The Gerry Adams era comes to an end
Getting into government – North and South – is Mary Lou McDonald’s primary task
Gerry Adams is nothing if not pragmatic. When the Provisional IRA was unable to force a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, he embarked upon a peace process. When Sinn Féin’s entry into an Executive required recognition of the courts and IRA disarmament, it happened. When Marxist policies proved unpopular with the electorate, they were abandoned. And when his own leadership became a hindrance to growth and political power in the South, he retired.
As president of Sinn Féin for 34 years, Adams has directed operations in a slow but deliberate manner from the front, outflanking and neutralising his militant opponents. On leaving office, however, he has left Mary Lou McDonald with a legacy of fractured and uncertain relationships. He is detested by most unionists and by many people in the Republic. The Northern Executive has not met in more than a year because of Sinn Féin and DUP intransigence, while the prospect of government in the South remains, at best, uncertain.
Sinn Féin has enjoyed great political success on this island, but particularly in the North, where it displaced the SDLP. Its limited commitment to transparency and democratic norms, however, presents a problem. Resignations by elected members, who cite bullying and control exercised by the ardcomhairle, have the look of a pattern.
A special ardfheis in Dublin today will ratify McDonald as party president while Michelle O’Neill will become deputy president and leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland. Their uncontested appointments reflect the rigidity of party discipline, a hangover from a subversive past. Control of the organisation will, nominally, return to the Republic while the new leaders, free from the whiff of cordite, will not be easily dismissed by Fianna Fáil as “unfit for government” or rejected out-of-hand by Fine Gael. Their immediate task – restoration of the Northern Executive – will be a test of their toughness, flexibility and willingness to work with others. In the South, expect more cooperation with left-leaning parties .
Consistently attacked by political opponents and sections of the media, it became clear that he had become a brake on the party’s growth
Adams has acted as a controversial bridge between the IRA’s murderous activities and Sinn Féin’s political development. He enjoyed overwhelming approval within the party, but he was also less genial and accommodating than the late Martin McGuinness, and found Southern politics deeply frustrating. Identified as the weakest link during election campaigns and consistently attacked by political opponents and sections of the media, it became clear that he had become a brake on the party’s growth.
Since the 2016 election, Sinn Féin has softened its approach to coalition and begun to explore informal political alliances. Getting into government – North and South – is Mary Lou McDonald’s primary task.