Shadow of the gunman and Adams's legacy continue to hamper Sinn Féin
Published 18/03/2016 | 02:30
What now for Sinn Féin? It might seem like a strange question for a party that has just added nine seats to its Dáil representation. But, make no mistake, the party is at a crossroads.
The leadership is putting on a brave face, but privately they are reeling.
Failing to break 14pc of the first preference vote was certainly disappointing. And 23 seats was at the lower end of what the party was hoping for.
But it's the unexpected resurgence of Fianna Fáil that has really shocked strategists.
They're a realistic and patient bunch. They knew catching Fianna Fáil wasn't a runner this time. But the plan was that Sinn Féin would win 25-plus seats with Fianna Fáil in the low-to-mid-30s.
Ideally, the Soldiers of Destiny would be forced into coalition with Fine Gael, leaving Sinn Féin leading the opposition and ready to usurp Fianna Fáil at the next election.
That plan now lies in tatters. Micheál Martin stole the show in the campaign and Fianna Fáil more than doubled its seat numbers, leaving a faltering Adams and Co far behind.
Instead, Fianna Fáil is the party now poised to strike from the opposition benches next time out. And it is not, as Sinn Féin has discovered, another SDLP, ready to be taken out.
Nowhere was the mismatch between the two parties more obvious than across the border constituencies - presumed Sinn Féin strongholds.
In each of Cavan-Monaghan, Sligo-Leitrim and Donegal, Fianna Fáil won two seats to Sinn Féin's one. Only in Louth was that reversed, but who would bet against Fianna Fáil taking a second seat there in the next election?
No wonder there was an air of desperation about Sinn Féin in the Dáil last week and its pleadings for the big two to go into coalition together. But it's not going to happen. A new plan is required.
The party strategists won't panic. Progress has been made over the past decade, going from five seats to 23 and doubling the party's vote. But internally, there'll be a big debate as to what the party does next.
Inevitably, some of that debate surrounds Gerry Adams. He is an iconic figure in the movement. There'll be no move against him.
But even his biggest supporters in the party must concede Adams had a poor election and cost the party seats.
They will also be genuinely concerned that a lifetime in the "struggle" will inevitably begin to take its toll on the 67-year-old, who has been party president for an extraordinary 33 years.
There is a belief that Adams himself may now wish to move to a different role.
Assuming a government is put together, he won't lead Sinn Féin into another election south of the Border. Nothing will happen prior to the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. But after that, all bets are off.
His departure has been identified by many commentators as an electoral panacea for the party. But it's nowhere near that simple.
He will leave behind a massive hole in the organisation that his successor will inevitably struggle to fill.
This is no ordinary party leader. For Republicans, he's a virtual messiah, certainly a father figure. He is Sinn Féin.
It'll be the political equivalent of taking over Manchester United after Busby or Ferguson, or Arsenal after Wenger.
Then there's the question of who'll succeed him? The young progressives in the South want Mary Lou McDonald (inset, with Adams), in the belief she'll spread the party's appeal.
But close observers wonder if she'll be acceptable to the Belfast-based veterans of the Troubles, who many believe still call the shots in the party.
Conor Murphy would be their choice. But they know that wouldn't wash south of the border.
Pearse Doherty, no less impressive than McDonald, may be the compromise choice, though the Dublin Central TD remains the front-runner.
But regardless of who is picked - and we are talking anointed, rather than elected - it's hard to see the movement remaining as cohesive.
Key decisions on its positioning are also needed. Sinn Féin over-reacted to the 2014 by-election defeat in Dublin South West and became obsessed about not being outflanked by the likes of AAA-PBP.
While the exit polls showed SF as the biggest party in working class areas, its strategy didn't stop the hard left grouping making gains and ignored the reality that the real room for growth lies closer to the centre.
It's hard to believe that Doherty or McDonald really agree, for example, with a crippling marginal tax rate of 59pc, or that the party would actually implement it in government.
So there are big decisions to be made. And they'll be made behind closed doors. As an organisation, that's a huge strength, but it also goes to the heart of its weak spot as a political party.
Adams's departure won't lessen the influence of the old army council - whether it still formally exists or not.
Only the slow passing of time, and retirements, can do that. That presence hasn't hindered the party's progress in the North, but it's clearly a problem for many middle class voters south of the border.
And until that changes, Sinn Féin's goal of overtaking Fianna Fáil and leading a government will remain a pipe dream.
Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am