In the lobby of the Rochestown Park Hotel on Monday night, selfie-seeking members of the public clamoured for Mary Lou McDonald’s attention, even as she spoke to reporters prior to the first in a series of public meetings to be held by her party.
The Sinn Féin leader took the attention, which reflects how important her popularity is to the party’s resurgence, in her stride.
Not that all the attention is positive: Ms McDonald said that gardaí have been made aware of threats against her.
But she wanted the focus on the night’s proceedings and the reasons behind it.
Cork South Central TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire opened the meeting to rapturous applause, and joked that he couldn’t wait to see what kind of a response Ms McDonald would get.
There was no reason to worry, as she, Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin, and David Cullinane received a standing ovation.
The Estuary Suite was packed and then some. Extra chairs had to be brought in from a back room, yet there were still hundreds of people standing along the sides and at the back.
Some people didn’t even make it inside the hotel, parking had became so chaotic. The car park was full, as were the surrounding roads and estates, as 1,000 people attended the first of Sinn Féin’s public meetings. Not even Sinn Féin had expected that turn-out on a cold and dreary February evening.
People who missed the meeting expressed disappointment afterwards, but even those who stood for the 90 minutes didn’t seem to mind. People listened intently to Ms McDonald speak.
In her address, Ms McDonald described the meeting as “an opportunity for us to listen, to take ideas, to take questions.”
She welcomed Solidarity TD Mick Barry, who was in attendance, and even said he should join the party. That got one of many laughs from the crowd over the course of the evening.
Prior to the meeting, Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, said that the meetings were “an unwelcome development” and that Sinn Féin were “behaving as though as they have won a majority,” when they have won less than a quarter of the vote.
“There are those within Irish politics who believe that democracy is a one-day event; something that only happens on election day,” Ms McDonald said, in response. “You cast your vote, and then those elected retreat behind high walls and carve things up, and then they come back and present you with what they have agreed.”
“Like it or lump it,” is how she described that attitude “We believe that democracy is much more than that. We believe that democracy and the democratic conversation has to be a continuous process,” she said to the crowd, some of whom were longstanding Sinn Féin voters, but many of whom had voted for them for the first time.
Questions were taken on issues like housing, childcare, and the formation of government.
The second question came from Walter Ryan Purcell, who ran as an Independent candidate in the 2019 European elections.
He told the meeting how he met the Sinn Féin leader in the RDS last week.
“I’m a traditional Fine Gael voter,” he said, which earned a small intake of breath from some people who didn’t know what was coming. “But I joined Sinn Féin last Wednesday,” he added, to applause from the crowd.
It seemed to be the tone of the night, with finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, commenting: “Over 3,000 people have joined the party in the last couple of weeks, signed up, and paid their membership. A further 4,000 are in the process of joining the party, so there’s a huge surge in support.”
One speaker, Ciara, asked if Sinn Féin could now deliver on their promises: “I voted for Sinn Féin because I’m sick of paying a fortune in childcare costs.”
Another said that she gave Pat Buckley her first-preference vote for his work in mental health, an issue she felt was sidelined in the election.
On the mental health issue, Mary Lou McDonald said: “Very often, mental health becomes what they call the Cinderella of the health system: it’s not prioritised properly. We have participated in a joint party committee in the last Dáil. Very firm commitments were made there, and those commitments need to be met.
“We don’t have to rewrite the strategy. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s there. Now, it’s a case of resourcing it, and it has to be resourced,” Ms McDonald said.
On the issue of childcare, Pearse Doherty said: “We want to make childcare a public service. Can that be done within five years? No, but it can be done within the next decade. In the first five years, there’s a lot that we can do. In year one, we want to bring the wage levels up in the childcare sector to the living-wage entry point of €12.30.”
Mr Doherty went on to talk about an opt-in scheme, whereby €100m would be invested into the sector. “If they (childcare providers) opt in to the scheme, they agree a rates level. Every time we increase the investment, the fees level reduces.
“By the end of year five, the fees will be reduced by 66%. That is €500 per child (per month); €6,000 a year,” he said.
Eoin Ó Broin spoke impressively, and at length, on housing and the party’s plans to implement the three-year emergency rent freeze that Fianna Fáil said was unconstitutional.
The meeting, which drew concern and criticism in the lead-up, was nothing like the negative image conjured by some. There was some mud-slinging towards Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but, overall, it was an exchange of views, and an open platform for anyone to ask questions.
Help was provided afterwards to individuals who had raised issues. The turnout was huge, the speakers were impressive, and the public seemed to go away satisfied with what they had heard. As one of the speakers, Oisín, pointedly said: “Thank you to Leo Varadkar for encouraging the attendance here tonight.”
Whether he did or not, the Sinn Féin surge is very evident in Cork, and across Munster.