No surprise at no demise as Sinn Féin leader extends his unbeaten run

This was a confident conference from a confident party - members exuded belief that Sinn Féin is on the march

Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald, look on as Gerry Adams delivers his keynote speech at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Wexford. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill

Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald, look on as Gerry Adams delivers his keynote speech at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Wexford. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 10:42

Revolutionary heroes aside, this was the year Sinn Féin embraced Mark Twain.

The theme of its ardfheis strongly echoed the American writer’s famous line: Reports of Gerry Adams’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated.

And the cheering faithful pulled out all the stops to prove it.

So while reverential references to the republican dead were plentiful as ever, it was to Twain the party turned when getting out the real message – Gerry Adams is going nowhere.

Those Mark Twain moments summed up the weekend as delegates formed a united front and told the meddling southern media to lay off their leader.

This was a confident conference from a confident party. Members exuded belief that Sinn Féin is on the march.

Their comforting republican charms still remain as a reminder of their special bond. Gerry didn’t forget to mention fallen comrades in his speech.

There was applause when he mentioned “volunteer” Ed O’Brien, a young Wexford man who died when the bomb he was carrying detonated on a London bus in 1996.

The Sinn Féin shop with its martyr memorabilia hadn’t gone away either, but it was tucked away in the basement.

Back in the hall, we saw the emergence of a new breed: the young Sinn Féin fogey, as epitomised by 19-year-old local election candidate from Dublin, Jonathan Graham.

Politically precocious

In his grey three-piece suit and Tory-boy bow tie, he brought to mind old memories of the politically precocious – from across the water, little William Hague when he had hair and, closer to home, a young Brian Hayes, once described as “prematurely waistcoated”.

Jonathan, from Clondalkin, wowed the crowd with his arresting opening line: “I’m 19. It’s Ireland in 2014. I’m unemployed. I don’t want to join the queue for the boat.”

But the potency of his speech was immediately diluted by an alert blogger who revealed that Jonathan is a full-time student of economics at Trinity College, with a couple of years to go before graduation.

On the fundraising side, there was a raffle for four tickets to see Garth Brooks – fiver a pop.

By Saturday evening, not one ticket had been bought.

Then again, there could only be one star at this ardfheis.

In case there was any doubt, the mere mention of Gerry Adams drew thunderous applause from the crowd in the Wexford Opera House.

If the great Pavarotti himself had risen from the dead to sing the national anthem, he wouldn’t have received such a rapturous reception.

The Sinn Féin leader – 31 years in charge – even got a standing ovation before he arrived on the platform to deliver his keynote speech.

As the countdown continued to the main event, European election candidate Matt Carty read the results of the election for the top posts in Sinn Féin.

When he got to the final slot, he prefaced the announcement with a smiling apology to RTÉ and other national media outlets “but we’ve elected Gerry Adams as president”.

The place erupted.

Delegates, more than 800 of them in the auditorium, jumped to their feet, cheering and whistling and clapping, many of them looking up towards the small area where the journalists were seated.

Then a gleeful chorus of Olé Olé broke out.

Finally, when the din died down, Carty remarked: “We really are disappointing RTÉ – they’re beginning to panic!”

But it wasn’t the national broadcaster that was panicking. The platform party, getting edgier by the moment, watched the floor manager (from RTÉ) for the signal telling them the ardfheis was about to go out on television.

“Lad’s, we’re going live!” declared a keyed-up Carty, as Liadh Ní Riada, another European election candidate, took to the mic to introduce President Adams.

Gobsmacked

At this point, a gobsmacked Gerry was reeling in the wings sniffing smelling salts after the shock announcement that he had been reinstalled for the 30th time.

Excitement intensified.

Given the deep disdain expressed for RTÉ, we were rather excited ourselves and full of hope for what might happen next.

With any luck, the platform party would moon at the cameras in a show of defiance and displeasure. Or maybe Gerry would emerge and say nothing for 30 minutes. Or rather, remain silent.

Because for the next half hour – in common with most leaders at these set pieces – he said nothing much, preferring to attack and blame the Government for all the country’s ills while not advancing any concrete suggestions as to what his party might do to cure them.

When their worshipful leader emerged, his followers rose magnificently to the occasion – as good as any hall full of Fianna Fáilers in the mad old days of Haughey-induced hysteria.

Gerry strolled out – avuncular and smiling, over the shock. He was met with a deafening roar, the audience up on its feet for the politician the southern media isn’t supposed to criticise.

They will have been remembering the words spoken the night before by party chairman, Declan Kearney.

“Let me say this: the relentless campaign of vilification against the republican leadership – and specifically Gerry Adams – in this State, is a disgrace, and should stop immediately.”

And he added: “You better start getting used to us. We ain’t going away, you know.”

And so they cheered from the stalls and the dress circle, the boxes and the gods and Mary Lou and Pearse too.

The message was loud and clear: Gerry Adams is going nowhere.

Rumours of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

He’s there until 2016.

That’ll make it 33 years. A significant figure, in any retiring messiah’s book.