John Downing: McDonald fails her first test as SF leader – the Belfast boys won't be impressed

Has Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin lost its campaigning edge under her leadership?

This was her first electoral test since taking over as party leader last February. It was also an important feature of the struggle to wrest control from the traditional former IRA leaders in Belfast. And it was a failure by all of those yardsticks.

The candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, cannot be faulted. From a slowish start, she grew in stature as the campaign advanced and gave some assured performances. It would not have been too difficult to imagine her as a president in the McAleese/Robinson mould.

It is clear that big resources were committed to the campaign, from the nationwide postering to the big campaign bus. But as the internal inquiry into why Ms Ní Riada came fourth out of six, with under 94,000 votes and 6.4pc of the poll begins, Mary Lou McDonald (inset) is entitled to take this personally.

The original idea was that Liadh Ní Riada – with name recognition, due to her late father Seán’s iconic status – could take the party beyond its base and attract more women voters and resonate more with the middle classes.

But this vote is less than half the party’s 2016 General Election performance. Yesterday, the leader faced the music in an interview on RTÉ radio. She praised Ms Ní Riada.

Ms McDonald wisely avoided laying too much stress on how presidential elections are “different”. Ruefully, she noted that election campaigns would go a lot better with the benefit of hindsight. She also skated around the old canard that Sinn Féin public representatives still clung – in theory at least – to the spurious notion of taking the average wage.

Ms McDonald acknowledged that there were questions around the failure to use the party logo, the timing of the candidate’s announcement, and “getting the vote out”.

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