(Bloomberg) -- With one riposte, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald may have changed the course of Irish history.
It was debate night in the middle of the general election campaign, and rival party leaders Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin were attacking her party’s tax-and-spend promises, ignoring their own at times questionable economic record.
“Listening to these men you’d never imagine that one had crashed the economy and that the other is so fiscally irresponsible that he’s producing the most expensive hospital in the world,” McDonald witheringly told them, drawing wild applause from the audience.
From that moment, the campaign was transformed. A poll days later saw Sinn Fein’s backing surge. In the Feb. 8 election, the party won the popular vote in what has been described as a ‘Mary Lou monsoon’ with voters braving storms and heavy rain to support Sinn Fein in record numbers, and putting the party on the cusp of power south of the border for the first time.
For Sinn Fein, it was a vindication of its decision to choose McDonald, A privately-educated woman from an affluent corner of Dublin, to replace Gerry Adams when he stepped down in 2018. That was a decisive break with the party’s Northern Irish, blue collar roots, with its deep ties to the IRA.
“She represents a wider generational change at the top of the party, it’s no longer dominated by figures who are associated with the conflict in the north,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of history at University College Dublin. “That makes a difference.”
Sinn Fein’s rise fits with a wave of populism upending the established political order across the continent. In the Irish case, the nationalists’ surge could amplify an uncomfortable conversation around reunification, and may lead to more immediate seismic shifts, including the arrival of the country’s first woman premier and the most left-wing government in the history of the state.
The “center has been shaken, but held,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in a speech in Dublin on Wednesday, paraphrasing the poet WB Yeats, to say the “dark future” has not yet come to pass. Speaking to reporters, he hinted he might be prepared to work with other centrist parties if Sinn Fein can’t form a government.
We ``stand by the state,” he said.
In Saturday’s election, Sinn Fein won 25% of the first preference vote, with McDonald capitalizing on discontent with a housing shortage and an ailing health service. She also tapped into a sense it was time to topple the two-party power structure which has dominated Irish politics for almost a century.
The party took 37 seats, leaving it just one short of Fianna Fail, and placed McDonald in contention to become the nation’s first left of center, female premier.
In 2016, under Adams, the party won 23 seats, making it a distant third to the established parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Two years later, McDonald took over. Born on May Day 1969, McDonald comes from Rathgar, an affluent district in South Dublin.
Her father was a builder and member of Fianna Fail, but her grandmother, Molly, was the key figure in shaping her politics according to Deaglán de Bréadún’s 2015 book, ‘Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Fein.’ Molly’s brother opposed the treaty which split Ireland in 1921, and was executed in the Civil War that followed, de Bréadún wrote
‘Road to Damascus’
McDonald was not yet a teenager when Bobby Sands, an IRA member on hunger strike, died in 1981. The strike captured global attention when IRA prisoners led by Sands refused to eat. The men wanted the U.K. to classify them as political prisoners, not criminals, a demand rejected by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Sands was elected to the British parliament while on the strike. His death at age 27, sparked riots and fueled a surge of nationalist sentiment across Northern Ireland. That inspired the IRA’s ally, Sinn Fein, to contest elections in the 1980s as part of a strategy known as the “Armalite and the Ballot Box.”
McDonald later said, that for her, 90 miles way in Dublin, the hunger strikes were a “road to Damascus ‘moment,” de Bréadún wrote.
Initially, though, McDonald followed the standard middle-path of life for many in South Dublin. She attended a fee-paying school, studied English at the cobbled-lined university in the heart of the city. Trinity College, worked in think-tanks and joined Fianna Fail.
By the late 1990s, she felt her nationalism and interest in social justice was out of step with the party. Inspired by a Gerry Adams’ speech in the Mansion House, the meeting place of the Irish parliament during the War of Independence with Britain, she joined Sinn Fein, according to de Bréadún.
She quickly rose through the ranks as the party sought to broaden its appeal, and calm voter concerns about its historic links to the IRA terror group.
“I wear no balaclava,” she assured voters in 2004. She said she was occasionally resentful of the suggestion that she “was cute but not that bright” and groomed for power as the “acceptable face” of Sinn Fein.
That year, she was elected as an member of the European Parliament for Dublin. She then won a seat in parliament in 2011, as the party fought austerity in the wake of the nation’s international bailout, placing her in position to succeed Adams.
Not Always Smooth
The ride hasn’t always been smooth since then. In fact, her leadership was questioned after a poor performance in local, European and presidential elections.
At times, she’s struggled to keep a lid on the party’s more militant side as she tried to broaden its support. Last year, she apologized for walking in the U.S. behind a banner brearing a slogan that read, “Get England out of Ireland.”
Fearful of the party’s performance in the 2020 election, she stood down party candidates, a mistake that meant Sinn Fein lost out on the chance to be the biggest party by seats in parliament.
The party itself has been taken by surprise by its swift rise, and many analysts are struggling to explain how exactly McDonald turned it around.
After the debate, she overtook Varadkar and Martin as the most popular leader, polls show, and is in the race to be prime minister, as the various parties eye coalition options.
The party seems likely to be in government, if not after this election, then after the next. Transforming a party of protest into one of government will present McDonald with a fresh challenge.
As Tony Smurfit, chief executive officer of Dublin-based global packaging company Smurfit Kappa Group Plc, put it, “it’s very easy to criticize from opposition.”
(Updates with Varadkar comments from seventh paragraph)
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