Sinn Fein is maintaining its rapid growth in the Republic, but one of the party’s best known faces remains a politician who we know very little about. Southern Correspondent Valerie Robinson reports.
She has been dubbed the 'Shinner Babe' with media questions about her views on IRA violence, accompanied by comments on her tan, dress-sense and university education.
Mary Lou McDonald is the new face of Sinn Féin in the Republic, but until recently media coverage on the Dubliner who became the party's first MEP on June 11 has been dominated by the fact that she takes a better photograph than some of her colleagues.
There is also continuing interest in what is seen as her relatively new relationship with Ireland's fastest-growing political party.
In a sense the setting for her Irish News interview highlighted the contradictions surrounding the 34-year-old.
She is sitting in the four-star Gresham Hotel in Dublin city centre, surrounded by the sounds of piped music. It is a far cry from the more modest surroundings more often associated with grass-roots republicans.
But unlike other parties' PR people who are usually dressed in a dark suit and tie combo, Ms McDonald is accompanied by a man dressed in jeans and a casual top.
Mary Lou McDonald does not come from what many would see as stereotypical Sinn Féin working class stock.
Her parents, Patrick and Joan, are staunch Fianna Fail supporters from middle-class Rathgar who sent their daughter to the private Notre Dame secondary school in Churchtown.
Ms McDonald and her siblings also inherited a desire to 'get ahead' from their parents brother Bernard is a scientist, while Patrick is a lawyer and sister Joanne works as a teacher.
Mary Lou attended Trinity College, the University of Limerick, and Dublin City University.
She studied English Literature, European Integration Studies and Human Resource Management.
Before taking the plunge into politics she worked as a consultant for the Irish Productivity Centre, as a researcher for the Institute of European Affairs, and as a trainer in the trade union sponsored Partnership Unit of the Educational and Training Services Trust.
During the 1990s there was no obvious evidence that she would play a key role in Sinn Féin history, instead she became an active member of Fianna Fail, a move that delighted her parents.
Her abilities were recognised within Fianna Fail and she was earmarked as a potential candidate in the 1999 local elections, but surprised colleagues by switching allegiance to Sinn Féin.
Some commentators attributed the dramatic move to her relationship with FF senator Mary White who attended the Colombia Three trial as an international observer and who has also forged links with the Garvaghy Road residents.
But Ms McDonald insists that she did not experience a Road to Damascus-type conversion to leftist nationalism.
"It was very simple. I was just in the wrong political party. I didn't feel that Fianna Fail had within it the capacity to deliver on the things I felt were very important on the national question, in terms of driving national reunification but also, and equally important, in terms of issues of equality and issues of social justice.
"My family tradition would be very much Fianna Fail, but I was really only involved with the party for about a year before I joined Sinn Féin."
She resorted to an obvious party line, adding that her chosen party is the only one that is "capable of delivering real and fundamental change in Ireland" on an all-island basis.
She rejected claims she does not fit a Sinn Féin stereotype.
"Republicans themselves are not responsible for the stereotypes. I hold the media responsible for that," she said.
"Sinn Féin representatives and our voters are drawn from a very large spectrum. There have been a lot of comments in the press about my educational background, but it's ridiculous to suggest that I'm the only Sinn Féin member with a university education."
As someone who grew up south of the border the MEP does not have any personal experience of daily checkpoints and searches, the presence of armed soldiers and police, or the constant reality of paramilitary violence, as experienced by many of her generation in Northern Ireland. She has no stories about house searches, lost family or friends, or imprisoned neighbours.
In one recent radio interview Ms McDonald refused to admit any tangible link between her party and the IRA, prompting one listener to remark that Sinn Féin would always be shadowed by the issue as long as the Provisionals remained armed.
"I didn't write history and there's no point in trying to rewrite Irish history now. The reality is that there is an on-going conflict in Ireland that has to be resolved. This business has no influence over me at all," she said.
"There is a political job of work at hand. We can all look to the past and apportion blame but we must not let it influence us in the present, we must be responsible for the here and now."
She stood unsuccessfully for Sinn Féin in the 2002 general election, getting just over 2,400 first preference votes a figure that contrasts starkly to 60,000 people who gave her their top vote in the European poll.
She said her "first and very vivid" insight into the northern conflict was during the 1981 hunger strikes when photographs of the men staging the protest were beamed across the world.
"The hunger strikes and in particular the death of Bobby Sands, which happened when I was 12, had a very real affect on me," she said.
"Images of the hunger strikers and the blanket men made me realise, even as a child, that something was terribly wrong in Ireland.
"And of course Northern Ireland was always discussed in our family. There is an incorrect perception that people outside the six counties have no sense of the border and no sense of partition. I don't think that's correct at all."
In the days after her European election victory commentators described Ms McDonald as a 'dark horse'. They said they knew very little about her as an individual and claimed that she had profited from Sinn Féin's new punching power in the Republic and Gerry Adams's willingness to pose alongside candidates, rather than her own experience in politics.
So little was known about the successful candidate that one Dublin listener even expressed surprise to learn that the MEP had a husband, Martin Lanigan, and a baby girl, with whom she lives in Castleknock.
But the Sinn Féin MEP was quick to counter claims that she is new to politics and insisted that she had played an active role on the party's negotiating committee during the ongoing peace negotiations and that she was the party's representative on the National Forum on Europe in the wake of the first Nice Treaty referendum.
Her contacts with unionists, she said, had been "broad-ranging", leading her to deal with her counterparts "on the other side" on a "fairly informal" level, through conferences and meetings.
When asked if she has had any first-hand experience of dealing with the victims of IRA violence Ms McDonald simply said she had met victims from "across the spectrum".
"The needs and rights of all victims have to be addressed. A hierarchy shouldn't be created. I'm very conscious of the real suffering and profound pain suffered by people on a very personal and human level."
Ms McDonald accused other parties of playing "dirty politics" by attempting to blur the line between Sinn Féin and the IRA in the run-up to the elections. She said the party's detractors had "no sense of the bigger picture".
"They only think about short-term political gain. They don't realise that people on the ground don't appreciate those kind of cheap shots, they're above that," she said.
Ms McDonald referred specifically to justice minister Michael McDowell, who claimed in May that Sinn Féin had a "subservient" relationship to the IRA and funded the party through its criminal activities, a claim rejected by party president Gerry Adams.
"Voters don't fall for these kind of try-ons or political tactics," Ms McDonald said.
You'll see that the people who make the most noise about these things are very slow to produce any evidence. Sinn Féin doesn't tolerate crime and if there is any evidence of criminal activity then those people should be prosecuted through the normal channels."
Now that the dust has settled over the justice minister's comments and the electioneering is over the Dublin woman and her fellow Sinn Féin MEP, Baibre de Brun, face the task of representing Ireland's interests in Europe.
"There is a huge advantage to having one voice from Ireland in terms of advancing national interests such as agriculture, which remains an important part of our economy; urban interests, particularly concerning genetically modified food; public health and in relation to the environment, the best way to deal with the Sellafield issue is in an all-Ireland way," she said.
Ms McDonald was certain that there was plenty of room for individuality in Sinn Féin, despite accusations from some republicans of a leadership style that stifles debate.
"Unlike other political parties we encourage political debate. The ard fheis is the place that party policy is decided. There has been some suggestion lately that we receive media training but that's nonsense. Our publicity department gives us guidance and advice but that's as far as it goes" she said.
Ms McDonald said she was certain that Sinn Féin would achieve Irish re-unification within her lifetime, but she appeared to feel that IRA disbandment was not a possibility in the near future.
"People know that we're involved in a process of conflict resolution, facing different challenges and that will take some time," she said.
"There are a huge plethora of issues to be addressed including demilitarisation, policing, full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, putting the weapons finally and permanently beyond use.
"We cannot draw a line under the conflict until all the issues are resolved."
For Ms McDonald and her party, the days of censorship in the south have been replaced by a new groundswell of electoral support.
The party will now have to prove that it is up to the task of meeting the needs of voters on both sides of the border.
Leaving the Gresham the taxi passed an enormous mesh election poster featuring Mary Lou McDonald draped across the front of a building on Parnell Square West. It was a coincidence that seemed to underline the message that there's a new face in town.