Gerry Adams’s exit may allow Michelle O’Neill find her voice

Analysis: Sinn Féin in North owes political success to departing president and Martin McGuinness

 Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill giving a keynote speech at the start of the Sinn Fein ardfheis at the RDS. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill giving a keynote speech at the start of the Sinn Fein ardfheis at the RDS. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Gerry Adams left his very safe West Belfast seat in 2011 for Louth but he is still very much part of the heartbeat of Sinn Féin throughout Northern Ireland.

His decision to retreat from frontline politics on the island of Ireland will be deeply felt in the North by diehard Sinn Féin supporters.

Without Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin could not have achieved such political success in Northern Ireland.

It is the unassailably dominant nationalist party in Northern Ireland. It has 27 Assembly seats, more than double the SDLP’s 12, and is just one seat behind the DUP.

It has seven seats in the House of Commons. It doesn’t take its seats so there is now no Northern Ireland nationalist voice at Westminster at this key time of Brexit negotiations.

Regardless, as far as Sinn Féin is concerned it is about votes and seats and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness ensured those seats were won.

So, it goes without saying that the Sinn Féin base in the North will feel the absence of those two leaders who delivered so much politically.

There will be a large sense of life and politics moving on; for some veterans an indicator perhaps that now is the time to also consider retirement.

Time of opportunity

But it may also be a time of opportunity. When Michelle O’Neill was appointed Northern leader in January Martin McGuinness said he was passing on responsibility to a “new generation of republicans” - in other words new leaders who didn’t have an IRA past.

But that didn’t fully happen as the shadow of Gerry Adams continued to fall over politics in Northern Ireland. He was central to the failed talks with the DUP to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly and will be heavily engaged if, as expected, they resume in the next couple of weeks.

It is still problematic if those negotiations will succeed but there is a chance they will. If they do Michelle O’Neill will have the opportunity to creep out from under the shadow of Mr Adams.

She hasn’t quite found her voice as Northern leader yet. It has been Mr Adams rather than Ms O’Neill who is the influential figure in the DUP-Sinn Féin talks.

But that too is changing. At the last significant Sinn Féin press conference Ms O’Neill with Mr Adams sitting beside her did all the talking. At a previous talks press conference the Sinn Féin president took many of the media questions but Ms O’Neill was happy to interject and offer her contribution.

Mr Adams’s announcement allows Ms O’Neill to more confidently put her own stamp on politics and Sinn Féin.

His impending exit from politics also may create better conditions in which the DUP and Sinn Féin can do business. There is no mistaking that while unionists could work with Martin McGuinness, notwithstanding his IRA past, for reasons of personality they had huge trouble with Mr Adams. They just don’t like him and find him difficult and patronising.

Now that he is quitting politics perhaps Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster can get Northern Ireland working