Exultation at SF change – but what of the shift in power to the South?

Of the McDonald-O’Neill link, the Dublin woman appears to be the dominant partner

Deputy political editor of the Irish Times, Fiach Kelly, looks at Mary Lou Mc Donald's first speech as president of Sinn Fein and the challenges that lie ahead for her north and south of the border.


Sinn Féiners are now getting used to a leadership that is not only chromosomally different to what went before – but a leadership where the top post has transferred from Belfast to Dublin.

At the RDS on Saturday, the Sinn Féin presidency passed to Mary Lou McDonald, a former Fianna Fáiler and native of Rathgar, Dublin, to be more specific. Not many would have seen that coming back in the days of berets, balaclavas and Armalites.

And this with Tyrone woman Michelle O’Neill as second-in-command. Little wonder that after all the speechifying on Saturday, the anthem that blared from the speakers was Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.

Since the 1980s, Sinn Féin and the IRA (before the latter organisation more or less called it a day) were run by a Northern command in the shape of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and their trusted lieutenants.

There was energy and exultation in the RDS on Saturday afternoon as Lou McDonald was ratified as party president in succession to Adams. But you would also wonder, are there any misgivings North of the Border about the shift in power to the South?

Of course there will be questions about whether Sinn Féin president-emeritus Adams will really quit the stage. If we take him at his word he is going away.

In his most recent blog, he wrote about a series of “lasts”.

Last meeting

“After 35 years...I attended my last meeting of the party’s national officer board, and last week I chaired my last group meeting in Leinster House of TDs, Seanadóirí and party staffers. After 40 years last Saturday should have been my last attendance at an ardchomhairle [national executive] meeting, but I missed it because I was in the talks at Stormont. ”

He says he always will be a republican activist, and he will, but judging by that blog the focus now may be on

Adams as a sort of Sinn Féin statesman travelling to probably rather lucrative speaking engagements around the world, flying the flag internationally on behalf of the party. Equally at important times his counsel will be heard and heeded.

Naturally Adams was the focus of media attention at the special ardfheis. However, he didn’t speak, there was no valedictory from the podium – he left it to Lou McDonald and the new deputy president and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill to take the limelight.

It is for this new generational leadership to drive the party forward. Immediately the goal is to get power-sharing government back up and running at Stormont, and there is a reasonable and possibly good chance that will happen in the coming days.

Sinn Féin has put down the end of next week as the absolute deadline for an agreement, and if DUP leader Arlene Foster can take her courage in her hands and go for the deal on the table that deadline should be met.

The challenge thereafter will be establishing a relatively harmonious and pragmatic relationship between O’Neill and Foster in the face of Brexit and parsimonious Tory funding of Stormont. That will be driven by O’Neill and the overall leadership.

General election

In the South the task for McDonald will be to get Sinn Féin into government as a junior partner. The party appears to be short of suitors at the moment, but no one knows for certain what might unfold after the next general election.

And always the long-haul project will be a united Ireland. That too will keep a focus on what Sinn Féin is scheming and doing north of the Border.

But McDonald is the leader. The relationship hasn’t properly evolved yet, but while Adams and McGuinness were effectively viewed as equals, although very different personalities, in terms of the McDonald-O’Neill link, the Rathgar woman so far appears to be the dominant partner.

While there must be some change in dynamic, it is unlikely there will be a major decline in the Northern influence within Sinn Féin.

On Friday, former Sinn Féin minister Carál Ní Chuilín, and one of the party’s representatives in the talks with the DUP, posted a tweet from the Stormont negotiations. “Working hard, side by side. Onwards to the Republic,” she wrote.

What was interesting were some of the personnel in the picture she posted. McDonald and O’Neill are featured reading documents, while in the background Sean “Spike” Murray is standing up to get a pot of coffee or tea, and in the right background is Martin Lynch.

Both Murray and Lynch are two former very significant and senior IRA leaders. You see them regularly around Parliament Buildings, Stormont, as you also see Bobby Storey and Padraic Wilson, again two former top-table IRA figures. They are now influential members of Sinn Féin’s Northern kitchen cabinet.

When the late Martin McGuinness stood down as deputy first minister in January last year it was republicans such as these four who told him the game was up, that the grassroots could no longer tolerate what they saw as the DUP taking both him and Sinn Féin for granted.

Old hands

Too much should not be read into their influence. It doesn’t mean Sinn Féin is being covertly led by some sort of quasi-IRA army council, but it does mean such old hands still have a significant degree of power.

It was hardly accidental that Ní Chuilín posted this tweet. It will have gone largely unnoticed, but for certain republicans it will have been reassuring – it will have demonstrated that those who “fought the war” remain in pivotal positions within the organisation.

It will have demonstrated too that they have the ear of the new leadership of McDonald and O’Neill, and that furthermore the Northern voice, particularly the voice of the old-guard ex-IRA members, will be listened to and respected.

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