Mary Lou McDonald's acceptance speech as the new president of Sinn Fein at the special party convention in Dublin last weekend was a missed opportunity on a number of levels.

Of course, no one expected her to announce a severing of the link between Sinn Fein and the IRA, the one thing that could make the party widely acceptable in the south.  That is not possible since they are still inextricably linked.  And anyone who thinks that is not the case might like to know that senior IRA figures were present at the negotiations over the past week to resurrect the power-sharing administration in the North.

How do we know this?  Because a Sinn Fein politician tweeted a picture from Stormont showing some of "the boys" in the background as McDonald studied her paperwork.  Clearly, a message to the faithful that all will be well in the post-Adams era and "the boys" are still directing strategy behind the scenes.

So it would have been a bit naive to have expected too much from McDonald’s speech at the RDS on Saturday.  Even so, it was a real chance to put some distance between herself and the murky past, to signal a step away for Sinn Fein from the shadow of the gunmen into an independent and fully democratic future under her leadership.

Gerry Adams, Michelle O'Neil and Mary Lou McDonald

Gerry Adams, Michelle O'Neil and Mary Lou McDonald

What we got instead were references to the Rising of the Moon, Up the Republic, Up the Rebels, and even Tiocfaidh ar La, coded messages that celebrate the IRA and violence.  You could understand this kind of stuff coming from a working class nationalist in the North who grew up under the unionist regime at its worst.  But it was a bit nauseating hearing it from McDonald, who grew up in one of the most exclusive areas in Dublin, went to a private school and Trinity College, and was never anywhere near any “trouble” in the North.

It follows a pattern. McDonald has been unbending in her total support for Adams when he has faced awkward questions about various issues from IRA murders to sex abuse scandals to bullying inside Sinn Fein.  She parrots the same lines that avoid any condemnation of the IRA campaign and is now even better at Sinn Fein double-speak than he was.

Like Michelle O'Neill, the new leader of Sinn Fein in the North, McDonald has also been attending commemoration ceremonies for IRA men killed in action, no matter the circumstances or the record of those involved.  In O'Neill's case at least she has a direct family connection, since her father was in the IRA and a cousin was killed in an SAS ambush after his unit had attacked a police station.   But McDonald’s attendance at such commemorations is entirely self-serving, designed to signal to the IRA that even though she is a middle-class southerner she is "sound" on the "war."

Apart from her failure in her speech to put any daylight between the future Sinn Fein under her leadership and IRA atrocities in the past, the nature of the RDS event itself was another missed opportunity.  The very fact that she felt it necessary to say that it was "not a coronation" gave the game away.  Because of course that is exactly what it was.

McDonald may have been acclaimed by the 2,000 party members who turned up for the event in Dublin.  But that was long after she had been chosen by Gerry and his buddies at the top level in IRA/Sinn Fein.  It is no accident that the confirmation that she was to take over from Adams was made in Belfast two weeks ago, another nod to the guiding hands behind the scenes.

This is democracy North Korea-style.  She was the sole candidate for the post of Sinn Fein president, and Adams’ attempt to make a joke out of it at the time by saying that anyone else was "too late" to put in their nomination papers fell flat.   

You would think that after almost 35 years with Adams as president there could have been an election for the post.  There are several Sinn Fein politicians who could have put their names forward and would have been credible candidates.

But that's not the way they do things in Sinn Fein.  The real power brokers at the top of Sinn Fein and the IRA make the decisions which are then handed down from above and slavishly followed by the membership.   

It was the same with O'Neill, who was chosen to be the leader of Sinn Fein in the North and then installed in the post without an election in the party.  Just like McDonald, she was installed as vice president of Sinn Fein on Saturday without the need for anything messy like a vote.  It's democracy folks, but not as we know it.

You might say this stuff does not matter, and anyway they were both acclaimed in the top roles by the 2,000 party members from all over the country who were in the RDS on Saturday.  Which is a bit like saying that because Kim Jong Un, the only candidate, was elected with 100 percent of the vote, North Korea is a democracy.  Adams, who did not speak at the conference, nodded his approval from the audience.

Why does Sinn Fein operate like this?  Because it avoids any potentially embarrassing debate and disagreements between candidates.   

If O’Neill had been faced with an election, for example, might someone have brought up that another cousin of hers was convicted of fuel laundering, a lucrative IRA hobby?  But mainly it's because the men at the top (in the nexus between the most senior ranks of the IRA and Sinn Fein) can't be bothered; they make the decisions anyway and that's it.

How much of McDonald’s radical republicanism is conviction and how much is opportunism?  She comes from a Fianna Fail family and initially joined that party, becoming active in her local branch.  But she left after a year mainly for reasons to do with equity in Irish society, she says, rather than just what was happening in the North; in both areas she was unconvinced by Fianna Fail.

Her rise in Sinn Fein was meteoric and she was clearly identified early on as an important "catch" for the party -- a middle class Dubliner with no connection to violence and outstanding ability as a speaker.  But she also has carefully burnished her republican appeal, particularly since she became president in waiting over the last year or two.

She has said, for example, that she was deeply affected by the hunger strikers in the North, as though this explains her attraction to radical republicanism and her Adams-style refusal to criticize the IRA in any way.  The fact is she was just 12 years old when the hunger strike was on, and one wonders how much she knew and understood at the time.  Maybe she should ask Adams about it -- particularly about his opposition when Father Faul and others were trying to bring about an earlier end to the hunger strike to save lives.

Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald

Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald

The decision to appoint McDonald as the successor to Adams is a gamble by those in control who feel she can massively widen the appeal of the party and hasten the day when it is in government (as a coalition partner) both north and south.  This, they feel, will be a big step along the path to an eventual united Ireland.

Whether she can deliver is open to question.  No one doubts her ability and her relentless determination to get what she wants.   But her failure to soften the republican rhetoric is a problem.  

It's a sort of Catch-22 situation for McDonald at the moment.  If she doesn't tone it down, she and Sinn Fein will have limited success in the south.  If she does tone it down and moves away from her unconditional support for the IRA and its ugly past, she risks losing support in the North.

Apart from that, there is the question of whether she can turn Sinn Fein into a fully democratic party rather than a movement controlled from the top down by shadowy figures in the background.  That would mean much more freedom in the party to discuss and change policy, without having it imposed from above.

Not a good sign on this was McDonald’s statement last weekend that, unlike all the other parties who are allowing a free vote in the Dail on the difficult abortion referendum issue, Sinn Fein will expect its members to abide by party policy.   

We don't know yet whether that will include support for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.  The other parties have decided that this has to be a conscience vote by each member.  Sinn Fein, however, appears to be delaying to see if they can make political capital out of it.

That is unlikely to go down very well with many women, including McDonald’s old schoolmates from the Notre Dame Des Missions who are also unlikely to be impressed by what many of them would regard as her rabid republicanism.  Her appeal as an articulate, strong-minded woman might be less broad than Sinn Fein is expecting.

It's early days yet, but whether the move to put two women in the top positions in Sinn Fein will pay electoral dividends remains to be seen.  Will women see it as cynical and an attempt to manipulate them? 

The optics may be good and there may be a superficial appeal, but at the end of the day what impresses women as well as men is party policy and integrity.  Tiocfaidh ar La is still a very long way away.

Mary Lou McDonaldSam Boal / Rolling News