Fiach Kelly: Sinn Féin’s past hasn’t gone away, you know
Mary Lou McDonald will need to opt for continuity as Gerry Adams’s heir
Mary Lou McDonald: she has signalled she will examine how the party is run in light of a series of bitter resignations and rows in local organisations. Photograph: Getty Images
The annual release of State papers sees hazy glorification of IRA violence meet the historical record of bombing and murder, another brutal reminder of a time that is becoming a distant yet still painful memory for many.
The publication of the records from 1987 this week recall some of the darkest episodes of that period, from Enniskillen to Loughgall to the murder of 74-year-old Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife Cecily as they crossed the Border into Northern Ireland after a holiday.
The coming months will see a procession of events marking the culmination of efforts 20 years ago to end the Troubles, ushering in an era of peace that anyone aged below their mid-30s has known all their adult life.
The 20th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement falls in April, by which time Sinn Féin will have a new leader, assumed to be Mary Lou McDonald. The departure of Gerry Adams will be formalised at a special ardfheis due to take place by the end of February. The fanfare marking his retirement, combined with the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, will see Sinn Féin seek to take on the legacy of peace.
The State papers offer a reminder that the way the Adams legacy will be spun is not as Sinn Féin would like those too young to remember to believe.
Some in the party are under no illusions that Adams, the obvious link to the era of violence, was a cap on Sinn Féin’s electoral ambition. To realise the goal of entering government in Dublin, the generation of Adams and Martin Ferris, both given an emotional farewell at a pre-Christmas ardfheis, had to go.
The coming of a new leader is being cast as a generational transition, but it will be one of continuity rather than dramatic change.
McDonald is spending the Christmas period drawing up the pitch she will make to party members in the new year, when she will begin actively campaigning to succeed Adams.
It is unlikely she will face a serious challenger, although some in the party argue with justification that a contest would be healthy. Last year’s Fine Gael leadership race offers an example of how a well run competition can re-energise an organisation and show a fresh image to the public. Since then Leo Varadkar and his young Ministers have successfully presented themselves as agents of change in a party that has been in government for almost seven years and yet to fully address long-standing problems in health and housing.
Speak to those in the Sinn Féin parliamentary party in Leinster House and nobody is expecting a “big bang”, as one TD described it, between Adams and McDonald.
“Internally there is a sense that it wouldn’t be a large scale change,” said one Sinn Féin Deputy. “It will be pretty incremental, pretty gradual.”
McDonald has been Adams’s deputy leader and is close to the Louth TD. Hers, at least initially, will not be a transformative leadership in style or subject. The mere fact of Adams’s departure and McDonald’s ascension, it is hoped, will be transformative enough.
“There will be one or two small things she will do early on to signal what type of leader she wants to be,” said one TD.
It is believed McDonald will move to liberalise the party policy on abortion, from a position that allows for terminations in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and where the health or mental health of the mother is at risk to one in line with the findings of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, which recommended abortion without restrictions up to 12 weeks.
McDonald has already signalled she will examine how the party is run in light of a series of bitter resignations and rows in local organisations, although she rejects accusations that there is a culture of bullying in Sinn Féin.
If her election comes before the executive in Stormont has been re-established, the new Dublin based leader will be also expected to take charge of negotiations to cement her position as the boss both in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
She may change Sinn Féin’s policy positioning over time to make it a more acceptable coalition partner in Dublin, while maintaining what one TD called her “left, progressive and republican” viewpoint.
But do not expect any change in how McDonald will deal with issues from the Troubles, which rival parties will repeatedly try to tie her to.
“She will deal with the past in the same way we as a party have tried to deal with the past,” said one TD.
Talk to senior figures in Fianna Fáil and they say McDonald’s staunch defence of Adams when he was arrested and questioned in 2014 over the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearance of Belfast mother of 10 Jean McConville was almost a eureka moment when they knew the way to damage the Dublin Central TD – who they genuinely feared – was through Adams and the IRA.
Not let up
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and others will not let up on this approach so easily. They know McDonald will not be able to disown the past, nor would she want to. The organisation she will lead lustily cheered at its last ardfheis when Martin McGuinness was described by 35-year-old Elisha McCallion, the Westminster MP for Foyle, as a “proud member of the IRA”.
Sinn Féin hopes, however, that the very fact of McDonald being leader, rather than Adams, will be enough to reduce the potency of the past as a weapon of political attack.