Change in Sinn Féin must be about more than new face
Departure will put theory Adams was cap on party’s potential in Republic to test
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams’s arrest in 2014 was a blow to Mary Lou McDonald when she was on the cusp of becoming an acceptable figure to many middle-ground voters. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Now that Gerry Adams has signalled his departure from the leadership of Sinn Féin, the casual assumption that he was a cap on the party’s electoral potential in the Republic can be tested. But the changing dynamic at the top of the party, with Mary Lou McDonald widely expected to assume the leadership, will have other political ramifications south of the Border too.
Adams’s move to southern politics at the 2011 general election spoke to Sinn Féin’s greater emphasis on Dublin, but his performances in television debates and in the Dáil have been poor. His grasp of economics only reinforced the main political attack, aside from links to violence, on Sinn Féin: that it cannot be trusted with the economy.
As TD for Louth, he was never as comfortable in Dublin as he was in Belfast and it showed. He was an easy and obvious bogeyman, too, and his past was consistently thrown at TDs of the new generation, such as McDonald and Pearse Doherty.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this came in 2014, at a moment when McDonald was on the cusp of becoming an acceptable figure to many middle-ground voters, courtesy of an appearance on the Late Late Show couch and other assured public outings. Then, during the campaign for that year’s local and European elections, Adams was arrested over the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearance of Jean McConville. McDonald staunchly defended her leader and, arguably, she has never recovered the ground lost with middle Ireland.
Those in Sinn Féin such as Doherty and McDonald will never disown the IRA but TDs may not have to defend it as often as they have with the key political link with the era of violence standing down. One party figure in the RDS said that voters who perhaps thought about supporting Sinn Féin but baulked at the last may now, with Adams’s departure, look again, or at least give the party some lower preference votes.
While the argument has also been made that Adams was as much of an electoral draw as a repellent, those who vote Sinn Féin are unlikely to abandon it just because he is gone. But other parties will not allow Sinn Féin to leave the IRA behind.
Just across Dublin from where Adams delivered his speech, Micheál Martin was already trying to tie the next generation to the IRA’s campaign of violence. “They will change their leader,” he said at the Fianna Fáil presidential dinner at the Burlington Hotel.
“But the core of the Provisional movement’s approach to politics remains and has been constantly reaffirmed by all of their prospective leaders. “They might be new leaders but they are not new faces. The fact is that every one of their potential leaders joined Sinn Féin before the ceasefires and has repeatedly defended the Provisional IRA’s campaign.” Martin will always have fresh material to use.
Aside from Adams’s announcement, the biggest cheer of the ardfheis weekend came during a special half-hour tribute to Martin McGuinness. Elisha McCallion, the MP for Foyle, told those in the RDS: “Martin was a proud member of the IRA.” It led to rapturous applause, cheering and thunderous stamping of feet.
But with Leo Varadkar and McDonald on either side of him, the next election will be a tougher fight for the Fianna Fáil leader than the last. He will be the longest-serving party leader, and risks being cast as the old man of Irish politics.
Sinn Féin has also made clear its willingness to enter government as a junior coalition partner and the change in leadership will undoubtedly help in that regard. A number of Fianna Fáil TDs, for a start, are on the record saying the departure of Adams would make Sinn Féin more acceptable as a government partner, although Martin has repeatedly ruled such a coalition out, no matter who succeeds Adams.
Questions also arise about how Sinn Féin will be run under a new leader. For example, McDonald was in favour of the move to change position from the insistence on not entering government unless Sinn Féin was the larger party in a coalition, to an openness to being a junior partner.
Others, such as Eoin Ó Broin and, to a lesser extent, Doherty, are understood not to have been as enthusiastic about the move. Does the coming of McDonald, then, mean Sinn Féin could develop into a less ideologically left-wing, more pragmatic party? Does it herald a move away from what its critics describe as cult-like behaviour to a culture where debate spills out in the open, as it does in other political parties?
The new leader must convince voters in the Republic that Martin and others are wrong, and that Sinn Féin is an acceptable party of government. Change must be about more than just a new face, but Adams’s retirement certainly makes his successor’s task a lot easier.