by Sabina Clarke
With Northern Ireland once again front and center and the 15th congressional hearing on Northern Ireland just held in March, a Sinn Fein delegation arrived in Washington, D. C. for a round of follow-up talks regarding the stalled peace process and the current impasse in the Haass Proposals set forth by Dr. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Dr. Haass was invited in 2013 as an independent chair by the multiple parties to put forth a proposal and address some of the most divisive political issues affecting Northern Ireland. For his efforts to promote peace and resolution there he received the 2013 Tipperary International Peace Award.
Mary Lou McDonald,TD, Teachta Dail or deputy in Irish Parliament for Dublin Central and Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on Public Expenditure & Reform was part of the delegation. I met with her briefly at the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade and we spoke later the next day.
McDonald, who hails from the affluent Dublin suburb of Rathgar, was educated at Notre Dame High School, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Limerick and Dublin City University where she studied English Literature, European Integration Studies and Human Resource Management.
Prior to joining Sinn Fein in 1998, she worked as a consultant for the Irish Productivity Centre; as a researcher for the Institute for European Affairs; and as a trainer in the trade union-sponsored Partnership Unit of the Educational and Training Services Trust.
From 2004 to 2009, she represented Dublin as a member of European Parliament and was a prominent member of the Employment & Social Affairs Committee and the Civil Liberties Committee. And she led both Sinn Fein campaigns against the Lisbon Treaty and was part of the negotiating team that delivered the St. Andrew’s Agreement.
Her work in the Dail encompasses a broad spectrum of issues including gender and marriage equality. And she is particularly passionate about securing justice for the victims of the Magdalene Laundries. On March 2nd, at the third annual ‘Flowers for Magdalenes’ event at Glasnevin Cemetery honoring the women and girls who died while incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries, she addressed a crowd of more than 100 people.
Despite Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s public apology to the Magdalenes in 2013 on behalf of the government and the state, McDonald is critical of his failure to deliver on a promise, “A year on, we still wait for the delivery of compensation and services to these women. The lives of the women survivors have been and continue to be characterized by psychological suffering, poverty and stigma. They should not have to suffer further due to additional delays in the restorative justice process.”
She is equally as passionate about Sinn Fein’s commitment to a united Ireland clarifying that for Sinn Fein “It is not merely to manipulate an emotional issue rather it is about capturing the immense resources North and South — it is about who we are and about being our best.”
As Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on Public Expenditure & Reform she is at the forefront of challenging the coalition government of Labour and Fine Gael on the excessive pay and pensions paid out across the top of the public sector. For a glimpse of her unique oratorical skills and impressive political savvy, watch her 2014 Dail budget address on You Tube and witness her withering attack on the present coalition government of Fine Gael & Labour — a government she calls “arrogant, out of touch and utterly indifferent to the effects of cutbacks, unemployment and emigration on our society.”
Armed with the facts, Mc Donald packs a powerful punch—sparing nothing as she dispenses the final blow gazing unflinchingly at Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fine Gael Leader, and Eamon Gilmore, Labour Party Leader as she concludes with: “It is now clear that you don’t have a plan for recovery or economic growth. You’ve been in the government three years and there is no improvement. Your legacy is one of hopelessness and utter hopelessness. With 1.6 billion in cuts to the most vulnerable — the poor and the elderly — all is not fine. Everything is not fine in Ireland.”
Mary Lou McDonald was only 12 years old during the 1981 Long Kesh Hunger Strike which she says had a profound impact on her, “Anyone of my generation who saw those images of the H-blocks beamed into their homes was changed. For me, it was the precise moment that I, as a Dublin girl, realized how seriously wrong something was. I completely understood and understand why people volunteered for the IRA. I support and recognize the right to meet force with force. Do I understand why volunteers came forward; was it necessary to take up arms against the British state in the North? I believe it was, even though I take no pleasure in saying that.”
Although she lived in a comfortable home in Dublin far from The Troubles, the Hunger Strike stirred old family memories of her grandmother’s brother who was executed by the state in the Curragh camp in 1922 and of a grandmother “who never forgave or forgot.”
She calls the Hunger Strike her “road to Damascus” moment – a road that sparked her interest in government service and ultimately led her to Sinn Fein where she found the opportunity she was seeking “to make a difference” and finally to the nation’s Capitol as part of an elite negotiating team on the cusp of a new Ireland.
Regarding her recent Washington, D.C. visit: Were you satisfied with your meetings in D.C.? “I was satisfied with the talks in D.C., they went very well. We met with the State Department, the Friends of Ireland in Congress and a few Senators. It was a very busy day and a very successful one. As we do every year, we appreciate the interest of the people of the United States in the peace process but we are very concerned that the Haass proposals have so far been rejected by Unionism. We recognize that the past, flags and parades have to be dealt with and we believe that the work done by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan represented a reasonable and fair way forward. So, we have been talking to people here about urging Unionism to come onboard and make the Haass proposals a reality.”
What specifically did the unionists object to? “One of the objections the unionists had to the Haass proposals was regarding the approved code of conduct for the parades. There are more than 3,000 parades, with a handful of them very, very contentious. And we have said that the way to resolve this is with face-to-face dialogue between those who wish to parade and the host community. We believe this represents a basic democratic principle and a basic level of courtesy. However the Orange Order has turned their face away from that, and that is deeply regrettable.
If they imagine for a second, that these issues are just going to go away or if they imagine that we have the luxury of not having to deal with them — then they are very very much mistaken. We are very anxious to open up the conversation around identity, the past and the conflict –and to allow a process that is victim centered and allows the person some level of comfort and clarity on all sides who suffered in the Troubles – a very long and very vicious conflict.”
With the spirit of triumphalism that surrounds some of the Orange Order parades, is banning the parades an option? Eliminating or banning the parades is not an option. We are trying to build and consolidate the peace and it is all about anti-partition and the reunification of our country. It is for us to convince and reassure the Unionist people of their place in the Irish nation and in a united Ireland and to convince them also that equality will threaten no one.
We need a partner from Unionism to help us build on the peace process — and let me say; it can be extremely frustrating for Sinn Fein when Unionism is so obstructionist.
Can you see a united Ireland happening in the near future? I don’t have a timeline but I do believe it will happen in my lifetime and in my working lifetime.
If Adams’ protégé Mary Lou McDonald has a say…a united Ireland may just be on the horizon.
“It is now clear that you don’t have a plan for recovery or economic growth. You’ve been in the government three years and there is no improvement. Your legacy is one of hopelessness and utter hopelessness. With 1.6 billion in cuts to the most vulnerable — the poor and the elderly — all is not fine. Everything is not fine in Ireland.”
“Anyone of my generation who saw those images of the H-blocks beamed into their homes was changed. For me, it was the precise moment that I, as a Dublin girl, realized how seriously wrong something was. I completely understood and understand why people volunteered for the IRA. I support and recognize the right to meet force with force. Do I understand why volunteers came forward; was it necessary to take up arms against the British state in the North? I believe it was, even though I take no pleasure in saying that.”