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ANALYSIS: Mary Lou McDonald's presidency is filled with opportunities and challenges for Sinn Féin

The task facing a Mary Lou McDonald-led Sinn Féin is to chart a course back to a devolved power-sharing government at Stormont
Chris Donnelly

MARY Lou McDonald's elevation to the role of party president is one filled with opportunities and challenges for Sinn Féin.

2017 marked a high point electorally for the party in the north, and the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations, British and Irish government tensions and the Tory-DUP Westminster deal has meant that expectations for a political breakthrough in the north are far from high.

The task facing a Mary Lou McDonald-led Sinn Féin is to chart a course back to a devolved power-sharing government at Stormont that can be sustained on the basis of mutual respect.

That will require not only the implementation of an Irish Language Act and advances on legacy issues and same sex marriage, but a significant change to how Sinn Féin is set up at Stormont to ensure that the party is fit for purpose and better positioned than during the DUP-McGuinness era to devise, articulate and ultimately progress its own political agenda within the institutions - as opposed to playing second fiddle to the DUP.

The absence of a short-term deal may provide McDonald with the opportunity to advance a reform agenda internally which will suit the party in the longer term.

McDonald's primary area of expertise is in the south, and she will be acutely aware of the challenges facing the party amidst the ongoing Brexit negotiations and the impending 8th Amendment referendum. McDonald's leadership is likely to be marked by a sharpening of the party's ideological positioning. Sinn Féin's strategic objective is to be firmly embedded as the party of the Left and voice for progressives, north and south.

The prize for successfully laying claim to this ground is to occupy the kingmakers ground in southern Irish politics, positioned for coalition with either of the two main parties and with the potential to advance their republican and social/economic agenda in both Dublin and Belfast simultaneously.

The 8th Amendment referendum won't be without difficulties for the new party leader. Many Sinn Féin elected representatives and voters are conservative Catholics, and the party's refusal to date to allow a conscience vote on the matter could lead to the loss of significant figures to the party - none more so than Peadar Toibin, SF's Meath based TD, who is also one of its most impressive Dail performers. How McDonald manages the internal tensions in the coming months will be a very public test of her authority and ability to guide the party effectively.

The news last week that another TD, Dessie Ellis, was allowed to keep his entire Dail salary will cause rumblings within the party that will require a decisive and effective response from McDonald, and it is to be hoped that she uses the opportunity to discard a well-meaning but outdated and counterproductive policy that continues to significantly limit the party's potential to attract and retain figures with professional expertise and skills to the ranks of its elected representatives and team of advisors.

This deficit was sorely felt at Stormont during the devolution years. With civic nationalism raising its voice recently through a public letter to the Irish News signed by several hundred leading professionals, the time has never been better for Sinn Féin to recruit professionals capable of raising both the party's game and electoral appeal, as John Finucane's candidacy in North Belfast during the 2017 Westminster election campaign powerfully demonstrated.

Gerry Adams will retire next month as SF leader after serving in the post for 34 years and 3 months, exactly one year longer than Eamon De Valera served as leader of Fianna Fail. Dev's successor, Sean Lemass, would be credited with modernising the party and sharpening its political and policy agendas, with a greater eye to detail than the iconic republican leader who had preceded him and whose name had become synonymous with the party.

In following Gerry Adams, Mary Lou has big shoes to fill. But she is right to focus on the shoes she brings to fill herself. Sinn Féin, and the pro-Irish unity project, needs a Lemassian figure now, and McDonald will ultimately be judged by her ability to advance a reformed and ideologically-sharper republican agenda whilst maintaining internal unity and cohesion across and within the two political jurisdictions.

:: Chris Donnelly is a political commentator and a former Sinn Féin election candidate

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