Sinn Féin Shocker: Mary Lou McDonald Scores Big Election Win - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Sinn Féin Shocker: Mary Lou McDonald Scores Big Election Win

Sinn Féin Shocker: Mary Lou McDonald Scores Big Election Win

By Eugene S. Robinson

Mary Lou McDonald poses for an official photograph as the new president of Sinn Féin.
SourceCharles McQuillan/Getty


Because unless things are perfect, running against the status quo is always a smart-money move.

By Eugene S. Robinson

OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.

If the current global political season has delivered any sage messaging at all, it’s been that the only thing the electorate is finding more upsetting than political upset is the possibility of sticking to the status quo. So it is that Ireland in its general election charted a course away from where their ship of state has headed for the last 100 years. Courtesy of Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party — no relation to the American Republican Party — and its 50-year-old head, Mary Lou McDonald.

McDonald replaced the longstanding Gerry Adams, whose 34-year run saw Sinn Féin transitioning away from being the political wing of the by-any-means-necessary, oftentimes bloody Irish Republican Army (IRA) to a now very normal Irish nationalist party. And it is driven by very normal, and at this point global, domestic concerns: homelessness, health care and the difficulty in owning a home if you’re under 30.

These concerns have flourished despite the steady hand at the helm in the duopoly of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties that have presided over Ireland for decades and over an Irish economy that’s doing very well, thank you very much.

‘Official Ireland’ is terrified … and young people are delighted.

Michael Cunningham, former Irish Independent journalist and social media commentator

“‘Official Ireland’ is terrified,” says former Irish Independent journalist and social media commentator Michael Cunningham, who hails from Mayo, a westerly county. “And young people are delighted. But the UK Labour party influencers shunned Irish Labour in favor of Sinn Féin and smaller radical left parties.”

This came largely on account of the ready-for-prime-time McDonald, who, bereft of past paramilitary baggage, has succeeded in both playing politician between and betwixt Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and opposition party Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, all while successfully militating against the constitutional ban on abortion, backing a campaign to legalize gay marriage and playing the media like a fiddle. The result? Sinn Féin won 24.5 percent of first-preference votes, the most of any party and an enormous leap from about 10 percent four years ago. McDonald declared victory and said she’d launch talks to form a coalition government, a proposition the two leading parties had ruled out. Now they may have no choice. And a vote to unify the island — a long-held goal of Sinn Féin — looks closer than ever.

Irish-wry and from a fairly well-placed family that boasts builders, lawyers and scientists, McDonald now sits in the catbird seat. Varadkar, for his part, not widely held to be particularly personable, also made a deadly error coming into this campaign.

“He focused on Brexit,” Cunningham says about an issue in Ireland that exit polled as the top concern for 1 percent of the voting Irish public. “He didn’t resonate with the electorate. It’s housing and health care. And homelessness is out of control in Dublin. A big black eye for the government.”

So while critics have cautioned against seeing support for McDonald as some sort of Irish Trump-style protest vote, it’s clear, despite the general sense of jubilation that marks a postelection cycle for the winning party, that she has her work cut out for her.

“Northern Ireland is still a confused but separate political entity whose tribally opposed politicians have been pursuing opposite goals for generations,” says Belfast writer Kiran Acharya, giving a noticeable nod to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which hard-balled former British Prime Minister Teresa May during Brexit negotiations. The Unionists? Want to stay joined to the EU-leaving UK. The nationalists? Irish unification.

“The UK papers are getting it wrong, though,” Acharya says. “And publishing hot takes. While the Sinn Féin victory almost guarantees a border poll on Irish unity, nobody knows what the new Irish political landscape looks like yet.”

An assessment that would be news to McDonald, who in an interview on BBC Newsnight sent a message to the EU and everyone else that a stand must be taken on Irish unity “in the same way that it supported the reunification of Germany,” McDonald says. “This is happening, and if anybody imagines that this issue can be wished away … they are very, very foolish.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories