The appointment of Mary Lou McDonald marks a new dawn for Sinn Féin. The baton passed on to a new generation.
She received as smooth a transition as one can get in politics from her predecessor Gerry Adams. However there were never really any clear competitors to Sinn Féin’s strongest performer in the Dáil who also has a common touch that is a necessary requisite of any highly successful politician.
McDonald topped the poll in the Dublin Central constituency in the last Dáil election. An area that was the old stomping ground for former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for over a quarter of a century so no mean feat.
Now her success will of course be measured against where the party now stands, 23 TDs in Dublin and 27 MLAs in Belfast. She will be aiming to bring Sinn Féin to over 20% consistently in the Dublin polls and start to eat into the Fianna Fáil vote.
So how will Sinn Féin under McDonald differ? Already she has made reference to a number of areas in her speech that will be priorities in the time ahead.
She said that Sinn Féin need “to adapt and modernise our approaches and our structures” with the aim to “double the size of our party again in the years ahead”.
The new generation taking the reins of leadership must bring “innovation and modern ways of advancing our politics. Now is a time for fresh thinking & bold ideas to take us forward” she added.
One of the first bold(ish) ideas will be to change Sinn Féin’s policy to support allowing abortion up to 12 weeks. McDonald and others who are pro-choice within the party will now see the decision to stop short of supporting the Citizens Assembly proposals in full at the last Ard Fheis as a strategic mistake which has left their hands tied politically for the past number of weeks. She will want to see that addressed ahead of the Repeal the Eighth referendum but especially in advance of legislation hitting the Dáil floor.
Modernising the party structures must also be a priority. Reviewing how the party handles disputes within individual constituencies, which have come under further focus of the media in the last year, can only pay dividends in the longer term.
In the north the new President will wish to see the power sharing institutions restored but she should also be conscious that now that nationalism has re-engaged politically for the first time in years that she shouldn’t sign a deal with the DUP that will put that nationalist genie back into the bottle. One lesson from the last decade of powersharing is that institutional change is needed to ensure that progress within a new Assembly is not continually vetoed, blocked and frustrated. A deal that not only addresses the symptoms of the problem (Marriage equality, Irish language Act) but also the cause is essential to avoid walking straight back into the status quo.
This was a good opening speech from the new leader of Sinn Féin in that it subtly set out some of the challenges that she will seek to address. A process of modernisation and injecting fresh thinking into any party is easier said than done but it is exactly what Sinn Féin needs to continue to increase their political strength and to ultimately be in government north and south.