Dublin Central TD Mary Lou McDonald has been elected unopposed as President of Sinn Féin, replacing Gerry Adams who held the job for almost 35 years. McDonald joined Fianna Fáil in the late 1990s, before switching to Sinn Féin. She was elected as the party’s first MEP in 2004, before gaining a seat in the Dáil in 2011.
Along with the election of Sinn Féin’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill as the party’s vice president, McDonald’s elevation signals a handover to a “post-conflict” generation. Both are long-time Adams allies but Sinn Féin hopes that passing the leadership to figures with no IRA background will help it broaden its base of support in the Republic of Ireland.
Recent years have also seen significant strategic changes in Sinn Féin’s approach. After losing the Dublin South-West by-election in October 2014 to the Anti-Austerity Alliance (Socialist Party of Ireland) candidate Paul Murphy, Sinn Féin attempted to tap in to growing anti-austerity sentiment and anger against water charges by posing as the “Irish Syriza”.
As was pointed out by political opponents, this stance sat uneasily with its leading role in the government in Stormont, where the “Fresh Start Agreement” with the DUP in late 2015 paved the way to welfare cuts and a planned cut to corporation tax to bring it in line with the 12.5% rate in the Republic.
In January 2017, McDonald signalled that the party would drop its existing policy not to enter into government unless Sinn Féin was the largest party — opening out the possibility of a coalition government with one of the main establishment parties. This was formalised in November 2017 at the party’s Ard Fheis (conference), with McDonald announcing that “this isn’t about us saying we are signed up to be a junior partner. This is us saying we are willing and able to be part of government,” adding that Sinn Féin is willing to talk to “everybody”. Since taking office, McDonald has also signalled a willingness to resolve the impasse in Stormont, which has left the North without an Executive since early 2017.
All but dropping its stipulation that DUP leader Arlene Foster should not be First Minister until her role in the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal is investigated, McDonald told Sky that Foster is someone her party can “do business” with, and that “the issues are clear, the issues are resolvable”.
One of McDonald’s major challenges in the coming months will be to determine Sinn Féin’s policy on the upcoming referendum on appealing the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution. Sinn Féin is currently committed to repeal but has not, as yet, endorsed the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly to allow abortion on demand up to the first 12 weeks. Instead it currently supports abortion only on the condition that a woman was been raped, is suicidal or has a fatal foetal abnormality — clearly not a pro-choice position.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Ireland has announced it is dissolving itself into its front People Before Profit (PBP). The SWP will now be called the Socialist Workers Network (SWN), organised around “a major new website”. In a statement, the SWN said that the change “reflects a decision to focus on building People Before Profit, and within that to win and educate as many members as possible in revolutionary socialist politics. “To that end, the Socialist Workers Network will be operating as a component part of People Before Profit and, more occasionally, as an independent external force.” It promises, gnomically, “to produce high-quality Marxist literature that is written in the language of the 21st century and attractive to a new generation of anti-capitalists.” Whether or not this reflects a USFI-style advocacy of a “new epoch, new programme, new party”, leading to the effective disavowal of the need to build an explicitly revolutionary party, is as yet unclear. However, PBP released a statement on 11 February congratulating Mary Lou McDonald “for assuming the leadership of Sinn Fein”, and praising her as “an articulate voice against austerity”.
The statement criticised Sinn Féin’s position on abortion and expressed concern that it may enter government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. But the tone, the advice of a friendly critic, will not reassure those concerned that the dissolution of the SWP signals a move to the right.