When Sinn Féin announced on Saturday that Mary Lou McDonald was the sole nominee to succeed Gerry Adams as President of the party, no-one was really surprised. Over the last couple of months since Gerry Adams had announced the timetable of his retirement, it became clear that she would be the person most likely to succeed him. She was Deputy Leader of the party, after all, and what is that role supposed to be if not an apprenticeship?
Let’s deal with the “woman leader of a political party” thing and get that out of the way, shall we? Mary Lou McDonald is not unique in that regard on these islands. On the island of Ireland, Naomi Long leads the Alliance Party, Arlene Foster the DUP, Roisín Shortall the Social Democrats and Mary Harney and Joan Burton previously were party leaders. In Britain, current female leaders of political parties include Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Theresa May of the Conservative Party. Earlier this week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she will be taking maternity leave when her baby is born later this year and no one batted an eye, so let’s nod to a good week for women in politics and leave it at that for now.
There are two much more interesting aspects to the new Sinn Féin leader’s succession.
The first is the generational change this marks within the party. With McDonald in Leinster House and Michelle O’Neill in Stormont, (and again I am not going to digress into speculating on the likelihood of the talks process which begins this week succeeding) the leadership of the party shifts generations. This is underscored by looking at the age profile of people who have been taking on increasingly visible roles in the party – Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire and Niall Ó Donnghaile in Leinster House and Chris Hazzard and Megan Fearon previously in Ministerial roles in Stormont, for example.
In her speech on Saturday, McDonald said: “I won’t fill Gerry Adams’ shoes – but I’ve brought my own.” This is a very telling remark, because it signals a leadership that intends to be mindful of the party’s past but not bound by it. To borrow a phrase from the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, it is Mary Lou clearly articulating that she will be “relying in the first on her own strength.”
First elected as an MEP in 2004 and having served as a TD since 2011, McDonald has probably more experience as an elected representative under her belt than others of her generation. She has gained a reputation as a formidable parliamentarian in debates. She has earned the office.
It is worth noting that Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, Brendan Howlin and Brian Cowan, among others, were all unopposed in their party leadership contests too.
The second interesting aspect of McDonald’s elevation to the office of Uachtarán Shinn Féin is who will succeed her as Deputy President, now that office will be vacant.
As I said on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme last Friday at close of nominations, whilst there may be a lot more candidates for that role, the smart choice for the party would be to elect Michelle O’Neill to the office. That does not mean that O’Neill is bound to walk in the footsteps of McGuinness, though. This is not about emulating the relationship between Gerry and Martin.
Tonight, Michelle O’Neill has announced that she is to run for the office of Deputy President.
O’Neill faced criticism when Martin McGuinness retired and she was appointed by the party’s Ard Comhairle as Sinn Féin’s leader in the north. The “tap on the shoulder” was seen as less than transparent at best and the selection of a young woman seen as a publicity stunt at worst. An election as Deputy President deals with those issues once and for all. Like McDonald, O’Neill has a solid track record in elected office, including serving as Mayor of Dungannon and holding Ministerial briefs.
Additionally, it cements the generational change that the party is going through.
When Michelle O’Neill succeeded Martin McGuinness, there was no Assembly at Stormont so she could not assume the position and title of deputy First Minister. Likewise, there was no talks process of any significance between the parties in place and therefore McGuinness’ former title as Sinn Féin’s Chief Negotiator didn’t work either. This left her with an awkward made-up title of Sinn Féin’s leader in the north. The optics of that title, for an all-island party are not great, let’s be honest.
For Michelle O’Neill to be elected Deputy President would signal very clearly that Sinn Féin’s intention under its new leadership is to pursue equally its political strategies north and south. It would also reassure northern Republicans that the party leadership is not now entirely Dublin-centric.
McDonald and O’Neill in lock-step, helping each other stay in stride, would illustrate that Sinn Féin has clearly marked out its future path. And let’s face it, any political party would be smart to put not one, but two women, in charge. Now that would be a big deal.