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Mary Lou McDonald
Columnist Kevin Myers called her “our pretty little she-shinner” but an unimpressed Mary Lou McDonald insists that her party is actually run by a group of formidable women. She also reveals that she believes Gerry Adams when he says he was never in the IRA, defends Sinn Fein’s fund-raising, discusses the release of Jerry McCabe’s killers, and names her least favourite irish politicians. plus: the newly elected MEP’s views on drink, drugs, music, media, religion, and more.
Olaf Tyaransen, 02 Jul 2004
Friday, June 18th, 2004: Striding purposefully up O’Connell Street, en route to the Gresham Hotel to meet Mary Lou McDonald, the cutely named, highly photogenic and newly-elected Sinn Fein MEP for Dublin, your hotpress correspondent suddenly spots some posters advertising the Evening Herald on a news stand: “REVEALED: THE REAL MARY LOU”.
Uh-oh! It looks like something I should definitely read before meeting her. Unfortunately, the paper isn’t due in till 11.30 - half an hour after my interview is scheduled to start - and, unsurprisingly, the grump manning the kiosk has no idea what the story is (“I don’t write the bleedin’ papers, bud, I just sell ‘em!”). Panic stations!! The very last thing I want to do is to come away from the interview to find that the most serious question of all hasn’t been asked. I immediately ring a friend at the Irish Independent and he says he’ll try to find out for me. Then I continue towards the Gresham, only much . . . more . . . slowly.
Ten minutes later, my friend still hasn’t gotten back to me but, fortunately enough, Mary Lou hasn’t arrived either. Nervously, I hide in a far corner of the hotel lobby, biting my nails and willing him to ring back. When he eventually does, it turns out to be not much of a news story – just the Herald doing a little shit-stirring about Sinn Fein’s alleged links to organised crime and asking questions about the financing of McDonald’s campaign. I’d planned to ask her about that anyway.
When Mary Lou finally arrives in, looking radiant in a tight black jacket, purple jeans and snazzy boots, she’s not alone – she has a Sinn Fein activist in tow. He’s in his late twenties, wearing a faded t-shirt and jeans, and with curly hair and a surly, stubbled face, he looks a little like a younger version of Martin McGuinness. Turns out, he acts that way too. As myself and McDonald settle around a table in the bar, he pulls up a seat and joins us. I hadn’t anticipated a threesome and am really not in the mood. “You’re not planning on sitting in on this, are you?” I ask him, alarmed.
“I am, yeah,” he replies. “Do you mind?”
“Well, I do, actually,” I say. “To be honest, I’d really prefer it if you didn’t.”
He looks me directly in the eye and smiles: “Well, I’m staying anyway!”
Somewhat affronted, I look over at Mary Lou who pulls an apologetic face, but doesn’t ask him to leave. There’s obviously going to be no budging him, so I simply shrug my shoulders and get on with it. He doesn’t say a word throughout the hour that follows, but listens to our conversation very intently.
OLAF TYARANSEN: Most people don’t really know all that much about you, so I’d just like to start with some general background stuff. For instance, what age are you?
MARY LOU MC DONALD: I’m 35. I was born on the 1st of May, 1969, in Holles Street Hospital, so I’m a Dub.
You grew up in Rathgar, didn’t you?
Yeah, I grew up on the southside of the city. I went to school in Notre Dame in Churchtown. I did my primary degree in Trinity College - in English Literature – and then I did a Masters in European Integration Studies in Limerick.
Your mother was a staunch Fianna Fail supporter, wasn’t she?
Well, my whole family. The family background would be very much Fianna Fail – in the way that, I suppose, the old civil war politics and the way that families would’ve traditionally identified themselves as Fianna Gaelers or Fianna Failers. But I am happy to report that they now vote for Sinn Fein.
Do you have any brothers and sisters?
I do. I have two brothers and I have one sister.
What prompted you to leave Fianna Fail and join Sinn Fein?
Well, very simply, Olaf, I was just in the wrong political party. I suppose I wasn’t in any mad rush to join a political party, although I would always have been conscious of things. I would’ve been involved in different campaigns say when I was at university – and afterwards.
What kinds of campaigns?
Well, for instance, in my university days the big things were – and still are – issues around student accommodation, issues around grant levels, all of those sorts of issues. And then afterwards I would’ve been involved with the Irish National Congress, which is a very broad–based republican organisation.
It’s kind of a halfway house between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, isn’t it?
Exactly. It had Fianna Failers and people from Sinn Fein in it. So I was in Fianna Fail for about a year, which I suppose seemed the natural place to go – I knew people in it and it was where my family background was from. But it became very clear to me, very quickly, that it wasn’t the political vehicle through which things that I want to see achieved would be achieved. That was my assessment then and it’s still my assessment now. So having discovered that I was in the wrong party, I then went to Sinn Fein in 1999, and that was – and is – the right political place for me.
Was there any shock in the family when you defected?
No, but considerable relief! Because I think that they realised that I was going to a party that I could be effective in, that I could make a contribution in, and that actually would be at one with my own politics.
You told RTE’s Marian Finucane the other day that the H-Block hunger strikes in the early 1980’s were your “political awakening”. . .
Yeah. I turned 12 on the 1st of May and Bobby Sands died on the 5th. Certainly, as a child living in Dublin, seeing the images of the blanket men and the hunger strikers and the death of Bobby Sands beamed into your front room was profoundly shocking. That footage is still profoundly horrific when we see it now. But as a child looking at it, I suppose it was the first moment that I said, ‘Hang on – there’s something very badly amiss here’. So that time around the hunger strikes would be the first and clearest political memory that I have. And I would imagine that people of my generation and yours would probably say the same.
Do you think you were in any way attracted to the whiff of gunpowder around Sinn Fein?
[Glares] Well, no – that wouldn’t have attracted me. You see, I think it just depends . . .[pauses] I’d be conscious, say, for a lot of people, particularly in parts of the south where Sinn Fein isn’t – or wasn’t, or maybe still isn’t – very well organised that people take their lead in terms of what Sinn Fein is or isn’t from the media. And there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s elements in the media who’d wish to put horns on the heads of every republican and to misrepresent Sinn Fein. But, you see, I had been in the position where I actually knew republicans, I knew members of Sinn Fein and I had a sense of its politics. So I was very clear what I was joining and I joined very much with my eyes wide open.
And for me, yes, it was around the national question, around reunification, and Sinn Fein being the only realistic vehicle for delivering that – or certainly for leading that. But secondly around equality and social justice. And you saw the establishment parties with really little or no interest in really tackling issues of exclusion and marginalisation. And that for me is absolutely key.
What attracted a Rathgar convent girl from a fairly comfortable middle class background to these types of issues?
Well, I don’t have a sense of myself as being from any particular class, to tell you the truth. I accept that people would hear me talking with a South County Dublin accent. . . but I mean, in terms of my own background, my mother brought up four of us on her own. My parents separated when we were quite young. She brought up four of us on a very modest income, so I don’t come from a background of much and plenty – and I certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth!
Did you campaign during the divorce referendum?
I didn’t, no. I wasn’t involved in that campaign. I voted for it though.
What’s your stance on the abortion issue?
Well, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way the abortion issue got debated in Ireland and, still when it arises, you’ve got this very extreme position put. My concern would be to be pro-woman. And obviously there are difficult situations, whether that’s around rape or whether it’s around incest, where the woman has to have the right to choose – she has to have the right to choose. I mean, we saw with the X-case and all that followed from it, and then the government’s attempt in the last referendum to kind of row back on that . . . I just thought it was a really callous approach in terms of women’s health and women’s rights. I think it represents the journey that the majority of Irish people have come that they knocked the government back on that and they said, ‘No, women do have rights, the woman matters – is paramount – and those rights have to be respected’. In some senses it’s been a very quiet journey for the majority of people, but a really, really significant one.
Are you religious at all?
Em . . . [long pause] I’m not the most . . . practising of religious people, no. I’d say I’m spiritual – however clichéd that sounds. I actually attach a bit of importance to the rites of passage that religious practise gives to people, and the kind of reassurance and comfort zone it offers for people in times of very great difficulty – or in times of very great opportunity. So while I’m not a daily communicant myself, I have respect for religious beliefs and religious practice across the board. I was raised a Catholic – so call me a lapsed Catholic, but I’d still very much be Catholic.
As an MEP, you’re going to be spending a lot of your time in Brussels and Strasbourg over the next few years. Is childcare going to be a problem?
Well, my mother has been absolutely fantastic – and Martin, my husband. I couldn’t have been a candidate, I couldn’t have run the campaign that we ran, if it wasn’t for their support. And there’s no doubt that travel to Strasbourg and Brussels means that we have to reorganise our domestic arrangements. So there’s a couple of options open to me. I can take my daughter with me – or not. We’re still trying to figure out how exactly we’ll do that but anything I do has to leave room for Iseult and, you know, a stable family environment.
I know you have problems with certain journalists, but what’s your opinion of the Irish media generally?
Hmmm . . . there’s a loaded one! [Smiles] Mixed, I think. I think there are a lot of journalists out there who do a very good job. And I recognise that it’s probably a fairly tough job as well, because you’d be seen by all of the players as their enemy at some stage. You know, if you’re saying things that they don’t like. I think the media is fully entitled to ask the questions that need to be asked, and to pursue matters with vigour, but I have to say, from my own experience, there would certainly be chunks of the media that are extremely hostile to Sinn Fein, and who have written extremely negative – and I think unfair – things about me personally.
In his Irishman’s Diary column in yesterday’s Irish Times, Kevin Myers referred to you as “our pretty little she-Shinner.” Did that bug you?
Grow up, Kevin! You know, come on! What is that? Is it a sexist remark? Is it. . .? [shrugs] There are those who if they didn’t have something to complain about Sinn Fein, they’d have to spend their nights and days inventing things, and Kevin Myers is one of those. I mean, does that bug me? On one level it does. I don’t think any woman likes to be referred to as a pretty little anything. So yeah, that bugs me. But, you know, I’ll get over it. Ha, ha!
Have you seen today’s Evening Herald yet?
I haven’t, no [slightly alarmed]. Why?
I actually haven’t read it yet myself, but apparently there’s a front page story questioning both Sinn Fein’s and your own campaign’s finances.
OK [nods gravely and pauses]. Well, I haven’t seen the Evening Herald but I can tell you this categorically. That, first of all, Sinn Fein is the only party who actually laid open its books to the media – they were invited in and a number of them came – and they were fully audited accounts. And I think they have been posted on our website but people are welcome to come in and have a look at them. Also to say that we have a policy – and this cuts across MPs, MLAs, TDs, whoever – that all of our elected representatives take something in the region of the average industrial wage.
Is that what you’ll be doing with your MEP salary?
Yes. That’s a standard. That applies to Gerry Adams, that applies to Martin McGuinness, it applies to everybody. The balance is then reinvested – some of it into the party within specified legal limits, and then the rest of it is reinvested in terms of constituency services. So that’s how we do it. Everybody’s asking where’s the money coming from, and how can we have an office in Cabra and another one wherever – that’s how we have them.
The other thing is that, in terms of the election campaign itself, when the returns are made – and you know very detailed returns have to be made to the state – you’ll find that the Sinn Fein campaign cost considerably less than any of our opponents’. And if you look back to the last general election campaign, Fianna Fail spent more on its election campaign than the whole of Sinn Fein did for our entire annual budget. So people need to get this into perspective and actually look at the actual published figures.
My campaign was financed by the party. I mean, I wouldn’t have the types of resources to be firing in tens of thousands of euros. I just don’t have it. So the party financed it. Fundraising is ongoing, and if you go into, for instance, the city of Dublin on any weekend there’s ballad sessions, there’s raffles, there’s draws – the activist base is constantly at a local level raising money. And all of it can be accounted for. And the financing of Sinn Fein is one particular area where the media deliberately hype up something that has no substance to it.
Come on! Sinn Fein is very closely linked to the IRA – who’re well known to be involved in racketeering and the drugs trade.
Sinn Fein is an independent, stand alone political party! That’s what we are. All of our finances are accounted for.
But not your private army’s . . .
In terms of any other organisation, they’re scrutinised on their own basis. . . I’m not convinced, by the way, despite the allegations and all of that, I’m not convinced that evidence has been brought up in relation to all of that.
And if there is evidence of anyone doing anything criminal and anything illegal, then it should go through the due process and procedure, and people should be prosecuted – full stop!
So if people are that convinced, and if there’s evidence of wrongdoing, well then pursue it! And people are entitled to do that. What they’re not entitled to do is to cast this type of slur on Sinn Fein because they think that we’re a soft target. And the thing is – just to finish this up, here’s my punchline! – as the elections have shown, we’re not actually a soft target. We’re strong! Sinn Fein is a very bloody good political organisation, we work hard on the ground, we work hard locally – raising our money. Our activists are absolutely second to none.
Do you believe Gerry Adams when he says he has never been a member of the IRA?
I do. I do [nods].
Do you accept that the vast majority of Irish people don’t believe him?
I accept that there’s been a lot of controversy around it. But you see, for me, the bottom line is I always believe that people themselves are best placed and know the most. The expert on Gerry Adams is Gerry Adams. And he’s answered that matter a number of times. There are people out there and it wouldn’t matter what Gerry Adams said, they’re not gonna believe him. Or they will use any and every opportunity to have a go at him. I mean, he’s answered that matter and I’m absolutely satisfied with that.
Are you close to him?
Yeah, we work closely together. I work with all the elected representatives.
There was a lot of controversy over you giving a speech two years ago at a memorial service for Sean Russell – a Nazi sympathiser. Was that not an inappropriate thing to do?
Well, first of all, Sean Russell wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser – that’s historically inaccurate. Sean Russell was a veteran of 1916, and it’s for that reason that there’s a statue to him in Fairview Park. And in fact, I think that Fairview Park is officially actually Sean Russell Park, believe it or not. He was a person who was obviously very committed to Irish independence, who made sort of the traditional analysis that Britain’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity, and who sought assistance in the form of weapons from a regime that was absolutely despicable regime, as it turned out. I think it would be fair to say that Sean demonstrated maybe naiveté or lack of judgement, but to suggest that he was a Nazi sympathiser is absolutely off the Richter scale.
Didn’t Fianna Fail make that very same accusation during the election campaign?
Yes. I think it was Eoin Ryan, who strangely enough was one of my competitors in the election. And I have to say that, particularly for a Fianna Failer to raise this and start wrongly branding somebody as a Nazi sympathiser. . . I mean, the immediate thing that came into my head was that Eamon DeValera gave condolences upon the demise of Hitler, when it was clearer at that stage what had been going on.
Now, I wouldn’t call Eamon De Valera a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator. I think it would be deeply unfair to the man’s memory. I’d have other criticisms of him but, in the spirit of fairness, I wouldn’t make that remark. So I think equally to cast that aspersion on Sean Russell is (a) inaccurate and (b) unfair. And I think the reason that maybe they got away with it was because Sean Russell wouldn’t be a household name in the way that De Valera is. But Sean Russell nonetheless was a republican, he was somebody who did very many good things for Ireland, yet he displayed bad judgement in that episode. But bear in mind that he died on a German U-boat and he was comforted as he died by Frank Ryan, who had led the anti-fascist forces in Franco’s Spain. So he was a person who did something that was misguided and badly judged, but he wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser.
Didn’t Eoin Ryan also cast aspersions on your claim to be a peace-negotiator?
He had done that as well. I’m a member of the negotiating team. As you can imagine, first of all, the negotiation is ongoing and, even during the course of the elections, the negotiations were live with the two governments. It’s a huge piece of work, so there’s a whole team of us who meet with officials, who prepare documents, who do all of the things that such a complex negotiation requires. And the negotiations will go on for many years down the road. So part of my description of what I do was as a negotiator. And some people had a difficulty but, I have to tell you, I don’t know why they had a problem with it.
Who’s your least favourite person in Irish politics?
OK, can I think about this? [Pauses and stares off] There’s so many! Ha, ha! My least favourite person? Let me see . . . On a political level and I don’t mean this personally – Michael McDowell. Probably. I’ve met him and, in fact, he’s a very polite person to meet, very affable, but politically I think he’s cynical and opportunistic in the way that he’s dealt with a whole range of things. He was irresponsible just in terms of his relentless attacks on us, which obviously he viewed as being to his own advantage – and they may have been – but he had no sense of the bigger picture or the effect that those could have on the health of the peace process and the fact that they would be seized upon – and have been seized upon – by rejectionist Unionism.
Also, the manner in which he introduced this referendum on citizenship and pursued it, I thought was the height of cynicism. It was a smokescreen for a lot of things, not least his failure to actually produce for Ireland a coherent immigration policy. We needed that last month, we still need it now – and Mr. McDowell hasn’t come up trumps with it.
How about your least favourite female politician?
Ah, Olaf! I tell you one thing, you gave some thought to these questions! Ha, ha! My least favourite female politician . . . [long pause]. A lot of the female politicians in Ireland are very good, you know. In a cross-party sense. Em, but to answer your question, and again I stress that this isn’t personal but, on a political level, I suppose it would have to be Mary Harney, simply because her politics are so much at odds with mine. It’s not a case of not liking the politician but I do not like the politics of that woman. I don’t know her on a personal level so I couldn’t comment there, but politically I would be totally at odds with what she represents so I would choose her.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
God . . . [long pause]. Not so much that I identify myself as a person but, for instance, was elected as the first Sinn Fein MEP for Dublin so that follows in a tradition of sort of Republican women firsts, so some of those are historical figures.
Countess Markievicz, for instance, was elected a TD – the first woman minister. My own contemporary Michelle Gildernew was our first elected MP for Westminster in the seat that Bobby Sands held. So I suppose, as a woman, they’re the people I identify with as a political activist. I suppose I identify more with some of my contemporaries rather than historical figures. People like Markievicz are people that I admire and I’m very proud that the politics that I represent follows in their footsteps, but it’s not me making an equation between me and somebody of that stature. Absolutely not! But I’m very proud to serve in the same tradition.
But in terms of women political activists that I identify with, I’m surrounded by brilliant republican women. The Martina Andersons, the Mary Nelliss, the Rita O’Hares, the Joan O’Connors. Sinn Fein actually is a party that’s run by women. I can break this now to Hot Press! Most of our departments are headed up by women. A lot of the key political strategic work is done by women. They’re formidable women, they’re very effective women – and I admire all of them.
Do you not think that it’s totally insensitive of Sinn Fein to continually pursue the early release of Garda Jerry McCabe’s killers – particularly given his widow’s obvious upset and public opposition to it?
This whole thing of prisoner release is hugely sensitive and it has to be handled in that way. And I’m more than mindful of the very great loss to the McCabe family, and the very great pain that they’re in. And I’m mindful of all of the other families and how difficult this particular issue has been for them. And will remain for them.
But the issue of the prisoners has been one of the hard issues in the process and in the negotiations. The men in Castlerea are qualifying prisoners and on that basis they should be released. And I say that very mindful of the McCabe family, and I think it should be dealt with in a way that is sensitive to the families. I mean, there should be contact with them, to ease the thing as much as you can. I’ve spoken to other families who’ve seen people released who had murdered their loved ones. I also know people who never saw the killers of their loved ones ever do as much as five minutes in jail. It’s an absolute minefield, I’m aware of that, but it’s one of the issues that needs to be dealt with. My own view is that it shouldn’t be used as a political football. That’s the most insensitive thing you can do – turn it into sort of megaphone diplomacy.
Have you personally ever lost anybody through terrorist activity or political violence?
No, I haven’t. Thank God, I haven’t. But I know very many people who have – very, very many of them. And I also recognise that the conflict exacted a huge toll and republicans suffered, nationalists suffered and Unionists suffered. So it was across the board. My own view on all of this is that we can’t rewrite history. I didn’t write Irish history, I can’t rewrite it. We are where we are now. And there’s a collective huge responsibility on all of us to being the process to a successful completion, to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented and to actually go on the journey of reconciliation. And I say that also as a republican that unashamedly says that Irish reunification is in the best interests of the people of Ireland – north and south and east and west.
When was the last time you cried?
Monday morning at about 4 [smiles]. I was elected at half-three. So they were tears of absolute elation – a lot of the campaigners were there who’d worked so hard on all of this, and it was a huge thing for us to take that seat. They were also tears of exhaustion. My sister was saying, ‘Slow down, sister!’ Ha, ha!
Do you think that Sinn Fein will be in power in two years time?
I don’t know. I think Sinn Fein will be a party of government. And we have been – we’ve held ministries in the North. I mean, it all very much depends – the people decide who’s in power. And if we get a sufficient mandate from people then we will be.
So you’d be prepared to go into coalition?
The only type of coalition that Sinn Fein would sign up to would be a coalition that could deliver on our key political priorities. And what we’re looking to do is to build a broader kind of coalition. Politics will change in Ireland. Leinster House – the Dail – is obviously crucial in all of it but it’s not the only arena of activity, and we’re looking to be part of a very broad coalition. People from the community sector, from non-governmental organisations – individuals who want to see progressive change in Ireland. And for the moment I think that’s really where the political action is at. Actually consolidating that. And giving back to people a sense of ownership and a sense of power, in terms of politics in Ireland. A lot of people view politics as something that’s done to you. And that’s really tragic. It has to be something that you participate in, that you have influence on, that’s responsive to you and the realities of your life.
Do you agree with the smoking ban? And do you smoke?
Em . . . I’m a reforming smoker. But I love tobacco, yeah. I do. What we said when the Minister brought forward the proposals was that he was absolutely on sound ground when he said that you have to protect the health and safety of bar workers. That’s absolutely a priority. But we thought that you could do it in a way that wasn’t as dramatic as just saying, ‘As of from midnight, there’ll be no more smoking in pubs’. So we were looking at an alternative, maybe a designated smoking area that was ventilated you could do it in a way that wasn’t as dramatic as just saying, ‘As of from midnight, there’ll be no more smoking in pubs’. So we were looking at an alternative, maybe a designated smoking area that was ventilated to standards. You know, different things, like no smoking at the bar and all of that. We think it could’ve been an Act that protected the health and safety of the workers, but then also allowed some latitude. But we weren’t completely against it.
Do you have a personal motto in life?
Do I have a personal motto? Em . . . don’t let the bastards get you down! Ha, ha! That’s a very Hot Pressy kind of answer, isn’t it?