Sweetly staged Sinn Féin ardfheis low on drama at Wexford Opera House

Analysis: Gerry Adams did not live up to the hype but did enough to boost the party’s pre-election mood

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams delivers his presidential address at the party’s ardfheis in Wexford Opera House. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams delivers his presidential address at the party’s ardfheis in Wexford Opera House. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 01:00

The Sinn Féin ardfheis at the weekend had a lot to talk about, primarily elections north and south of the Border in May, but many other issues as well, such as the Haass proposals, a Border poll, policing, abortion, the economy, health and education, and so on. But first, one key message had to be broadcast to the world: he’s not going away, you know.

In the Wexford Opera House it seemed that issues such as the Disappeared, his “non-IRA” past, whether he withheld information about his child-abusing brother Liam Adams, and gauche remarks about the IRA murders of RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan were all safely behind the party’s president Gerry Adams.

That may or may not be the case, but for the vast majority of the 1,000 or so delegates at the ardfheis these matters are merely a fixation of political enemies and a prejudiced media, a point made forcefully on Friday night by senior party figure Declan Kearney.


‘Vilification’
“The relentless campaign of vilification against the republican leadership and specifically Gerry Adams in this State is a disgrace,” he told delegates to loud acclaim. And he had a message for the “Southern media and political establishment”: “You’d better start getting used to us; we ain’t going away you know.” Indeed they ain’t.

This Sinn Féin production at the Opera House was low on drama, but it was sweetly stage-managed, with the various performers through Friday and Saturday all preparing the way for the Gerry Adams big act on Saturday night. With those May elections foremost in the mind, Sinn Féin used its live TV time well in the slot between 11am and 1pm on Saturday.

Delegates in the Opera House and political anoraks watching on RTÉ were treated to speeches from the party’s four European candidates, Martina Anderson in the North and Lynn Boylan, Liadh Ní Riada and Matt Carthy in the South. Local candidates, from Cork to Meath to Belfast, also got useful time on the Opera House stage in front of the cameras.


Exposure
There was plenty of exposure too for TDs Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, seen for the moment as likeliest competitors in the succession race if Adams ever gives up on the notion of being president for life. But even in this venue there was never a sense of McDonald or Doherty standing in the wings waiting for their cue. It was very clear that the Northern command of Adams and Martin McGuinness still have the lead roles, and that they plan to remain centre stage for a while to come.

An Irish Times vox pop with six delegates found one woman prepared to say it was time for Adams to go, but she was the exception rather than the rule. There are some within Sinn Féin who disagree with Adams on policy matters – as opposed to seeking to usurp him – but he is still sufficiently ruthless to ensure he gets his way, and to ensure he will have people in place to protect his back. That’s how you stay party president for almost 31 years.

The main task of Adams and McGuinness at the weekend was to energise the troops for the May elections, and in that they succeeded. In addition to its 29 Assembly members and 14 TDs, Sinn Féin has one MEP – Martina Anderson in Northern Ireland – and 138 councillors in the North and 54 in the South.


Onwards and upwards
Odds are that after the European and local elections, and allowing for the fact that the number of councils in Northern Ireland reduces from 26 to 11, Sinn Féin at local level will be strengthened and possibly will have two or more MEPs. Onwards and upwards, was the mood delegates took home as they left Wexford.

They know that the strategic nous, hard-headed ambition and personalities of Adams and McGuinness are key reasons for the party’s success. McDonald’s and Doherty’s day may come, but not yet.

Adams didn’t quite deliver on the build-up to his keynote speech – it wasn’t his most inspiring by any measure – but it was sufficient to enliven the delegates.

The standing ovations they accorded him at the start and end of his speech were as much about holding by their leader in the face of what they perceive as that aforementioned political and media bias as they were about the content. And there was a cockiness about his predictions for Sinn Féin North and South.


Old order
“One-party rule in the North has gone and 2½-party rule in this State is going also,” he said. One-party rule is long gone in Northern Ireland but what he was saying was that the old order has changed forever south of the Border.

“However well they regroup, Fianna Fáil will never, ever again be the dominant force they once were,” he said in a taunt directed at Micheál Martin.

“Sinn Féin is now a major player in both states on this island, with policies, objectives and an expanding organisation which transcends partition.” It was a boast, which – with elections forthcoming – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour must recognise has validity and must take seriously.