Mary Lou McDonald strides into a conference hall in a chic Belfast hotel to present her party’s candidates for Thursday’s Northern Ireland elections. The Sinn Féin president takes to the podium, puts on her glasses and gives a dazzling smile.
Expertly hitting her key messages — that a vote for the nationalist party is essential for real change, effective government and tackling the cost-of-living crisis — she proceeds to dispatch a question about whether her drive to reunite the north and south of the island after a century of partition would distract from the pressing economic issues.
“People are capable of focusing on multiple things. It’s like multitasking,” she says, without missing a beat. “Even men can do it.”
A good-natured girl power joke from the charismatic 53-year-old mother-of-two is typical of how successfully a party long associated with the paramilitary Irish Republican Army has reinvented itself in recent years. It puts to the fore what David Ford, former leader of Northern Ireland’s centrist Alliance party, calls Sinn Féin’s “fluffier side that makes them look more acceptable and more respectable”.
And possibly more electable. Almost a quarter of a century after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles — three decades of violence between republicans fighting to drive out the British and loyalists battling to remain in the UK in which more than 3,500 died — polls predict Sinn Féin will be the biggest party for the first time in Northern Ireland, which was created with a unionist majority in 1921. In the deeply divided region, that would be a historic shift.
Sinn Féin has served in Northern Ireland’s post conflict power-sharing executive for the past 15 years. South of the border, it is untested, but McDonald propelled the party to within an inch of office in Dublin in 2020 and is vying to become Taoiseach, or prime minister, in elections due by early 2025.
In the south Sinn Féin has zeroed in on Ireland’s housing crisis. Its promise to double spending on affordable homes has helped rake in more than two and a half times more young voters than the traditional main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It leads them by at least 10 points, thanks to plans that include higher taxes on the rich and slashing childcare costs.
But it is the party’s relationship with the Provisional IRA during the Troubles that its opponents can neither forgive nor forget.
It partly explains the outrage from relatives of IRA victims when longtime party leader Gerry Adams — who took Sinn Féin from IRA proxy to peacemaker and handed the baton to McDonald in 2018 — posted a video skit of himself singing the Irish republican slogan Tiocfaidh ár lá (“Our day will come”) to the tune of a Christmas carol, seemingly making light of IRA violence. The sketch ended with the line “they haven’t gone away, you know” — a reference to a quip Adams made about the IRA in 1995. The IRA ceasefire the previous year marked the beginning of the end of the Troubles.
McDonald initially ignored the controversy, prompting critics to say she follows orders from the veteran leader — a suggestion she rejects. But in a rare display of dissent in a secretive party known for its rigid discipline and obedience, Eoin Ó Broin, the party’s widely respected housing spokesman in the republic, broke ranks to criticise Adams. The next day, he appeared to backpedal.
Ó Broin rejects any notion of shadowy figures from the past pulling the party’s strings, and Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin vice-president and leader in Northern Ireland, says it’s “misogynistic — they don’t ask males if there are women behind them making all the decisions”.
Máiría Cahill, who says she was raped by a senior IRA figure when she was a teenager and forced before a paramilitary kangaroo court, says frustrations at McDonald’s response to Sinn Féin’s handling of what happened to her “tells me that those people in Belfast who were involved in my case had more clout than she did”. McDonald in 2018 apologised to Cahill “unreservedly” and denied there had been a cover-up. Earlier this year the Sinn Féin leader said she wanted to “amplify” that apology “fully and sincerely”.
However, the presence of the party leadership standing deferentially with senior republican royalty for the June 2020 funeral of Bobby Storey, considered the IRA’s intelligence chief, rekindled suggestions the paramilitary group’s old army council is not dead.
“The shadowy figures haven’t gone away,” says Shane Ross, an Irish former independent politician and author of a book on McDonald due out this year. “They are still active members of Sinn Féin and they are not twiddling their thumbs.”
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams and vice-president Michelle O’Neill follow mourners at the funeral of Bobby Storey, a former senior IRA figure © Shutterstock
Bridging the north-south divide
Northern Ireland’s model of mandatory cross-community coalitions, implemented to keep the political peace since 1998, means Sinn Féin has two very different realities in the north and south of the island. McDonald is not standing in Thursday’s election for the Stormont assembly, but as party leader, she has been a figurehead for the campaign.
With its leftist rhetoric and populist promises, Sinn Féin polls well ahead of its traditional rivals, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in the Republic of Ireland among middle-aged and middle-class voters. It has promised millions in welfare payments, affordable homes and “fair” taxes with increases for higher earners that analysts see as ambitious but not necessarily disastrous for state finances.
But its relentless focus on grassroots issues — like an Irish property market that has become so “severely unaffordable” that house prices rose more than three times average wages between 2012 and 2020, according to a parliamentary report — has made it a favourite of the young, many of whom do not recall the Troubles.
“Nothing new is going to come out about the IRA — the public have factored that into their vote,” says one senior Irish official in Dublin, who credited Sinn Féin with speaking to voters “in an authentic way”.
“In the south, Sinn Féin is the party of protest — a thorn in the side of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil,” says Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at the University of Ulster.”
But in Northern Ireland, she says it is ironic that a party in government for a decade and a half is positioning itself as the only way to secure the real change. “They’re like Schrödinger’s cat — in power and opposition at the same time.”
Power-sharing has been fraught. The ability of either side to torpedo the Stormont executive — as Sinn Féin did in 2017 and the largest unionist force, the Democratic Unionist party, did earlier this year — means it has lurched from crisis to crisis.
The DUP has refused to return to government unless post-Brexit trading arrangements known as the Northern Ireland protocol — which it says are imperilling Northern Ireland’s UK status — are scrapped. It has also failed to commit to serving as deputy first minister if Sinn Féin clinch the better-sounding, but in fact identical, position of first minister. That could keep Stormont dormant for months whatever the election outcome.
Sinn Féin’s task in Northern Ireland is “pitching the persuadables . . . because they were angry at the DUP”, says Chris Donnelly, a commentator and former member of the nationalist party.
Agnès Maillot, a professor at Dublin City University and author of a book on Sinn Féin, Rebels in Government, says the party is “playing an intricate game” — moving to the middle in Northern Ireland, because “they can’t grow any more in the nationalist community”, and to the left in the south.
The flexible party
That ability to read and react to changing circumstances has invited criticism that Sinn Féin’s principles are elastic. Formerly opposed to the EU, it now espouses the Northern Ireland protocol and has U-turned on a soft stance towards Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. In March, the party wiped nearly two decades of statements from its website. Amid criticism that it was trying to airbrush elements of its history, the party says it is “in the process of building a new website and archiving outdated content”.
“They see which way the wind is blowing,” says Heenan, “and they blow with it.”
That does not extend to what republicans call the “armed struggle”. McDonald and the party leadership “have to show they are still loyal to the memory of the IRA — and they won’t budge from that because it’s still important for their constituency,” Maillot says.
At the same time, Sinn Féin has ruthlessly purged from its ticket big name republicans who could detract from its new image, like convicted IRA bomber and longtime legislator Martina Anderson, who was released from jail under the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP says that a vote for its nationalist rivals will hasten a poll on Irish reunification. The issue remains central for Sinn Féin: McDonald says Ireland is living “the end days of partition” and a poll on Irish reunification could happen in five to 10 years. But when it mentions the issue at all in campaigning for Thursday’s vote, Sinn Féin highlights a need for “partnership” with unionists.
In the south, the party has gone “from strength to strength,” says Pat Cullen, a youth worker in Ballyfermot, a crime-hit suburb of south-west Dublin, where he helps run a boxing club to keep teenagers out of the local drugs trade. He praises Sinn Féin’s commitment to neighbourhood concerns. “People say they turn up [to meetings on social issues] at the drop of a hat. But they’ve made it their business to be there,” he adds.
With thousands of people impoverished when the Celtic Tiger boom years turned to bust more than a decade ago, Sinn Féin has tapped into the progressive, anti-establishment zeitgeist of a country that has seen rapid social change including the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion.
But it has not been plain sailing. It had a disastrous showing at local and European elections in 2019, two years into McDonald’s tenure, before regrouping and rebounding to clinch a quarter of first preference votes and come just one seat behind Fianna Fáil in Ireland’s 2020 general election.
The traditional parties were spooked by the prospect of tax hikes. And Sinn Féin lacked the numbers to form a leftist coalition government leaving it shut out of power. But it had finally arrived — in 21st-century Ireland, it was now electable.
A united Ireland?
In Northern Ireland, that path to respectability had been trodden by Martin McGuinness, who pulled off the unlikely transition from IRA chieftain to suit-clad politician, shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II and serving as respected deputy first minister for a decade before his death in 2017.
But it is Adams who is credited with Sinn Féin’s reinvention. “He sees things 100 miles down the road,” says Aoife Moore, a journalist with the Irish Examiner who is writing a book on Sinn Féin.
The bearded republican, who has always denied being an IRA member, was once viewed by the British and Irish governments as so toxic that his gravelly voice could not be broadcast on state airwaves. But he helped move the IRA beyond its 1980s “Armalite and the ballot box” strategy of parallel military and political campaigns, to peace.
Moore says he recognised the party needed a new face at the helm. “He saw that if you want things to improve, if you want a united Ireland, it has to be Mary Lou,” she adds. “And it does seem he’s right.”
A privately educated, middle-class woman from affluent South Dublin, McDonald cut her teeth politically with a brief stint in Fianna Fáil and has never been part of the IRA. A shrewd politician, her most stringent test is likely to be whether she can deliver on ambitious policy promises. As for unification, that too is a challenge: polls show six out of 10 Irish people in the south want it, provided it does not mean paying higher taxes. In Northern Ireland, only 17 per cent of total voters see Irish unity as a top concern.
Liam Swaine, 85, who was born in 1937, the year Ireland adopted a new constitution and the official name Éire, is sceptical. “They’re too fond of the gun,” he says of Sinn Féin as he tends his allotment in Dublin.
Sinn Féin taking power in the south would mark a “radical change,” the Irish official says, and “a commitment to moving very quickly to plan for a united Ireland because its membership would demand it”.
The groundwork has already begun: around St Patrick’s day in March, US sympathisers placed pro-unity adverts in the US press and McDonald courted EU diplomats saying reunification is “being talked about in every town and city in Ireland . . . as a realistic, achievable and necessary future”.
Any change to the region’s constitutional status would require the British government to call a referendum in Northern Ireland if it appeared that would secure majority backing, something that looks unlikely any time soon. A vote in the republic would also be needed.
Sinn Féin has come a long way. But even supporters like Cullen, 62, the youth worker, recognise it faces a battle ahead. “With the history Sinn Féin has, there will always be a question mark hanging over it,” he says.
Still, Ronan O’Reilly, 22, a film student from North Belfast, was excited at the prospect that Sinn Féin could make history on Thursday. “It’s not a perfect party,” he says, “but it’s the best for young people.”
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