Mary Lou’s U Turn: Under pressure, most SF ‘policies’ are rarely binding for more than a day…

Most of the speculation about a united Ireland has become pervasive and tendentious in the extreme, driven, no doubt in part, but some of the extreme emotions unleashed by the whole Brexit process.

Or as a Peter Robinson put it in Donegal, “shaking that [Brexit] tree was almost certain to cause abundant fallout”. It is further exaggerated by the fact that those elected to the Stormont have absolved themselves by refusing to take office.

Without an Assembly in Northern Ireland – despite a huge presence there – Sinn Fein’s prefered space holder is the promise of jam tomorrow in the form of a border poll to deliver “whatever you’re having yourself”.

However, party strategy in the south (set by the party’s northern ‘leadership’) requires her to establish close relations with another party whose support stretches significantly to the last fastnesses of southern border Protestants.

So she told David Young exactly what she might have told Newstalk or RTE: ie that:

“It’s very important when we come to addressing the issue of partition we do it in the best possible climate and we do it in a way that maximises consent.

“It is not my preferred option or our preferred option that we deal with the issue of Irish unity in a climate that is unsteady or unstable or chaotic, in other words in the context of a crash Brexit or a very hard Brexit.”

All very sensible, and all very SDLP/Fianna Fail/Fine Gael. The trouble is this sop to southern middle-class voters wasn’t meant to be heard in the north of the island where it is all the party has to keep things in nicely in a sub-hysterical disorder.

The Irish Times devotes an editorial to the matter today suggesting Ms McDonald has had her collar well and truly felt by her real bosses in the party:

…Sinn Féin’s internal dynamics and history mean it cannot avoid the suspicion – voiced loudly by political opponents on both sides of the Border yesterday – that an inner circle of the republican movement made it clear to McDonald her initial response was not acceptable. [Emphasis added]

Radio Ulster’s imperturbable Will Crawley even drew a comparison with the time the young SF Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile had to ring headquarters to ask whether the should shake hands with a young Army Cadet.

However, let’s be clear. Mary Lou knows the party’s northern position better than anyone in the southern party. She is the party President after all. But as a senior southern figure, she had to present the contrary picture in order to make headway.

The speech of such a 180-degree change underlines two other things:

  • the party first and foremost does opportunity, such that few normal ‘policies’ are binding for longer than a day;
  • “partition” failed in its usual role as a reliable soundproof screen, so when Ms McDonald spoke everyone heard.

The result was simply an embarrassing revelation of a pre-existing reality both when the party is inside and outside of government. Gerry Moriarty reported ‘well placed northern sources’:

“Her comments on Monday about putting a Border poll on hold were viewed as brave and refreshing, that Mary Lou was saying I am a different type of Sinn Féin leader, that I am my own woman, and that was good to see,” said one dispassionate Northern observer.

“But by Tuesday,” the source added, “it was clear that others in the leadership saw her as going too far. And they hauled her back. And that was very sad to see.”

[Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? – Ed.] You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

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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