i­cal strat­egy is to make Sinn Féin avail­able as a coali­tion part­ner for ei­ther Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil af­ter the next elec­tion – on the ba­sis that Fianna Fáil (prob­a­bly the smaller party) will not want a re­peat of the cur­rent con­fi­dence-and-sup­ply ar­range­ment in the likely event of an­other hung Dáil. Coali­tion in Dublin would be saleable to the party grass­roots only if the move ad­vanced its united Ire­land agenda. So the price for Sinn Féin’s sup­port for a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil taoiseach would be a White Pa­per on Ir­ish unity within a year or two of tak­ing of­fice, and prob­a­bly McDon­ald her­self as min­is­ter for for­eign af­fairs to pro­mote that process. With Sinn Féin in Gov­ern­ment in Dublin, and soon af­ter­wards, if not be­fore, in gov­ern­ment in Stor­mont as well, Sinn Féin min­is­ters would em­bark on un­prece­dented for­mal and in­for­mal North-South co-op­er­a­tion. But in a post-Brexit world, with union­ist nerves on a hair trig­ger, would Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil re­ally bring Sinn Féin into gov­ern­ment?

Per­haps they would. The prospect of power can over­come a lot of scru­ples. But se­nior fig­ures in both par­ties tell me: ab­so­lutely not. There is rea­son to think they may not be bluff­ing: Micheál Mar­tin has al­ready demon­strated a will­ing­ness to forgo of­fice. Fine Gael’s cul­tural re­sis­tance to Sinn Féin re­mains im­mense. Michael McGrath and Paschal Dono­hoe talk a lot about the virtues of the re­spon­si­ble cen­tre of pol­i­tics. Se­nior peo­ple in both par­ties be­lieve that tur­bocharg­ing the united Ire­land agenda at gov­ern­ment level would risk a dan­ger­ous alien­ation of union­ists dur­ing a time of in­sta­bil­ity and un­cer­tainty.

Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in North

At the same time as her strat­egy is un­rav­el­ling, McDon­ald stands ac­cused – along with the DUP – of duck­ing the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of of­fice in the North. What­ever Sinn Féin’s scru­ples over the re­new­able-heat in­cen­tive con­tro­versy, and its con­cerns over same-sex mar­riage and an Ir­ish lan­guage Act, the con­tin­u­ing re­fusal to form an ad­min­is­tra­tion that would give the North a voice is like re­fus­ing to put on a life jacket when the ship is sink­ing be­cause you don’t like the colour.

The North is at the very cen­tre of the process, yet it re­mains with­out a voice – not be­cause its politi­cians have been de­lib­er­ately ex­cluded from the process, but be­cause they can­not agree with one an­other. They are be­hav­ing like chil­dren, con­tent to let the adults in Dublin, Lon­don and Brus­sels de­cide what is best for them, rather than tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own ac­tions, tak­ing con­trol of their own fu­ture. But they are not chil­dren. They are adults, with adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. They should live up to them.

Her ten­dency to flog ev­ery mi­nor po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy or story of the day for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage un­der­mines her abil­ity to land real po­lit­i­cal hits on big is­sues

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