Mary Lou McDonald talks candidly about shake-up and ‘fresh chapter for Sinn Féin in Derry’

Mary Lou McDonald says Sinn Féin is beginning a ‘fresh chapter’ as the party begins the process of selecting two new Derry MLAs.

By Kevin Mullan
Friday, 27th August 2021, 5:29 pm

The party president was in Derry yesterday for meetings with the Chamber of Commerce and party activists.

During her visit she spoke candidly about a recent party review that recommended its two MLAs Karen Mullan and Martina Anderson stand down in time for the next Assembly election.

The decision surprised many when it became public in April with Ms. Anderson describing it as a ‘body blow.’ However, both representatives agreed to stand aside and will now take on new roles.

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Deputy McDonald told the ‘Journal’ she was in Derry to ‘reconnect with people’ and meet with ‘party activists’.

She paid tribute to the two outgoing MLAs describing them as ‘very fine activists’ who had made ‘considerable contributions.’

“Martina, who is a member of our national leadership, will now go back into international and specifically European work which I’m really pleased about and Karen is taking on a regional role for the north west which will marry up northern representatives but also members of our Oireachtas team. I’m conscious when I’m talking here in Derry you can’t talk about the future, the fortunes of Derry or Foyle, in isolation from the wider questions for the north west region,” she said.

Back in the spring Sinn Féin confirmed an electoral strategy group was being set up to prepare for next year’s Assembly election and that Ms. Mullan and Ms. Anderson had been asked to consider standing down. It followed a review of recent elections in the city which had been disappointing for the party.

Deputy McDonald spoke frankly about the matter when asked about it yesterday.

“Quite simply politics and activism and leadership is about moving forward and identifying obstacles or challenges or issues that confront you. All of us agreed, right across the party and right across Derry, that we had a number of electoral results that gave us pause for thought.

“We had to assess what is going on here. What message are the people of Derry and Foyle sending to us and what do we do about it. So we had the review. The review was very comprehensive, very honest, and I think the upshot of the review was that whereas an awful lot of very good work had been done, people had invested a lot over very many years, that at this point we had to look afresh at things and just begin a fresh chapter in terms of Sinn Féin in Derry.

“I regard that as a very healthy thing. It’s also a very challenging thing, don’t get me wrong, but I also think it’s a very healthy and a very necessary thing. That has now been put in train.”

Two recent electoral outings - the 2019 local government and Westminster polls - prompted the review.

In May 2019 Sinn Féin returned just 11 councillors to Derry City & Strabane District Council. They had 16 successful candidate in 2014. But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s defeat of Elisha McCallion with a massive majority was a particular shock.

“I think it was a combination of [various elections] but certainly, yes, [Westminster 2019] was a very, very difficult election without a doubt. I’m long enough in political life to know that you have highs and lows, you have good days out, you have challenging days out.

“That’s the stuff of activism. That’s life. Certainly, that’s politics. But I also know that when you get a result and message like that, the smart thing, the thoughtful thing and the leaderly thing is to assess that and to go and ask yourself the questions - what are we doing right and how do we improve.

“By the way, this is all with an eye to being the best possible vehicle for the people of Derry and Foyle, to give the best possible representation and to ensure that in the story of change across Ireland, Sinn Féin also brings Derry and Foyle with us in what is going to be a momentous number of years ahead of us.”

She said that one of the main things the party has been hearing from local activists was that change was needed.

“I think [there was] a recognition that change needed to happen. This is, by the way, not unique to Derry and to Foyle. This happens in regions and constituencies where a moment comes were you have to take a couple of steps back, catch your breath and just say, right what are we doing here? What are we planning for here? What is the best way to do it? What’s the best way for us to move forward?

“I think there was a recognition across the board that change was needed but then I also know that when change happens it can be very challenging because you are asking people to move or change, to move the area that they are working in and that can be a huge change. I think it’s a huge credit to Karen and Martina that they have taken the decision now to move into different roles and to allow for what will now be a nomination and selection process for new people to come forward to go into the Assembly.”

Deputy McDonald acknowledged that Ms. Anderson’s last electoral outing in the 2019 European Poll was a good day for the party. She described that result as ‘outstanding.’ “Martina was an outstanding MEP. I can’t stress that enough and the contribution she made to defending, not just the north, but Irish interests in the Brexit scenario. When she was no longer MEP at the time I was very anxious for her to stay on as part of our leadership team working at an international and a leadership level. She didn’t want to do that. She was very keen to come back into Derry because she is first and foremost a Derry girl - no better champion. So she came back and made her contribution to get things back in shape. I’m very pleased to have her operating at that European level because let me tell you Brexit hasn’t gone away. The challenges that it brings have not gone away and indeed the prospects of constitutional change, a referendum, is now very real and there is a huge amount of work to be done domestically and internationally to make a real success and a planned, thoughtful success of all of that.”