New Leader Of Ireland's Sinn Fein Party Discusses Her Goals For Political Change

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 6:51 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


For 34 years, the leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish political party, was Gerry Adams. Well, that changed last month. Meet the new face of Sinn Fein.


MARY LOU MCDONALD: The truth is, my friends, I won't fill Gerry's shoes. But the news is that I brought my own.


KELLY: Mary Lou McDonald speaking at a rally in Belfast. She is the new president of Sinn Fein, and she's part of a new generation in Irish politics. She's 48. She has no direct link to The Troubles, the long conflict in Northern Ireland that saw thousands killed. Mary Lou McDonald joins me now from Dublin. Welcome to the program.

MCDONALD: Hello, Mary Louise. It's great to be on and great talking to you.

KELLY: Great to speak to you, always glad to have another Mary Lou on the program.

MCDONALD: Absolutely.

KELLY: And I liked the line about bringing your own shoes. It seemed a gracious way to acknowledge that you are filling very big shoes succeeding a man who was and remains a legend in Irish politics. What's that been like?

MCDONALD: Absolutely. And not alone is Gerry a legend in Irish political life, they say that he is possibly the best-known Irishman - maybe the best-known Irish person in the world and not surprising given the enormous strides that have been made in Ireland in building what has proven to be a very robust peace process against the backdrop of many, many decades of conflict. He has been in many, many ways my political mentor. And I'm very conscious that I would not attempt to fill his shoes. But as you could hear from that clip, I don't feel that I have to. I think the whole purpose of political leadership and changing leadership is that we do that on our own terms, respectful of the past, guarding very carefully all of the progress that we have made but in a way that resonates with now and with the future.

KELLY: You talk about being respectful of the past and about him as your mentor. You, too, have had very different journeys to running Sinn Fein. I mean, he came to politics in the '70s in Belfast, and he was accused - I know that he has denied, but he was accused of personally ordering killings during The Troubles. I mean, I know we want to talk about the future, but let me start with the past and how heavily you feel it weighs on Sinn Fein and on the role you have just taken on.

MCDONALD: You're absolutely right. I mean, we're different generations. I'm a woman. I'm a Dubliner. I'm from what's called the South rather than the North of Ireland.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCDONALD: So yes, it's been very, very different. I think the things that we have in common, though, are perhaps when you move beyond the superficial much more profound where we're both people who are Irish Republicans, we believe in the freedom of Ireland, in the equality and dignity of people and social justice, things that are - really drive my politics.

KELLY: Her politics include wanting to end Ireland's ban on abortion. Mary Lou McDonald ran on a broad platform - no special focus on women's issues - but she is more than happy to talk about what it is like to be a woman in Irish politics. You gave an interview that made me laugh to Irish television, Irish late-night TV, in which you described a chorus of men - your words - who have found it their business to mansplain to you how to do your job.


KELLY: How rampant is mansplaining in Irish politics?

MCDONALD: (Laughter) It is a virtual epidemic across this land. No, it's not. I mean, in fairness...

KELLY: (Laughter) What do they say? What do they tell you?

MCDONALD: It just became almost painful listening to a whole series of commentators, most of whom were older men, openly talking on the public airwaves around, you know, how I was either incapable of doing the job or how I was going to struggle with the job or how I should do the job. Astonishingly, what all of these men had in common was that none of them had ever been elected to public office. None of them, so far as I know, had ever led anything. I'm not sure if they even ever captained, like, their local football team.

And I just got slightly impatient with, you know, kind of in that way that is almost talking to me as though I were a child. And I know I'm a new generation of political leader, and I know I'm younger than - clearly than my predecessor, but I'm not a 12-year-old kid, you know? I've done this work for some time.

KELLY: McDonald's work now includes, among other things, steering her party through what are proving painful Brexit negotiations. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which is leaving the European Union. The South, the Republic of Ireland, will remain in the EU, which prompted my next question - is a hard border inevitable?

MCDONALD: You hit the nail on the head there now, Mary Louise, by saying Ireland is a small island, so the very idea of part of it inside the European Union and part of it outside the European Union is just crazy. I mean, it's crazy anyhow that the island is partitioned. We have two sets of everything - health systems, education systems, currencies and so on. But while both parts remain within the European Union, at least we have common law and regulations and so on in pretty much every facet and an aspect of life. And when the peace agreement was made 20 years ago, it was posited on the fact that we were all in the European Union. So it made commerce and trade and sharing services and building joint political institutions actually straightforward enough.

What Brexit means is that the whole basis of that peace agreement is undermined. It is as simple as that Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord, are mutually incompatible. You cannot have one and have the other.

KELLY: That agreement McDonald mentions, the 1998 Good Friday deal, brought peace after decades of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the power-sharing agreement it set up has been deadlocked for more than a year. London is threatening to reimpose direct rule. That is another challenge McDonald inherited. So how's she plan to go about fixing it?

MCDONALD: We came very, very close to fixing it a few short weeks ago. We've been in negotiations for almost 14 months. So where that leaves us is in a situation where the outstanding issues still need to be dealt with. I mean, there's no - there's no way around that.

KELLY: Do you think that it is likely that London will step in and reimpose direct rule?

MCDONALD: Well, we have it as our objective, and we are assured by others that the objective is to get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement back up and running. So that's the assembly and the executive, the government of the North. That remains our objective. We have told the British government that direct rule is not an option. Direct rule from Westminster, from London, would be a massive step back and would be all the more unacceptable given that this year we mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

And we know because we are realists, we are pragmatists and we are people who are a party of dialogue that whatever way this shapes up, ultimately there is no alternative other than ourselves, Irish Nationalists and Republicans, sitting down with the DUP - that's the Democratic Unionist Party - and actually dialoguing. You only sort out political problems, you only build political progress by talking to people. And very often, the most important conversations are the conversations that you have with those people and sections of society with whom you most profoundly disagree.

KELLY: Mary Lou McDonald, the new leader of the Irish political party Sinn Fein, thanks so much.

MCDONALD: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.