As the Irish Times noted recently, “Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald is proving a very robust performer… but she manages to stay out of the macho exchanges so beloved of the boys.” In New York last week, she spoke with Molly Muldoon.

Mary Lou McDonald, 42, is likely some day to serve in an Irish government cabinet. She represents a different face of Sinn Fein, with no ties to the IRA, and presents a modern, urban, female perspective the party had previously lacked.

A Trinity College graduate, mother of two and a former European Parliament member as well as now being a TD (member of Parliament) for Dublin Central, she has a high profile in the Irish media and increasingly abroad.  Here she provides answers to the many questions facing the people she represents.

According to a recent poll, Sinn Fein is now the largest opposition party in Ireland. What does that mean for the future of the party?

I think that particular poll is a reflection of a steady trend of growth for Sinn Fein over the last year.

That can be attributed in part to the fact that we have the largest team in the Oireachtas (government) that we have ever had, that Gerry Adams, our party leader, is now in the Dail (Parliament).

Above all I think it is a reflection of the fact that when the people voted a year ago they genuinely wanted to see a big change and a sense of hope and optimism prevailing. What they have got instead is essentially the same policies, Fianna Fail policies delivered by a Fine Gael and Labor government.

Unemployment is still very high at home, the debt level from the banking crisis is still really crippling the state, and there has been no kind of big, imaginative, bold, or radical steps taken on either of those fronts.

We want a deal on the debt. We cannot continuously bow down to the European Central Bank or the

European Commission to be the best boy or girl in the class and get a pat on the head from them, while the state literally sinks under unsustainable debt that cannot be repaid. And that, morally, is not the people’s debt.

The private sectors need to take a hit on it, we need to be pragmatic about it, but so far the European institutions have been very stubborn.

Why are you rejecting the upcoming fiscal treaty referendum?

For two reasons -- the first is that you don’t cure a recession caused by bad banking and huge unsustainable debt by cutbacks and austerity, and this treaty writes that into a legal document.

The implication for the Irish state in terms of not just borrowing but investing money in jobs and public services would be seriously curtailed with very serious fines through the European Court of Justice. It really is a seriously bad treaty.

Indeed the whole spectrum of economic opinion recognizes that the treaty would mean more severe austerity. But also that it doesn’t deal with the central issue that not just Ireland has but that the European continent has -- the problem of unsustainable, un-repayable debt. The system won’t deal with that.

Secondly Ireland has to be very careful about handing over more and more power to institutions that are removed from the state, very many of them unelected by citizens and institutions that will make decisions based on the interests of the core states such as Germany and France. Ireland is very much a secondary consideration.

Is a no vote the wrong message to be sending to Europe right now?

I have no doubt that feeling will be encouraged by the government. But it is important to remember, the treaty is not about membership of the European Union. It’s not even about our membership of the European currency.

This treaty asks people a very specific question around a set of specific rules in respect of public finances and deficits. And what people have to answer therefore is whether they are prepared to allow.

European institutions to take very fundamental decisions around the budgets of the state, what comes in and what goes out.

Do they want Europe making those decisions, yes or no?  In our view it is pretty clear cut. We think it would be incredibly foolish of us in the medium and the long term. 

We have said consistently, there is nobody in Ireland that has an idea of us returning to splendid isolation; Ireland on its own. We cannot go it on our own in the modern world, that would be just crazy.

We are very much for retaining our membership of Europe. The market access is very important, the trade, the freedom of movement of people, and services and so on is a very valuable thing.

Has emigration hit crisis level?

I think the recent jobs fairs in Dublin and Cork were really alarming. It’s an alarming vote of no confidence in the current state of play in Ireland.

When the Celtic Tiger was around we were told that one of the big upsides was that people do not have to go anymore. That was a positive thing for the country. But we have come full circle on it again.

Yes, people are finding it very tough. As somebody involved in politics, one of the challenges is to say to people on the one hand, things can be done differently, that there is actually hope, that the ship can be turned and that we can and will recover.

But for those things to happen we need to start thinking outside the box. I have a sense in which the political leadership of the country has let the citizens down.

There are moments in life where you take the big decisions and push the boat out and say something urgent and immediate has to be done, and I don’t think politics in Ireland has responded. The political system is ticking over. Meanwhile, the crisis in unemployment continues.

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Do you know anyone who has emigrated?

My own brother is in Brisbane. He had a business, had a successful business, wife and two children. By degrees over a period of two years, everything fell away from him.

The choice was to be at home in Dublin, not working, or to go to Brisbane and work. So he went, and I know only too well my own mother is inconsolable. All of us as Irish people know how that feels when somebody leaves. It’s not so much the leaving to work. I think what is really causing people to stress is the sense that there is never going to be an opportunity for people to come home again. I think that is where the real panic is for people.

If we are worth our salt at all, as politicians, all of us, whatever your political stripe, we have to make sure we get through this and that the opportunity is there for people to come home. We have to end this cycle in Ireland of every 20 or 30 years, a crisis happens and we lose predominantly all of our young people.

Does the current downturn offer women any incentive to be more active in politics?

Women are very active at a grassroots level. They are really active in the community. Women are great political operators, they really excel in politics.

Yet in the Dail, generally at home in Ireland, women are virtually invisible in official politics. I think there are a lot of reasons for that and I am certain we have to change that. If we are going to improve politics, to improve the quality of decision making and to really have a proper representative democracy, you have to have the 50 plus percentage of the population that are female and women, fully represented and fully present.

That is a big challenge for the status quo. As things stand, the Dail for instance, is a boy’s club. Just the math deems it so. I think it is really unhealthy and as a woman I find it deeply frustrating.
The system has to change to accommodate women from all backgrounds and indeed younger people to actually play their part. There will be a law coming in respect of gender quotas for the next Dail election. That’s a good thing.

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn FeinLaura Hutton/Photocall Ireland