Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams prime party for electoral battles ahead

Sinn Féin Ardfheis: Buoyant gathering suggests the biggest threat to party now is hubris

Gerry Adams and  Martin McGuinness after the latter’s address at the  ardfheis. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness after the latter’s address at the ardfheis. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Martin McGuinness was in good form on Saturday morning. How much better could it get? Sinn Féin’s conference was in his native city of Derry, it wasn’t yet noon and the Millennium Forum was virtually full, the atmosphere, as he said, was “energetic and electric” – and Ireland had just defeated Zimbabwe in cricket, one of his favourite games.

Furthermore, as reported by this newspaper, the party’s bank accounts are bulging with dollars, euro and sterling. It’s all shaping up very nicely as the centenary of 1916 approaches. Testosterone levels are high and, to borrow one of Mary Lou McDonald’s metaphors, stilettos are pointed.

Sinn Féiners will have left the ardfheis with a psychological advantage over their opponents. This was a party primed, expectant and ambitious. It was also a party organised for three crucial elections in the coming 14 months – Westminster in May, the Republic’s general election by the spring of next year at the latest, and Northern Assembly elections in May 2016.

Not only must the likes of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists stock up their finances to compete with Sinn Féin, but they’d also need to invigorate their own supporters for the challenges fast approaching from Sinn Féin.

Feet on the ground

There are lessons to be learned from what happened to the SDLP. With John Hume, for the highest of motives, it brought Sinn Féin into the tent only for Sinn Féin to kick it out. The party’s overthrow of the SDLP was down to organisation and feet on the ground. In election campaigns, the SDLP might have three people out with a candidate on canvass; Sinn Féin would have 20.

That’s going to happen in the Republic. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour might have trouble resisting that organisation and enthusiasm.

Occasionally, some commentators have suggested it is past time for Gerry Adams in particular – after all the travails of recent years over issues such as Máiria Cahill and Jean McConville – but also for McGuinness to quit the crease. McDonald and Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy were touted as possible Republic-North replacements.

But it was clear at the weekend that Adams-McGuinness – for three elections more at least – still works far more dynamically than McDonald- Murphy ever could.

Adams-McGuinness bookended the conference nicely, the Deputy First Minister at the start creating the charge that animated the delegates during the ardfheis, the Sinn Féin president at the end pumping them up for the electoral foot-slogging in the next year or so.

McGuinness didn’t have to work too hard for his main script on Friday night. Painting the image of Sinn Féin marking the 1916 Rising centenary as the biggest party in the Dáil and Northern Assembly was sufficient to propel them into raptures. Such symbolism would be “absolutely massive”, he enthused.

Whatever about the Republic, the DUP will strive to prevent this happening in the North. But, equally, delegates will know that while such Sinn Féin forecasting may be arrogant, it is not outlandish. Already the party is in government in the North and could be part of a coalition after the Republic’s election.

Pledge

It adopted a motion saying it would not go into government as the lesser party to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Adams made the same commitment in his address. Party sources insisted this was a copperfastened pledge, but you can’t but suspect that if the arithmetic was right Sinn Féin would find reasons to change its mind.

That would require endorsement from another ardfheis, but if Adams-McGuinness want it they will get it.

In between the main McGuinness and Adams speeches there were several debates on issues, such as the economy, austerity, a united Ireland, same-sex marriage and the Stormont House Agreement, with the most contentious the ardchomhairle proposal, comfortably carried, to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

TD Peadar Tóibín said before the conference he was opposed to this motion. He was in the long line of Sinn Féiners waiting to speak, but pulled out of the queue before he got to the podium, explaining later that he had to chair one of the fringe sessions. The question now is, ultimately, will this mean his being disciplined for a second time on a matter of conscience if the matter is ever voted upon in the Dáil? There is also the big question for Sinn Féin – and for others – of whether freedom of conscience matters at all or must the whips and HQ always prevail?

If the IRA was at the conference, it was hard to see. Things are moving on.

Adams wrapped up proceedings with a raft of promises – abolishing water and property taxes, introducing a wealth tax, curbing repossessions, investing in local authority housing, and even working to end the euro-zone debt crisis.

He had a slap at Independent Newspapers and those who assault Sinn Féin with a “tsunami of smears”, which means some of the criticism must bite. He wanted a “resounding” Yes in the marriage referendum, a “national conversation” on a united Ireland, harmony between orange and green, and more.

But most of all he wanted Sinn Féin to lead the next government in the South.

That would make Adams taoiseach, wouldn’t it?

Shinners are in great fettle. All that can damage them now is hubris.

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