Sinn Féin: Old problems for new leader

A real effort to find a solution in the next round of talks which begins on Wednesday would be a positive way for McDonald to start her leadership

President elect and current deputy leader of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast, after she was confirmed as the sole candidate in the race to succeed outgoing party president, Gerry Adam. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

President elect and current deputy leader of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast, after she was confirmed as the sole candidate in the race to succeed outgoing party president, Gerry Adam. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The accession of Mary Lou McDonald to the leadership of Sinn Féin has presented the party with a serious challenge as well an opportunity to move on to the next stage of its development.

Gerry Adams has led Sinn Féin for 35 years so his successor will inevitably have a hard time filling his shoes, as she acknowledged on Saturday when confirmed as the sole nominee for the position of Sinn Féin president.

The elevation to the leadership of a woman from a different generation represents a massive break with the past but perhaps the biggest change of all is the rise of an elected politician from the Republic to head the party.

The manner in which the dominant party of Northern nationalism adapts to being led by a Dublin politician will determine whether it is able to build on the progress it has made over the past two decades.

There is a convincing argument that the only way Sinn Fein can move towards its ultimate goal is by first participating in government on both sides of the Border

Over that time, Adams and the Northern leadership managed to transform the fortunes of Sinn Féin from the subservient political wing of the Provisional IRA into a political force to be reckoned with North and South.

Adams and Martin McGuinness skilfully exploited the terms of the Belfast Agreement to take over from the SDLP as the dominant party of Northern nationalism.

Progress has been slower in the Republic. While Sinn Féin emerged from the 2016 election with an impressive 23 seats in the Dáil it was still a minority party, attracting less than 15 per cent of the national vote.

McDonald has been the party’s outstanding performer in the Dáil. Her forceful contributions made her the logical successor to Adams in terms of the Republic’s politics.

The question is whether she will be able to provide decisive leadership for the Northern wing of the party which is in a very different position to Sinn Fein in the Republic.

The immediate challenge is the latest attempt to revive the powersharing institutions at Stormont. If Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) fail to agree then direct rule from Westminster, possibly with some input from the Irish Government, is the only option.

Speaking in Belfast on Saturday McDonald said she wanted to see Sinn Féin in government north and south. How she handles the thorny problem of finding a compromise with the DUP will demonstrate if she is serious about that.

While she emphasised Sinn Féin’s overriding commitment to bringing about a united Ireland, that long term aspiration is not incompatible with powersharing at Stormont in the more immediate future.

There is a convincing argument that the only way Sinn Fein can move towards its ultimate goal is by first participating in government on both sides of the Border.

A real effort to find a solution in the next round of talks which begins on Wednesday would be a positive way for McDonald to start her leadership.

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