Sinn Féin’s MPs will never take their seats in Parliament, vows Mary Lou McDonald , the first woman leader of the Irish republican party in modern times.
Gerry Adams ’ successor locks and bolts the door to leave zero possibility of the seven walking into the House of Commons chamber where they could swing votes to keep the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the EU.
“We’ve no business in your Parliament. ” she declares firmly.
“I’m not a political busy-body coming sticking my nose in people’s affairs.”
Dublin-born McDonald is the bright new face of Irish republicanism as Sinn Féin moves away from the IRA generation of politicians who emerged from The Troubles which claimed 3,600 lives over 30 years.
She sits in the Dail, the Republic of Ireland’s Parliament where Sinn Féin is the third largest party.
And with Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, McDonald symbolises the transformation of Sinn Féin into a wider radical political and social movement.
McDonald will be a key player in the talks to resume power sharing in Northern Ireland, a goal given renewed impetus after the Easter murder of young journalist Lyra McKee by a dissident republican terrorist.
Gutsy and and an engaging TV performer, I meet her in the Westminster room used by Sinn Féin MPs who take it in turns to visit Parliament to lobby Ministers and argue for a united Ireland without swearing allegiance to the British crown.
Behind the genuine charm is a steely operator who takes no nonsense.
I witnessed her once verbally cut down a French female journalist asking how she’d fill big shoes inherited from Adams, replying that she’d brought her own pair to wear.
So how does Sinn Féin’s President deal with sexist opponents in politics, particularly patronising blokes who think she’s controlled by hardbitten men lurking in the shadows?
McDonald chuckles with mock menace, before stating “they only do it once”. I believe her.
“I’ll tell you what does annoys me,” says McDonald, “it annoys me there’s an assumption that because I’m a woman I can’t actually be in charge.
“That somehow I don’t measure up, that men somewhere are telling me what to do.
“I have to tell you as a feminist that grates on me.
“I do my job, I work hard, I do my best, I’m always learning, I hope to God as long as I live a life I’ll always be learning.
“I’m not in this job because I’m incompetent. I enjoy it and I’m appreciative of the confidence of my colleagues.”
Sinn Fein’s historic abstentionism from Westminster, never taking seats it wins, included the first woman ever elected to Parliament, Constance Markievicz, 101 years ago though she’d have struggled to attend.
Escaping a death sentence for her role in the 1916 Dublin uprising against British rule over the whole of Ireland, Markievicz was behind bars in prison at the moment of her landmark victory.
But McDonald predicts ultimately it is Brexit which will force Northern Ireland’s population to decide not only if it wants to be British or Irish but British or European.
“The border on our island is no longer just our problem. It’s now Europe’s problem as well,” she says.
But Sinn Féin’s boycott leaves the Westminster floor to 10 Democratic Unionist MPs who are hardline Brexiteers and don’t represent the majority view of that corner of the UK. Hostile to a customs union, they agreed to prop up Theresa May ‘s Government after she gave £1billion extra funding to Northern Ireland.
McDonald says: “The unfortunate thing is the DUP, having caused difficulties in the North of Ireland with an agenda that is extremely backward looking in denying people fundamental human rights that the rest of us living across these islands enjoy, have now imported their version of politics here.”
Sinn Féin and McDonald are considerably more liberal on social issues such as same sex marriage, abortion and divorce than the DUP and many of the unionist party’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party.
As for the Irish border she says: “I sometimes think or wonder for, you know, people living in Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester or Sussex or Devon to what extent is it understood even why there is a border in Ireland,” she says.
“I’m sure during the course of the Brexit debate lots of people must scratch their heads and ask ‘what’s this all about?’
“It’s important we share the information and people have an understanding why the Irish question looms.”
Unionism, she argues, requires a Plan B to map a future as a single Ireland.
“We’re not talking about rubbing out the border and bolting the North onto the South,” declares McDonald.
“This is a huge democratic opportunity for us to construct something new and inclusive, to have a plural society.
“Does that happen at the flick of a switch and overnight? No. Does it have to be planned for? Absolutely. I would say a responsible Government has to be planning for that now.”
As long as a Conservative Government is in hock to the DUP for a majority in the Bung Parliament, the suspicion is it’s incapable of planning for next week.
Born: May 1969, Dublin.
Employment: Ex-researcher for a Dublin think-tank and former MEP. Now a member of Ireland’s Dail and Sinn Fein President.
Education: Notre Dame des Missions private school in Dublin then Trinity College, Limerick and Dublin City universities
Family: The building contractor’s daughter is married with two children.