Gerry Adams has become a liability to Sinn Fein – it's time for him to go
Published 07/11/2013 | 21:30
'L'Etat, cest moi" – "I am the State." France's Sun King, Louis XIV, is credited with coining that self-reverential phrase. Whether he did or not, he wouldn't be the only leader to see himself as indivisible from the organisation he was instrumental in building up.
Nobody likes to be told it's time to go when they'd prefer to stay. Least of all figures who have been players on the scene for a prolonged period, devoting their lives to a cause.
Which brings me to the two main opposition parties in the Dail, both led by men about whom voters have strong views. Change at the top is needed if Sinn Fein is to become a significant contender in the Republic, and if Fianna Fail's fortunes are to be revived.
This matters for their parties, but it also matters for democracy, because a vibrant democracy relies on robust opposition to challenge the consensus.
If the opposition parties were refreshed, voters would pay more attention to what they say.
The problem is that both leaders have baggage.
Let's start with Gerry Adams, since he's in the news because of a compelling joint BBC-RTE documentary about the 'Disappeared' when he was allegedly IRA commander in Belfast.
The Sinn Fein president has made an outstanding contribution to the peace process. That is his legacy, and it is a considerable one.
However, his currency as somebody instrumental in persuading the Provos to lay down their arms was never as valued in the Republic as it is in the North, and his transition from Stormont to the Dail has not been sure-footed.
He has outlived his usefulness as a front-of-house man, although he still has a valuable back-room role to play for his party.
Unfortunately, political grandees are conspicuously slow to recognise when they have passed their use-by-date – sometimes even becoming a liability.
That observation applies equally to Micheal Martin as to Gerry Adams.
Often, Adams has been outshone by his two lieutenants, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, who are more adept at pointing up flaws in government policy.
Doherty is clearly viewed as somebody with clout: copies of the Anglo Tapes were sent to him, it emerged yesterday.
Both Doherty and McDonald have the advantage of lacking any connection to the Troubles.
That ever-present link between Adams and those years of violence causes absolutely no concern to core supporters, but is a deterrent among the broader population.
Sinn Fein needs to uncouple itself from the past if it is to reach out to new voters. Adams' role in ending the slaughter is no longer an asset. Unfair, of course, but nobody ever tried to claim politics was fair.
As for Martin, he is a knot tying his party tightly to the Bertie years. He was a senior minister in those three successive Fianna Fail-led governments which squandered the boom and steered the State towards a spectacular bust.
And while he now says that he went along with his government's policies but was unhappy about certain aspects of them, it is an unconvincing argument.
Consider the economic collapse. Senior staff in banks were weeded out with cold-blooded efficiency, as were the members of bank boards. They were generously remunerated, but were gone in jig-speed.
So, too, with the regulators – the Central Bank governor was replaced, and the Financial Regulator was traded in.
Similarly, the Department of Finance has been overhauled. A new head of department was appointed in the shape of John Moran, with Kevin Cardiff hived off to the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg.
But the political parties have been slow to weed out key players. Most of their pruning has happened as a result of electoral defeat.
Perhaps elder statesmen such as Adams and Martin are convinced nobody can run their parties as well as they do. Maybe they believe their heirs are not yet ready to take over.
The lack of any clamour within their parties to oust them must help – although there are whispers, louder within Fianna Fail than in Sinn Fein, which is closer to a cult than a political party.
The leadership issue is particularly pressing for Sinn Fein because it has a unique opportunity to make significant electoral gains south of the Border in the next general election, either late in 2015 or early in 2016.
There is an appetite for change, coming off what will have been at least seven years of hardship for the population, and a gap in the market for a party that is left of centre and anti-austerity.
Those circumstances may not be present at the general election after the next one if an economic recovery is under way.
If Sinn Fein is to take advantage of these special circumstances, it needs a new leader in the Republic with no ties to the Troubles.
Adams is box office in Louth and in west Belfast, but there are swathes of Ireland where he is an electoral liability for the party and that is the reality Sinn Fein needs to address if it wants to become a major player in the Republic's political firmament.
It needs to ask itself whether loyalty to the leader outranks loyalty to the party.
What matters more: keeping Adams in situ, with an outside chance of being Tanaiste during the 2016 centenary celebrations? Or positioning the party for maximum electoral gains at the next general election?
Politics is a ruthless business and if Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail keep their existing leaders as they head into that election, they are handing an advantage to their rivals.
Adams and Martin need to realise there is victory in choosing when to let go.