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Author Shane Ross at Ennis Bookshop, where he signed copies of his book on Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph by John Kelly

Ross biography puts Mary Lou under the spotlight

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LATE November and December is the peak book-selling time, and the author of a new major Irish political biography was in Ennis last week.

Former TD Shane Ross came to town to sign copies of Mary Lou McDonald – A Republican Riddle, which grapples with an intriguing but often unasked question: how did a private school and Trinity College-educated South Dublin woman become leader of Sinn Féin of all parties?

There are other questions, such as why Mary Lou wasn’t active at all in politics until her late twenties? Even when she joined a party it was Fianna Fáil; where was her commitment to republicanism?

And, perhaps most worryingly in many people’s eyes, to what extent is she really the leader or are ‘shadowy figures’ in West Belfast in control of the party that won most first preference votes in the last General Election?

Of particular Clare interest is the experience of Violet Anne Wynne, who Ross spoke to in his research, and who left Sinn Féin earlier this year.

“She feels badly treated, you know the story (about unpaid rent). She feels that as a woman, and someone who was disadvantaged and got herself into difficulty, she didn’t get a very sympathetic audience from Mary Lou.

“I talked to her about this for the book and she felt that the situation wasn’t treated as sympathetically as it might have been, because obviously it’s a party that champions the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

“I spoke to Violet Anne at some length on the telephone and I met her as well and I think she’s a very industrious TD,” he says.

Ross was a fellow TD of Mary Lou’s for several years, while they both served on the Public Accounts Committee.

He was and still is quite well disposed towards her on a personal level, but says that writing the book led him to understand that he hadn’t known the SF leader nearly as well as he thought he did.

“There’s a big mystery about Mary Lou and that’s why I wrote the book, I wanted to find out more about her. I knew her, I knew her quite well, but the more I found out about her the less I felt I had known her originally.

“There’s so much more to her that she hasn’t told us. A lot of it is to do with her family background, her family background is very interesting and something that she doesn’t talk about very much. But it’s all there in the book.”

Few would realise that Mary Lou has a sibling who was designated male at birth but who has transitioned to female, and there is lots more about her background that relatively few people knew before this book.

“Her father was very wild and that’s something that wasn’t known at all. It’s thought that her family background was prosperous, but it wasn’t particularly prosperous.

“The house she lived in wasn’t one that they owned, but she did have a private education. One of the things I pull at throughout is how someone who has a private education, how do they manage to become leader of Sinn Féin?

“It’s an unlikely end for someone from those beginnings. She was privileged in the sense she had a third level education at Trinity College Dublin, she had a second level education at a fee paying school, so she was a very unlikely choice for leader of Sinn Féin, but she did achieve that.”

While Ross has no doubt that McDonald would only favour peaceful means of advancing Sinn Féin policy, he says it is very unclear how much sway former terrorists hold.

“I think there’s no question of going back to violence, she’s absolutely commited against violence. I think the IRA is finished, certainly.

“The people who were there at the time are still part of the apparatus, people like Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly are still very influential of course.

“People who have been on the Army Council can be seen at the Ard Fheiseanna. I’ve been to two Ard Fheiseanna in the last two years in a press capacity and you can see there are a large number of people who were involved in the IRA who are still influential in the party and are very present.

“How much influence they have is very difficult to know, but the commitment of Mary Lou to peace is absolute. How much she listens to these people on other issues is difficult to know.”

He also questions where McDonald’s republicanism comes from and he doesn’t take her explanations at face value.

“She says it was the hunger strikes and her background, she has a nationalist background in Tipperary, and the hunger strikes happened when she was 12. She calls it her Road to Damascus moment.

“But if they had that dramatic effect, why did she do absolutely nothing about her republican beliefs, which she proclaims, until she was about 28 or 29?

“She was a great debater at school but showed no signs of nationalist convictions at that stage. She went through Trinity College Dublin, where there’s every opportunity for someone interested in any kind of political party or anyone with political convictions or who is interested in campaigns or politics or ideology, but she didn’t have anything to do with any of them.

“She joined Fianna Fáil later, after Trinity. There must be a question mark, which is addressed in the book, about those convictions which she said she had at the age of 12 but that didn’t actually surface until she was about 29.”

Whatever about any convictions McDonald may hold, Ross feels she is a pretty typical leader of a major Irish political party, in that she wants to tell people what they want to hear.

“Most politicians tender their convictions according to what is the most pragmatic road to power and I don’t think Mary Lou is very different in that.

“She was chosen to be the leader because she is seen as the vehicle to power for Sinn Féin. In other words they see her as the middle class, urban, broadening of the base.

“I think the fact that she has moved so much towards the middle, and you don’t hear her talking about republicanism or socialism, very much indicates that she is trying to sit in that middle ground where she isn’t going to offend anybody.

“You don’t hear her talking about feminism, socialism or republicanism an awful lot. She’ll talk about housing and hospitals much more comfortably, she’s going into a position which will get her power rather than going way out on ideological campaigns which might offend a lot of people.”

While it is not a certainty, he feels there is a very good chance that she will be Ireland’s first female Taoiseach after the next general election, and whatever is said in advance, he believes the two other big parties will enter negotiations with Sinn Féin.

“No doubt. They’ll make a lot of noises beforehand about what terrible individuals they all are and their past, but they will talk to them. I’m sure that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will talk to them.

“In Fine Gael there may be a lot of people on the backbenches who don’t want to go into government and who may stop them going in, but the likelihood is Fianna Fáil will talk to them seriously. And Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil is the most likely government.”

Ireland being led by Sinn Féin would be quite remarkable given the party was widely despised less than a generation ago, and having Mary Lou in the Taoiseach’s office would be something those who knew the younger version of her would never have foreseen, says Ross.

“She got a reasonable degree, she was okay at school but unremarkable, her teachers are somewhat surprised she got so far, none of them would have suggested she was destined for anything like this at all, they’re very surprised by it which is one of the interesting parts of the book.

“She has good political nous, she knows which way the wind is blowing pretty quickly and knows how to jump on a bandwagon very well indeed. She is very strong on rhetoric, weak on detail on the whole, but very good to think on her feet.

“I was on the Public Accounts Committee with her for quite a long time and she was very able on that. She’s not a big thinker or a big visionary at all, but in terms of operating and seeing around corners politically, she’s very strong. And she’s got great interpersonal skills, like Bertie Ahern.”

While Sinn Féin have struck a chord with many thousands of people, it’s also fair to say that thousands of others are genuinely concerned about the prospect of a far left party taking power.

However, Ross feels that like with most political parties, what Sinn Féin does in power won’t be what it promises.

“The most likely thing, and I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty, is that she’ll be Taoiseach. The most likely thing is she’ll be a Taoiseach who has to cut back a lot on her promises very, very quickly.

“They can’t fulfill everything they’ve promised in a very short period of time. That will probably normalise the party fairly quickly, into a normal middle of the road, practical party, which is dependent on another party.”

He says that he understands the concern, but believes a large pinch of salt needs to be taken when one listens to Sinn Féin, something that applies to the rhetoric of virtually all Irish parties. “If you believe they intend to do everything they say they will do you would be concerned.

“But that’s kind of fairlyand, you’re not going to get the housing problems solved the day they get into power, not going to solve the health service just like that.

“If they went out and borrowed too much money the credit rating of the country would plunge. I see no signs that people like Pearse Doherty and David Cullinane are wildly irresponsible.

“They’re intelligent, they know the limitations of what they can do, and so does she. She doesn’t show any ideological commitments really, so I don’t think she’s going to have a problem being pragmatic.”

The signs are there that SF won’t be as severe on business if you look, he adds.

“Mary Lou is going to IBEC dinners, that’s some sacrifice to make with your life!”

It’s sometimes said that if Sinn Féin are in power on both sides of the border there will be momentum for a border poll, but Ross says it won’t happen, because the party know it would probably fail.

“I don’t think Mary Lou wants one, not for a minute. She has back pedalled on the urgency of it. She’s now talking about needing a conversation. But it’s a very good flag for her to fly.”

He said that she has recently suggested a People’s Convention, which he feels would be a talking shop with no end product.

“It’s a guaranteed way of delaying a border poll.”

All that said, he does feels there will be some changes if SF does take the lead from the long established pattern of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led administrations.

“It’ll be a bit different to that. There will be commitments to more radical policies, but they’ll have to moderate them.”

Mary Lou is a major figure in Irish life and may play a far bigger role in the coming years, but understanding her and what drives her is not simple, he feels.

“I like her, I always have liked her. But what I now find is that I thought I knew her quite well before I wrote the book and now I’ve written the book and gone into a lot of detail about her beliefs and her activities, I feel I don’t know her nearly as well as I thought.”

Owen Ryan
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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.