*Shane Ross. Photograph: Arthur Ellis

RTÉ appear to be “fearful” when it comes to covering Sinn Féin, the author of a biography on Mary Lou McDonald has claimed.

In October, the decision by RTÉ not to broadcast an interview with Shane Ross on his book ‘Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle’ on Today With Claire Byrne was criticised by then Taoiseach, Micheál Martin (FF).

Before the story broke on Wednesday evening on how Sinn Féin admitted to failing to declare costs for six election events amid a fallout over an unpaid bill, Irish Independent journalist Fionnan Sheahan had appeared to make the experienced Ms Byrne nervous when raising the matter during a discussion on the ongoing controversy surrounding Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe (FG).

Opinion polls continue to show Sinn Féin as the most popular party in the country. The latest Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll conducted in January show them on 32%, Fine Gael (25%), Fianna Fáil (16%), Independents (10%), Green Party (4%), Solidarity People Before Profit (4%), Aontú (3%), Social Democrats (3%), Labour (3%).

If the polls were to become a reality at the next General Election, the former Minister for Transport Ross said Sinn Féin in Government “are going to have to be much more transparent than they were in the past and if they are not it would be very worrying. There are serious worries which have been expressed by people like Micheál Martin about the number of court cases being taken and how they resort to the law which is seen by some politicians as a kind of gag, use the courts to silence people including RTÉ. I think that is a serious worry and something they need to reassure people about”.

He believed this ‘gagging effect’ impacted on RTÉ’s decision not to air his interview with Claire Byrne. “It was perfectly obvious when I did the interview and before it that RTÉ were scared stiff and there was all sorts of restrictions put on my interview which were most extraordinary, they did do the interview because they felt they had to one reluctantly but it was quite obvious they were worried about libel, not that I was going to libel her in anyway but that she might be suing for libel because she already for libel and Sinn Féin had taken a lot of money off RTÉ from libel cases. That is a real fear if RTÉ who have the monopoly almost in the State on media matters is frightened of one party because they make them to court, that is a worry on how they might behave”.

Speaking to The Clare Echo, the former Senator stressed there was nothing particularly controversial he said during the recorded interview. “There was such conditions set which maybe I shouldn’t have accepted but I was so keen to get it on, when you’re trying to sell a book if you don’t get onto RTÉ you start way behind, they set conditions and I was really too careful about what I said in some ways but they pulled the interview anyway, they had made arrangements to give Sinn Féin the right of reply before the interview went out, they didn’t show it to them that’s where Micheál Martin got it wrong but they had made arrangements because they were so frightened of Sinn Féin that they made sure to get a right of reply in early, they are very conscious of the Sinn Féin threat over them”.

He added, “The interview was arranged for about two days before it was to be broadcast and it was taken back to six days before it was due to be broadcast because they wanted to give it a really tough legaling they said, there was certain subjects which were specified as being taboo including the house and then when I went for the interview itself I was told various things shouldn’t be talked about, they were like cats on hot bricks, they were really worried about it, I hadn’t come across anything like it in RTÉ before. I’ve had no response from any other station or any other newspaper or journalist in all the interviews I’ve done, none of them have said you mustn’t talk about this or that, the rest have been no conditions and go ahead, RTÉ has been the only ones which indicate they are the ones that are fearful”.

Among the other ‘taboo subjects’ were the use of the word grooming. “They forbade talking about the gender change of Mary Lou’s sister who was assigned as a male at birth. They did say to me that it’s a pity all the people in the book were still alive because they would not be libel,” he recounted.

Shane whose late father, John N. Ross was a prominent member of the legal fraternity and ex Senator, said the behaviour of RTÉ on this occasion was “very worrying”. He continued, “That really does disturb me”.

Interest for the book has been greater due to the public’s curiosity in Mary Lou, he believed. “There is so much not known about her, the reason I decided to write the book is because I didn’t know enough about Mary Lou McDonald and I thought she was a really interesting politician and by far the most interesting politician in Ireland at the moment because of her position north and south of the border and her power. The reaction I think from the political parties has been pretty unanimously curious, they want to find out more about Mary Lou who they don’t know much about, the response funnily enough has been extremely favourable to the parts on her family life, her background which people didn’t know about it and an interest in the hard men that were in the IRA but they know a good bit about them, there’s a lot in this book which hasn’t come out before, that is where the enthusiasm for it comes from.

“The interest is particularly great because it’s not the Sinn Féin message, it’s an independent publication but it’s positive and negative. I know her and I’ve liked, I’ve always liked her and so it’s positive about the parts I knew beforehand like working on the Public Accounts Committee with her, there’s also some negative reaction from some elements of Sinn Féin. I’ve had two forms of reaction which I hope means it’s reasonably objective. Politicians read it with curiosity and their own prejudices which they have already and it’s very difficult to be neutral about Mary Lou McDonald, everybody likes her or dislikes her”.

During his time as a politician, Shane had previously worked alongside McDonald during their time on the Public Accounts Committee. “Before that I always regarded Sinn Féin way back as being a dangerous party, I changed my mind about that as they became more democratic. I didn’t get to know her until 2011 when she got in, I knew she was in Europe but I hadn’t met her, I was curious about her, the question everyone asks about her is that firstly she’s such an unlikely member of Sinn Féin and then secondly the leader of Sinn Féin. I wondered how is it that this person who came from the heart of middle class Dublin came into a party dominated by people with a military IRA background from Northern Ireland. When I got to know her, I still didn’t solve the question because she was still potentially a bad fit but I liked her, I got to know her quite well from 2011 and I liked her attitude. In the context of the Public Accounts Committee, party politics is left outside the door, there was never any talk of Republicanism or Socialism or anything like that, it was about holding people to account, she was very good on that and I liked her for that”.

Nonetheless, Mary Lou did not cooperate when it came to the book and an interview was not forthcoming. “I asked her for it and she said she would go away and think about it for a week and then she came back to say she wouldn’t stand in my way but that she wouldn’t co-operate, I presume that’s what those with whom she had consulted had told her ‘no’ and the evidence after that when I looked for the support and input of old members of the IRA and present members of Sinn Féin was initially completely negative, down the line militarist that they were not doing it, the fact she didn’t co-operate I was slightly surprised with, I thought she would facilitate interviews with her family but she didn’t, the fact she didn’t do it meant I had to approach the book in a different way which was to find out things myself which meant I was finding out stuff which Sinn Féin certainly didn’t want me to know and maybe her background which she didn’t want to expose because she didn’t talk about her family, she doesn’t talk about her father or sisters and brothers, I’m not sure it was a disadvantage because it made me more independent, when you have the cooperation of the subject matter in a biography you become compromised and you write their story whereas this is my story of her life so far from what I’ve found out and I found out that a great deal, lots of her family members talked and lots of IRA members talked”.

Without question, he believed she would have climbed very high within the ranks of Fianna Fáil had she stayed with the party. “I think Mary Lou has got political abilities which are very considerable, I think whichever party she had gone with she would have been a TD for anyway, they were sorry to lose her from Fianna Fáil because they recognised her talent and some people in Fianna Fáil say she was blocked by Brian Lenihan because she was in Dublin-West which was his constituency, I don’t think Brian Lenihan blocked her I think he recognised her talent and wanted her on the ticket with him. She was talented and a great speaker, she spoke at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fhéis despite her saying she was never a member of Fianna Fáil which seems to be a contradiction, she was certainly very active for a period of eighteen months and a lot of them particularly the women regretted her leaving, they recognised someone who was talented, well-spoken and a good orator, I think she would have gone a long way in Fianna Fáil”.

“She is the favourite without a doubt,” he remarked of Mary Lou becoming the next Taoiseach. “You can see it in the opinion polls, she has an unassailable lead despite a recent opinion poll in The Business Post showing Sinn Féin with a four percent drop, she is still a long way ahead of any other party but not certain to be Taoiseach, she is not certain but most likely to be Taoiseach in a coalition arrangement not in a majority Government”.

Prior to Christmas, the Special Criminal Court heard that former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall was secretly recorded claiming the party leader used the Hutch family for money and votes.

Links between the Hutch family and Sinn Féin were not surprising, Ross stated. “The tapes weren’t known until now, his association with Sinn Féin and particularly Mary Lou is a matter of great embarrassment for her, it was well documented. His association with her which is a matter of public record is well known, the fact he gave money to her campaign was well known and is something from which she detaches herself at every possible opportunity but it is there, he was a member of Sinn Féin and a Sinn Féin councillor”.

This link is “very unhelpful” to Mary Lou, he flagged. “The book brought pressure and a lot of questions to her about the house, how it was paid for needs to be answered, I think what is happening with the trial is something which she felt it necessary to respond to. It is something she could have certainly done without”.

“If there is more similar questions being asked they will obviously be very unwelcome, she had been riding on a high. Mary Lou hasn’t ever been properly questioned, I think that is something which should be remedied a long time before she becomes Taoiseach and that is why I put those questions in the book, the fact of the matter is I did ask both her and her husband when all I got the material for the book to answer questions but neither of them responded, there is a reluctance there to answer questions and she has never really had to answer in-depth questions and I think that is something she is going to have to do and to face which is unusual for the opposition but considering the party she comes from I think it is reasonable”.

According to the author, the book along with the forming of clouds over the party will lead people to ask more questions of the woman tipped to become Ireland’s first female Taoiseach. “There is a lot of information about her consistencies, her inconsistencies, about her abilities and what she is not good at, there is a fundamental question is she a believer, I put the evidence down in the book throughout about she came to various conclusions and I questioned it here, there and everywhere. It will probably lead to more questions but that is as I think it should be, it will indicate certain areas by the way the evidence is presented but people can have a lot more evidence now on which to base their decision on whether she is a suitable Taoiseach or not. There’s new stuff about Mary Lou everyday which is going to help people make up their minds, she has a very dramatic career which is beginning to unfold”.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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