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.

“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.

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.

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