Gerry Adams’s future the main business at Sinn Féin ardfheis

‘If we go into the next election with Gerry as leader, it caps our potential growth’ – source

Gerry Adams personifies for many all they dislike about Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA.

Gerry Adams personifies for many all they dislike about Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA.

 

Delegates meet in the RDS this evening for the Sinn Féin ardfheis with the party at a crossroads.

Several important motions, including on abortion, have been tabled. Brexit looms. The North is more or less under direct rule from London – with direct DUP influence thrown in. Having pulled them down in the first place, the party seems in no hurry to reconstruct the powersharing institutions. The ardfheis will consider, and likely approve, a fundamental change of strategy on coalition as the party seeks to create a route to Government, a path to power in Dublin.

But another item of business will overshadow all these.

Though his exact intentions are a closely guarded secret – TDs have not been given any indication of what he will say tomorrow evening – Gerry Adams is expected to signal that his 34 years as party president will come to an end. Adams will be re-elected party president again, as he is every year. But it will almost certainly be for the last time.

“On the corridor people are saying, ‘what’s he going to do? What’s he going to say?’ ” says one party source. “I think we’d like to be in the loop, but we understand why we’re not. The party will be the first to hear it from him.”

Adams is said to be consulting with a small number of advisers. Dawn Doyle, Ted Howell and a few others that form the tight-knit group of intimates who have surrounded him for years. Now the two coming women, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, are usually part of the inner sanctum, say party insiders.

The magnitude of the step is compounded by the death of Martin McGuinness earlier this year

Few outside the party fully understand the immensity of the forthcoming step for Sinn Féin. The modern party is, above all, Adams’s creation. The political strategy that came in the wake of the hunger strikes, ending of abstention, ceasefire and peace process, Northern settlement, assembly and powersharing administration, serious engagement with local and national politics in the South, growth of the party as it elbowed its way into political discourse in Dublin – all of it led by Adams. All of it was imagined in advance by Adams and then plotted and strategised towards. He hasn’t just dominated the party; in a way he has embodied it.

The magnitude of the step is compounded by the death of Martin McGuinness earlier this year. But the transfer of power from the Adams generation – the men and women who, before they made peace, made brutal and bloody war – has been under way for some time. It has been planned and prepared. Already O’Neill has been elevated as leader in the North; McDonald has been groomed for many years. Voters now see as much of TDs like Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin and Louise O’Reilly as they do of Adams.

Adams was a liability in the last general election campaign, stuttering badly in debates and struggling on the detail of economic and social policy in interviews

If some of the martial generation are uneasy about the soundness of the clean skins – graduates of universities, rather than Long Kesh or Portlaoise prisons – they also know that it’s inevitable. Time marches on.

Grasp of economics

But age is not the only reason he is going, and they know that too. Adams was a liability in the last general election campaign, stuttering badly in debates and struggling on the detail of economic and social policy in interviews. TDs say it quietly and reluctantly, but they say it all the same: he prevents them from reaching voters who might otherwise be open to hearing what they have to say. “If we go into the next election with Gerry as leader, it caps our potential growth,” says one party source. And although he has a cult following among many younger voters – they bombard him with requests for retweets – older voters are a lot cooler on him. And many are hostile.

If Adams has embodied the party’s move from war to peace, to politics for its members and supporters, then he has also personified for many other people all that they dislike about Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA.

Many will be nauseated by the sight of tears and hugs in the RDS. The brake effect that Adams applies on Sinn Féin in the Republic is not just because of his flaky grasp of policy and economics – it’s because the overwhelming majority of people in the South rejected the IRA’s campaign. They don’t subscribe to the “unbroken chain” version of Irish history that is an essential part of Republican theology – which links the men of 1916 with the hunger strikers – and Adams’s departure from the front line removes an obvious reminder of the IRA’s campaign.

It is an important step in the long transition from violent revolutionary movement to a normal political party – a path charted long ago by Adams himself. Sinn Féin is not there yet; but with Adams as leader, it would never get there.