First Female Leader of Irish Opposition Visits Hilltop

McDonald speaks in conversation with President Fitzgerald. PHOTO COURTESY OF RORY CALLAHAN / USF Department of Development 

Irish politician Mary Lou McDonald spent her first trip to San Francisco with various California political leaders, top business executives, and visited the Hilltop to deliver a keynote address. However, the first woman to be the Leader of the Opposition and President of the political party Sinn Féin arrived during the recent heat wave, missing San Francisco’s signature fog. “By God California,” McDonald joked, “you are hot stuff!”

On Sept. 7, McDonald Teachta Dála, the galeic “parliament member,” visited USF to discuss the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a treatise which ended nearly three decades of conflict between Irish unionists and nationalists that caused approximately 3,500 deaths. 

McDonald is indicative of a revised Ireland. For decades, two political parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – have consistently secured the necessary amount of votes to be the dominant parties within the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament. During the 2020 Irish general election, Sinn Féin, the nation’s Republican party, disrupted this long-standing pattern and garnered enough votes to make it the second largest party in the Oireachtas, securing McDonald as the first female Leader of the Opposition. 

McDonald shared her party’s vision for a re-energized Ireland with its potential road to unification. The event was moderated by USF President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J, and a Q&A featured questions from both USF-affiliated guests and the San Francisco Irish community.   

Being that San Francisco is a hotspot for political counterculture, McDonald advised students on how to stay energized as young people in politics. “Some things in political life can happen very quickly. Other things really require stamina, and they require you to dig deep and to be committed over a long time,” she said in an interview with the Foghorn. “I think the first and most necessary piece is to be very clear as to what drives you, according to your passion and politics. For some people, it’ll be the big question of climate, just the environment. For others, it’ll be inequality issues, whether it’s their gender or race or some other question.”

McDonald’s rise to power is not an anomaly. The story of Sinn Féin is a part of a wave of Irish citizens pushing forward progressive legislation. During her address, McDonald said this shift was a “signal of the people’s appetite for real progressive change.” McDonald consistently reminded her audience that this was a new, re-energized Ireland. “The people of Ireland are changing their corner of the world.”

“Make no mistake,” McDonald said, “systematic generational change is underway in Ireland.”  

Unlike the ideals associated with the term “Republican” in an American context, McDonald’s stance as a Republican is focused on the unification of Ireland — the desire for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to unite under one flag as a united Ireland. “The people of Ireland are ready. We are ready to be united again,” McDonald stated.

When asked about a timeline for the reunification, McDonald suggested that the “first move needs to be creating an official space for conservation to happen. And then we need to figure out how to transition into a united Ireland.” The discussion around the re-unification of the state of Ireland still has its hurdles, like that Northern Irish schools are still administratively and culturally secular to the point of religious segregation of their students. McDonald maintains that an “integration model needs to be supported,” but did acknowledge the popularity of secular schools in the Republic of Ireland as well. 

A member of the Irish community in SF, Mairin Boyle, called the politician “an inspiration with a progressive mindset and empathy.” Among the audience was the Western U.S. Consul General of Ireland Micheál Smith, a key leader in the Irish community for the West Coast. Smith reflected on the crucial Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, “To see the peace progress and flourish because of the American people – I can be nothing but grateful.”   

“I’m the first woman in Ireland to lead the opposition in Dublin and that is an important milestone,” McDonald told the Foghorn. “On a personal level, I feel it’s a matter of great honor and privilege to be entered and to have the opportunities and the life that I live. But I’m also very conscious that the significance of that happening isn’t really about me. It’s actually about women and girls, about females, and our position within our society, and our ability to smash through glass ceilings and to get to every position that there’s nowhere off limits for us.” 

Taleah Johnson is a senior sociology major and a general assignment reporter for the Foghorn. She can be reached at

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