Mary Lou McDonald faces battle of margins as FG and FF set to scrap over every loose seat

IAs we await the confirmation whether or not Mary Lou McDonald was the only candidate for President of Sinn Fein, our own Patricia McBride tipped Michelle O’Neill for Vice President on RTE Drivetime last evening. So it looks like two women at the top.

Or rather front of house. Power up to now has rested almost exclusively with the parties shadowy ‘leadership team’. Neither women can expect to be let too far off the party’s halter. Nor are they likely to be given much discretion as ‘leaders’.

But for now, Mary Lou is the one whose public game will count. Not so much because she’s President, but because having seen off any serious resistance in northern Nationalism the southern project is the higher prize for the party.

For all the loud complaints about Arlene’s influence over Theresa May, Sinn Fein has never made any bones about their ambition to wield power in Dublin with the simple aim of projecting power back into Northern Ireland.

This is one of the reasons why the party, even when holding senior office in government, has never invested in what numerous DUP MLAs used to sneeringly call, north-southery.

Getting that power is now Mary Lou’s primary job. Whilst waiting for her to achieve it, is apparently Michelle’s (and apparently by extension, Northern Ireland’s).

Mary Lou has certainly got the experience, indeed, as Patricia also noted this evening, there are not that many of her generation that have seats, and certainly none for as long. She was first elected to the European Parliament in 2004.

Not long after failing to be re-elected to Strasbourg in 2009, she was appointed Vice President taking up a long apprenticeship to her hero and long term mentor, Gerry Adams.

Despite early speculation around Pearse Doherty there has been little doubt since her first successful election to the Dail in 2011 that she was the one destined to step up to take on the mantle of Gerry’s public office.

She’s gone through a number testing fires since: not least around the time of the Mairia Cahill and Paudie McGahon rape allegations, and come through them. She has to be made of stern stuff to deal with the  movement’s often brutal past.

As Ed Moloney notes, we can see the hierarchy of importance between the two parts of the party in how the Barry McElduff controversy presented itself to the party as a problem to be managed.

Whilst the controversy stayed in NI, it simply wasn’t a problem. When it matured down south it most certainly (and most suddenly) became one…

….the source of pressure on McElduff to quit, i.e. from the Southern section of SF and in particular the party’s leader-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald who must have been painfully aware of a) the damage McElduff could do to SF’s electoral prospects in the South, and b) that otherwise she would soon meet the same fate as Gerry Adams, pursued in every media interview by endless questions about the IRA’s bloody past.

The fact that southern Sinn Fein voters rang in after Alan Black’s RTE interview expressing outrage at the light punishment handed to McElduff (previously heavily defended by Mary Lou herself) reveals something about the task ahead that faces her.

In comparison to Northern Ireland, the bulk of Sinn Fein voters who have put the party where it is today have only been voting Sinn Fein for a relatively short time: since 2011 in fact. And their southern competitors have proven far more resilient.

This is something that is – albeit lightly – reflected in recent southern polling, which has SF in a range something in the region of four points lower than in the two or three years before the 2016 election.

In the meantime, as the recession fades and Dublin property prices return to their overheated levels of ‘normal’, intensity in southern politics is returning to the old duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

After seven years in power, Fine Gael’s war-chest is now full to over brimming. And it is now led by the ambitious and charismatic new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: a man who has been campaigning for the next election ever since he took office.

Micheal Martin has employed an old Fianna Fáil opposition playbook from the 1980s and 1990s, which is to crunch through primary and secondary levels of policy, in order to make themselves look and sound like a viable, alternative government.

Worryingly for Mary Lou’s southern led Sinn Fein, the competition between the two will force both of them to play every single margin they can find, anywhere and almost no matter how implausible.

Note how “Green” Taoiseach and Tánaiste have gone over Northern Ireland? The Dail knockabouts between Enda and Gerry are almost a thing of the past, with Gerry commending Leo this week for being more sound on the constitution than Micheal.

It’s all about winning in the margins. In the fight to come, both FG and FF will have to pick seats up from Independents on the left and right. If FF is to hope of edging Leo out, it has to make a come back in Dublin.

To do that, it too must squeeze every margin it can find, on the left, among the independents and Sinn Fein voters (at the hard core levels the big two find themselves at, there’s likely to be little traffic between themselves and FG).

So Mary Lou, the no longer quite new kid on the block, needs a message, a position, a set of policies that resonate with a population that seems ready to move on from what has been for the south a traumatic recent past.

As the south skips on, there’s no accounting for the ghosts once left for dead who have a habit of voicing themselves out of our never forgotten  northern past.

Gerry Adams, Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald at the 2017 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. ” by “?” is licensed under “Creative Commons

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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