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Newstalk

18.02 11 Sep 2019


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Anyone who's started a new job will know it takes time to find your feet.

Especially when you're taking over from your former boss. Especially when that boss had the gig for 35 years.

Mary Lou McDonald concedes that if she had the time back she'd approach her first year and seven months as Sinn Féin leader a different way.

"Oh God I'd do countless things differently," she said at the party's away day ahead of the new Dáil term.

"You learn by doing. There isn't a manual that comes with being the leader of Sinn Féin. You don't get a tutorial.

"I've had my moments and I've stumbled a little bit. But that's ok, I think, so long as I'm prepared to steady myself and to move on."

Local elections

The biggest stumble so far was in the local and European elections. The party lost 78 council seats and two of its three MEPs.

What was almost more worrying was that nobody saw it coming.

One Sinn Féin TD admits there was a lot of "soul-searching" in the few weeks after May's elections and that leadership has spent months trying to figure out what went wrong.

As ever, there wasn't just one cause. Leadership figures believe the party got its message wrong.

It made big gains as an anti-austerity voice but there are fewer disaffected voters when the economy is going well.

The collapse of talks aimed at restoring the Stormont Executive and repeatedly having to defend the policy of abstentionism from Westminster also damaged Sinn Féin.

There's a belief in the party that they have credible answers to lots of the problem facing the country, but have failed to convince people of that.

So Sinn Féin will try to rebrand on the fly during the new Dáil term.

Mary Lou McDonald talks of wanting to be "the party of solutions" - throwing off the image of Sinn Féin as just another protest party.

That's going to involve changing how they interact with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

"When I talk about taking them on," McDonald says. "I'm not talking about attack politics, and I'm not even talking about politics of blame. I'm talking about the politics of solutions."

Party leader

Some in Sinn Féin also believe that becoming party leader has limited what the public see of Mary Lou and hidden some of the qualities that saw her rise in national politics.

Most clips on the news are taken from Leaders' Questions in the Dáil, where the opposition has a chance to question the government three times a week.

There are set time limits on questions and answers (even if they're often ignored) and the exchanges are naturally adversarial and often scripted.

But McDonald was most effective and compelling when grilling people at the Public Accounts Committee or on TV panel shows, something she doesn't do anymore as leader.

Sinn Féin's brains trust is still trying to figure out how to put her into different situations in the media without losing the air of prestige that surrounds party leaders, who typically don't do panel shows on TV and radio.

But the party believes this is something that will come right for them in a general election where McDonald will take part in a number of televised leaders debates, an arena she can excel in.

'Learning to walk in my own shoes'

Sinn Féin's pre-Dáil term away day happened right on the border this year in the Carrickdale Hotel in Co Louth, home constituency of Gerry Adams.

While Enda Kenny is rarely seen in the Dáil since leaving as leader of Fine Gael, Adams is often watching proceedings just a few rows behind Mary Lou.

He remains a hero to the party membership and even if he was a bit doddery on detail by the end, he brought Sinn Féin from having just one Dáil seat in 1997 to 23 in his final election.

Adams was always going to be a tough act to follow. McDonald openly acknowledges there's lots she'd do differently since taking the hot seat from him.

"I'd do loads differently. In some cases I opened up avenues of attack on me from political opponents that I'd be smarter about now."

It's the most detail she would get into on specific regrets.

"That will be for my memoirs," she suggested. "The chapter that will be marked 'learning to walk in my own shoes.'"

She'll need to learn to walk fast, as a repeat of May's performance in the upcoming general election could see Mary Lou McDonald marching straight out of a job.

Reporting by Sean Defoe
Main image: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald alongside party colleagues speaking to the media before a party meeting at the Carrickdale Hotel and Spa in Dundalk. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

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