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Monday 24 September 2018

Who is going to be SF's sacrificial lamb?

Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald denies that Sinn Fein want to be the Croatia of Irish politics. "If you go out on the pitch, you play to win," she said last Saturday when confirming that the Shinners will put up a candidate in October's presidential election.

The truth is a bit more complicated - Mary Lou knows the chances of evicting Michael D Higgins from Aras an Uachtarain are slim, but she believes her party can still do well enough to claim a moral victory instead.

McDonald's strategy is obvious. Since Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both already declined to run someone, Sinn Fein will be the only party with a horse in the race.

They can use this campaign as a sort of dress rehearsal for the next general election, presenting themselves as the plucky outsiders taking on the dusty old political establishment.

Another plus for Mary Lou is that the bar has been set quite low. Sinn Fein's standard- bearer Martin McGuinness got only 13.7pc in the 2011 presidential contest, almost exactly what the party received in a general election five years later.

If they can do significantly better than that on October 25, it will be a huge morale boost - and a sign that McDonald is helping them to finally smash through their electoral glass ceiling.

There is, however, one small problem. In order to take part in this experiment, Sinn Fein needs a human guinea pig.

An even better animal metaphor might be sacrificial lamb, because presidential battles are usually savage affairs in which every aspect of the contenders' lives is put under an unforgiving microscope.

If Sinn Fein was using a dating agency, it would know exactly which boxes to tick. The nominee of its dreams should be female, charismatic, under 50, excellent at debating and strongly republican but without any IRA baggage.

In fact, Mary Lou must privately wish she could clone herself, because it's hard to see anyone better suited for the job.

As a result, Sinn Fein will just have to settle for second best. Its most obvious options right now are MEPs Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ni Riada, TD Caoimghin O Caolain or northern MP Michelle Gildernew.

None of these people has anything like the X Factor needed to give Michael D sleepless nights, which may explain why none has yet shown any interest in actually running.

Popular

Who could blame them? Taking on a man as popular as Michael D Higgins would be difficult at the best of times, but it becomes even trickier when your party agrees with him about almost everything.

For example, one of Michael D's few mistakes was his starry-eyed tribute to Fidel Castro in 2016, but Sinn Fein's then leader Gerry Adams went even further by claiming the late Cuban dictator as a supporter of the IRA.

As the recent explosives attack on Adams' Belfast house and juvenile violence in Derry have shown, Northern Ireland remains a huge political headache.

Sinn Fein will make the issue of Irish unity central to its presidential campaign, but again it faces the problem that Michael D is not exactly a staunch Orangeman himself.

In fact, it was Higgins who as Minister for Arts in 1994 lifted the Section 31 broadcasting ban and allowed Shinner voices to be finally heard over the airwaves.

All this means that whoever wins the Sinn Fein nomination is going to have their work cut out for them. Even so, Mary Lou clearly still thinks it's worth the risk.

This is the biggest decision of her leadership so far, and she must take the credit or the blame depending on how it turns out.

Another pressing question is whether Michael D and Sinn Fein will have the field all to themselves.

Would-be presidents are currently popping their heads up everywhere, and telling the difference between players and spoofers is not always easy.

Former Dragons' Den star Sean Gallagher, who came agonisingly close to beating Higgins seven years ago, caused a stir last week by writing to local councils and urging them to nominate an independent candidate.

Now the word is that he may just be a stalking horse for his fellow dragon Gavan Duffy or barrister Noel Whelan.

Mattress Mick has sadly ruled himself out, but an unknown farmer in Co Roscommon has offered his services on the grounds that "you never see ordinary Joe Soaps getting into high office".

The only certainty right now is that there will be political blood on the floor come October. Michael D Higgins must make sure that none of it stains the carpets in Aras an Uachtarain.

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