Sinn Féin deputy president Mary Lou McDonald
The ‘Ra ‘under the bed’.
Recent poll setbacks.
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald talked to Miriam Cotton last night for the ‘sheet about all that and why few understand the troubles she didn’t see.
Miriam Cotton: “[Garda Commissioner] Noirin O’Sullivan and [Minister for Justice] Frances Fitzgerald have clarified the situation with regard to the IRA and have confirmed that it has been disbanded. But concerns remain, they say. Isn’t it true that Sinn Féin hasn’t done enough to distance itself from former paramilitary associates? Surely the party has intelligence about suspected or known criminal and vigilante activity among these former associates that it could share with the PSNI, for example?”
Mary Lou McDonald: “The position as regards the IRA has been clarified in the way that you describe but I have to say that, for anybody like me who grew up in Dublin at a distance but with the troubles, as they were called, as background noise – and certainly for people living in the North of Ireland – it is manifestly the case that the IRA has gone away. Its military structures have been disbanded, its weapons have been decommissioned and there is a process of peace – an imperfect one, albeit. We are on an incomplete journey as of yet, it is true to say, but nonetheless a very robust process has been put in place.
As regards what Sinn Féin can do, the record of the party and the party leaders stands on its own merit over the last 20 years or so. Certainly, in the here and now, I think it is most unreasonable and really a bit of a try-on for other political parties and other entities to demand that Sinn Féin be answerable for the criminal actions and misdemeanours of those who may have had an association with the IRA at some stage in the past. That is not a reasonable ask if you consider that thousands – or tens of thousands – went through the prison system in the course of the conflict. Are we therefore saying that Sinn Féin is to be answerable for any misdemeanour or criminal act that any one of these individuals might have been involved in? That’s absolutely crazy. The job of keeping the peace and enforcing law and order and of upholding the law in general rests in the hands of the PSNI, An Gárda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners where appropriate. And we, like any other citizens, expect those agencies to carry out their tasks and their functions.”
Cotton: “Why do you think [northern Sinn Féin boss] Bobby Storey was arrested?”
McDonald: “Bobby Storey has set out in no uncertain terms his deep, deep concern and indeed anger at his arrest. He has said categorically that there was no evidence produced, not a shred, no intelligence produced – again not a shred either to him or to his legal representatives as to why he was arrested and detained. As you are probably aware, that will now be the subject of a legal action by Bobby Storey who has instructed his legal representative. Obviously this will also be raised within the accountability mechanisms that oversee policing arrangements in the North. As a political leadership we are seeking a meeting with [PSNI chief] George Hamilton to put our very deep concerns to him and equally will be raising them with the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. I can’t answer as to why this arrest happened. What I can say is that the persons arrested were released after the 48 hours unconditionally and certainly in the case of Bobby Storey – I can’t speak for anybody else – but in his case his arrest appears to have had absolutely no foundation in fact.”
Cotton: “Is there anything Sinn Féin could have done differently to avoid the latest collapse in the Stormont government?”
McDonald: “Well, bear in mind that long before the atrocious, cold-blooded murder of two men on the streets of Belfast – in the Markets and in East Belfast – before they were seized on by those who wished to posture for their own political advantage, there were problems within the system and within the Assembly and the Executive and they largely centred on and remain centred on issues of a budgetary nature. There has been a very substantial cut to what is called the Block Grant. Further cuts are envisaged – swingeing Tory austerity and a part of that are proposals to introduce what are euphemistically referred to as welfare reforms but in fact amount to welfare cuts. Certainly the British government was very keen to strong-arm the Assembly and its parties, including ourselves, to administer and introduce these cuts and we have refused to do so.”
“Sinn Féin led the charge in that regard as had the SDLP. Unionism had to an extent joined our efforts to face down the British administration. We did arrive at an accommodation in Stormont House last Christmas if you recall, but unfortunately when it came to implementing that particular agreement, what we understood to have been agreed in respect of protecting current recipients, Unionism was not prepared to honour. Therein lies the immediate, if you like, wrangle in respect of budgetary matters. But there is also a longer term issue and it relates to the fact that the Assembly and the Executive don’t enjoy fiscal powers and this is something that we have been raising consistently. We have been saying that where the Executive and the Assembly are to run public services, ensure their smooth and efficient operation, engender a climate of enterprise, create job opportunities and so on, it’s illogical to make that ask of an Executive with both hands tied behind its back. So our view is that every sensible person who wishes to see a dynamic economic environment, who wishes to see fully resourced and quality public services must surely understand that the sensible, pragmatic thing is for fiscal powers to be vested in the Assembly. We have made progress in respect of the issue of corporation tax although that discussion is not fully complete but we believe very strongly that the full range of tax-raising powers must be vested in the Assembly. I know that is a long answer but there are certainly short-term, immediate budgetary issues in respect of so-called welfare reform and in respect of getting a workable budget for the North as a community coming out of conflict and in a very particular, special case confronting very specific issues. There is also then the much longer term trajectory of creating a scenario in which economic dynamism and growth and quality employment and job opportunities are made and created. You have to be given the toolkit to make those things happen.”
Cotton: “What efforts have Fine Gael and Labour made to work with Sinn Féin to resolve the present situation? They have spoken with other parties in the North – have they approached you with any constructive suggestions?”
McDonald: “No, not so far and over the last four and a half years we have been raising, particularly our leader Gerry Adams has been raising, with the Taoiseach the fact that the Taoiseach has been very disengaged from developments in the North. The government as a whole have not demonstrated any appetite or any understanding for developing the peace process and moving it forward. They seem to forget that they are guarantors of internationally binding agreements. In respect of the most recent turn of events, I think they made a number of very clumsy and ill-conceived interventions. I attended a meeting alongside Gerry [Adams] with [Minister for Foreign Affairs] Charlie Flanagan where he tried to sell the idea of an adjournment of the institutions. We absolutely rejected that and subsequently the Assembly Business Committee very sensibly rejected that proposal.”
“We had to explain in some detail that you cannot allow events in the criminal justice system and criminal acts on the streets of Belfast to be used and manipulated in such a manner – to destabilise, to undermine or to adjourn and suspend democratic institutions and democratically mandated representatives. We are not going backwards to that place, it’s not going to happen. I very much hope that in the time ahead the Taoiseach and the entire government will be constructive and will understand now the seriousness of where things are at – and the depth of their own responsibilities in respect of things in the North.”
“Needless to say some of the comments over the last number of weeks from the likes of Joan Burton, from Enda Kenny – and from Micheál Martin perhaps most notably, demonstrated a really craven level of political opportunism. They seem to misunderstand entirely the implication of their posturing. It seems to me that there is almost an irresistible temptation in the mind of Micheál Martin and Joan Burton – and sadly it seems Enda Kenny to play fast and loose with the institutions for the sake of a couple of percentage points in the opinion polls. That to me is no way to govern.”
Cotton: “What is your response to Arlene Foster in her role as First Minister in particular to her comments about the trustworthiness of nationalists?”
McDonald: “Well, I think they are very, very obnoxious on one level and they represent very unacceptable commentary. When I heard what Arlene had to say I was reminded of that old phrase ‘not a Fenian about the place’. That seems to be the place where they are coming from. I suppose Arlene needs not just to understand but to start articulating very clearly that the days of single party rule, of unionist domination and so on are gone. They are not coming back ever and those with democratic mandates, including Arlene by the way and her party, and those in unionism, nationalism and republicanism – are there absolutely, correctly on a democratic basis and really to start that kind of nonsense and that kind of lowest common denominator politics is certainly not helpful. I would have to say I don’t think her comments do her any credit as the acting First Minister.”
Cotton: “What do you think will happen to the investigation into NAMA-related activities and the issues that have been causing concern there.”
McDonald: “Because the institutions have remained live and have remained up and running – certainly our ministers are at their desks and will be working in the days ahead – as is the finance committee which as you know is chaired by my party colleague Daithi McKay. Evidence has been heard by that committee. And of course here in the South, NAMA are due to appear in front of the Public Accounts Committee on the 1st of October so we will be following all of these matters with great interest and what is an unfolding scandal, we believe. I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. It’s on one level a very complex story that’s emerging but the concerns that arise around the governance of NAMA, I suppose close political circles, concerns about corrupt or corrupted process, suggestions of corrupt payments. All of these are of the utmost concern and it’s very important that those of us living in the southern jurisdiction understand that, although much of the intrigue has played out or centred on the North, this is a national story because of course NAMA is in the final analysis a creature of the Oireachtas. It is the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan and indeed An Taoiseach who ultimately are answerable for any flaws, for any malpractice or for anything more serious which might emerge in the coming period . It is still a matter of astonishment to me that although Michael Noonan knew that the initial bid for Project Eagle’s Northern loan book had been compromised and corrupted in a most serious manner where backhanders were sought essentially from a bidding entity but he still went ahead and didn’t suspend the process. He allowed the process to continue albeit with different bidders. That to me is an astonishing way to carry out your business – and also that Michael Noonan didn’t deem it necessary, or the southern government didn’t deem it necessary to inform the Office of First and Deputy First Minister as to what had happened. Astonishing, astonishing stuff.”
Cotton: “You were born in 1969 and were saying earlier that you had no immediate or direct involvement in the war that went on in the North and that the peace process is moving on for people like you and for everyone involved. By the same token isn’t it true that while Sinn Féin is led by people so closely identified with its paramilitary past that the party is unlikely to lead a government? Given the sensitivity of the situation for people who were personally affected and the political capital that your opponents in Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil in particular are able to make of the situation while Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others are still in charge, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they moved on too?”
McDonald: “Well, the prerequisite for Sinn Féin being in government is enough votes and a sufficient mandate for that to happen. So, actually, in real terms that decision is in the hands of the people not in the hands of Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Micheál Martin or anyone else. It’s a democratic decision that the electorate has to take. I do take your point that there are those in politics and I would also have to say that in politics and in the media and in particular in Independent News and Media there are people who view the past and the conflict and all the rest of it as fertile ground to have a go at Sinn Féin and to have a go at republicans. You know they absolutely forget or omit to give all of the other dimensions of what happened in the course of the conflict in respect of the British state, the RUC, Loyalist paramilitaries who as we know colluded with the British state and were their proxies in many cases. None of that gets any airing.”
“You’d imagine that the conflict was entirely one-sided and of course they will seek very cynically, I believe, to make hay with that. But what they cannot do though is to deny what is self-evident on the streets particularly in the North and that is that the situation has been utterly, utterly transformed. Nor that the process although very challenging initially and challenging to this day is now embedded and that Sinn Fein and Irish republicans right across the country and indeed beyond are absolutely wedded to this process and determined to make it a success. The propaganda attacks from the outside will not deter us from this course. If someone was to leave Sinn Féin it’s not the case that the negative elements would simply give up the ghost and go away. There are certain people who have a particular view which is hostile to us and to the politics that we represent, to the challenge that we represent to the status quo and to the project that we have for a United Ireland, a democratic Ireland, an equal Ireland. They will come at us with whatever they can reach for to try and stop us in our tracks. That’s the reality of it. Would that change irrespective of who was leading the party? I don’t think so. I would also say that as you cited specifically Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness I’m very proud that they are our leaders and I think they are two outstanding leaders and I think that when the history books are written that will be well recorded.”
Cotton: “Fine Gael has seen an increase in popularity according to the latest Red C poll. Would you be concerned that this is the beginning of a slide in Sinn Féin’s popularity and what do you think accounts for the poll?”
McDonald: “Well I suppose with opinion polls you have to read them on trends and I still believe the trend for us is extremely strong and that we’re in a good place. Obviously I don’t underestimate that we need to get out there and get our message across and win every vote that we can and convince every voter that we can. I take no vote bar my own ever for granted and I’m reluctant to read a single opinion poll in isolation but I do note that when the Dáil isn’t sitting that you tend to see a recovery in the polling performance of government parties because obviously the Dáil isn’t in session and they are not being held to account for whatever the goings-on whether it’s Fennelly, or whether it’s the manner in which they have bungled and mishandled the crisis in the North. I think that’s an element of it. But look, without wishing to sound clichéd the only poll that will actually matter is the poll on the day whenever the Taoiseach calls the election and people finally make up their minds. There is of course a danger that people lapse into the traditional patterns of voting but given everything that has happened over the last number of years I think a huge number of people have become politicised. I think a huge number of people now look at Irish politics differently than they would two or three or four or five years ago. I think there is a real appetite for change but I think that people want to know that this change is real and concrete and that it’s not simply pie in the sky or rhetoric and that is the challenge for the likes of us in the election, to demonstrate that change is possible, that change can be real.”
Cotton: “There’s definitely a concern abroad that whatever politicians may say in opposition if the opportunity presents itself to get into government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, despite all the promises they are prepared to abandon all their principles to get there.”
McDonald: “That’s a huge problem and it’s at the root of an awful lot of people’s cynicism. I understand that, I completely get that. When you heard, for instance Pat Rabbitte saying as regards the Labour Party’s broken promise ‘oh sure that’s what you do in an election’ – when senior figures from the Labour Party are saying that out loud sure little wonder that people are cynical so I understand that. I would see it as our job during the course of the campaign – and after the campaign whatever the outcome is to demonstrate that in fact there are those of us in political life who put a premium on not just making promises but on holding to them – and being held to them after the fact. I think that’s absolutely essential.”
Cotton: “What do you think is the significance for people in Northern Ireland of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party and could he help to resolve the present crisis?”
McDonald: “Well, Jeremy is a longstanding friend of Ireland as you know. He is certainly a person who has never been afraid to take a principled stand on issues that he believes to be right and to face down, even when it wasn’t popular to do so, things that he believed to be wrong. So I believe that Jeremy is an extremely honourable man and I’m very pleased and indeed delighted for him that he has come through and that he has won this great victory.
He will now in the first instance I suppose have to sit down with his colleagues and take stock and then set out their priorities and their stall. I would of course hope that the British Labour Party would be extremely supportive of our efforts starting [today] to straighten matters out, to ensure that we achieve a workable budget for the institutions and then moving forward to look specifically at the issue of the transfer or devolution of powers.”
“I would hope that the Labour Party would be a helpful, proactive and positive influence in that regard. Bear in mind also that whatever the differences, and they are quite considerable between Jeremy and his predecessor Tony Blair, it would have to be said in a spirit of fairness that the contribution of the Labour Party under Tony Blair’s leadership to developing the peace process was very, very considerable. So I suppose the Labour Party has more skin in the game than the Tories in respect of building peace in Ireland.”
Miriam Cotton is a freelance journalist and founding editor of MediaBite