Friday 23 March 2018

Leaders in waiting: Gerry Adams hands torch to the M&M generation

As Adams steps down, Sinn Féin's future will be in the hands of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill. Can they bury the ghosts of the party's paramilitary past to make gains North and South? Their weak response to Barry McElduff's Kingsmill stunt augurs badly

New order: McDonald and O'Neill at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast for last year's Northern Ireland Assembly election count
New order: McDonald and O'Neill at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast for last year's Northern Ireland Assembly election count
Mary Lou McDonald with Gerry Adams in 2004
Michelle O'Neill with Martin McGuinness in 2007
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When Gerry Adams finally steps down as Sinn Féin leader at a special Ard Fheis on February 10 after 35 years in charge, he will pass the republican torch to a new generation.

The future of a movement, inextricably linked with Adams, the IRA and armed struggle, will be left in the hands of two women - Mary Lou McDonald as party president, and Michelle O'Neill as leader in the North.

Mary Lou and Michelle, two women of different backgrounds, have the opportunity to bring their party to new electoral heights, and possibly play a role in government on both sides of the border.

Without a fully-fledged opposition in the Dáil as a result of Fianna Fáil's confidence and supply arrangement, Mary Lou has the wind in her sails. Labour has been slow to recover as Sinn Féin's main rival after it was forced to implement draconian cutbacks while in government.

Sinn Féin will be hoping for gains at the polls with a Mary Lou bounce, but there is also a risk that without Adams, the party's icon at the helm, Sinn Féin will lose its cohesion, and sense of identity.

This week, we saw the challenges still faced by the movement over its links with a paramilitary past with the resignation of Barry McElduff as a Sinn Féin MP.

The MP for West Tyrone quit as a result of controversy 10 days after he posted a video of himself in a shop with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head.

He was crass or idiotic enough to put the video out on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre, in which 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by the IRA. Whether it was intentional or accidental, he caused understandable outrage by appearing to mock the victims of one of the IRA's worst atrocities.

Perhaps you could put it down to inexperience in the case of the younger woman, but neither Michelle O'Neill nor Mary Lou McDonald emerged with much credit from their handling of the episode, at least in its initial stages.

If they were in another political party, where members are more inclined to be outspoken, Sinn Féin TDs and senior figures would have reacted quickly to the stunt. But both Mary Lou and Michelle joined other Sinn Féin figures in staying silent for days.

When Michelle O'Neill finally reacted with a public statement on the Monday afterwards, her tone seemed to lack conviction. The initial penalty imposed on McElduff of three months' suspension was regarded as meaningless in a party that declines to take seats in Westminster.

Two days later, the leader-in-waiting McDonald seemed even more woolly in her response as she described the lenient sanction as "appropriate and proportionate", but in the days that followed, public revulsion grew and McElduff eventually had to quit his job completely.

'Embarrassing flip-flop'

When Michelle O'Neill came forward on Monday of this week to make a statement about the resignation, her tone had changed markedly.

There was a strong hint that McElduff had been pushed when she said: "Barry recognises that this controversy and his continuing role in public office is compounding the distress to the victims of Kingsmill."

Commenting on the episode, the Irish News described McElduff's eventual resignation as an "embarrassing flip-flop" for the party.

As Mary Lou looks forward to becoming leader, the McElduff stunt was an example of the difficulties that face her.

On the one hand, Sinn Féin wants to present itself as the leading progressive force in Irish politics: a party that advocates social justice, equality, feminism and financial probity.

On the other hand, Mary Lou will have to pay due homage to the party's paramilitary heritage - nestling in the shadow of gunmen at commemorative events. Ultimately, as the reminders of Kingsmill and other atrocities have shown, these two versions of Sinn Féin are often impossible to reconcile with each other.

How can a party purport to campaign for social justice when its heroes of the past selected targets for murder on a bus by religion, only allowing the one Catholic in the group to go free?

In fairness to the resigning MP, he seemed genuinely contrite as he quit: "Kingsmill was wrong, unjustifiable and sectarian. It should never have happened."

Among the first tasks of Mary Lou will be to tackle the sense of dissatisfaction among some in the party ranks, with accusations of bullying and lack of respect shown to certain members.

McDonald seemed to acknowledge some of these difficulties when she officially declared that she would be a candidate to be president of Sinn Féin before Christmas.

"Ensuring a respectful, friendly atmosphere in our party is very important," she said. "Managing our transition from a smaller to a much larger party is challenging... Where relationships break down or rivalries take hold, where disciplinary issues emerge, it is important that we remember why we each joined Sinn Féin."

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh quit the party in November over what he described as "unacceptable behaviour against me and a number of other members locally, from a small number of ruthless, unscrupulous and ambitious individuals".

Senator O Clochartaigh told Review this week he got on well with Mary Lou McDonald on a personal level.

"I would have worked closely with her. She is a woman of great capabilities with a lot of skills and warmth - she works well with groups.

"But she faces a formidable task because the party needs a serious change in its culture."

The senator says there needs to be greater professionalisation in the structures of party, particularly around disciplinary issues.

"The code of ethics in the party says you shouldn't run down your party colleagues, but that was done on a systematic level with people close to me. I feel those responsible should have been told it was unacceptable at a minimum or suspended."

When Adams hands over to Mary Lou, it will mark a sea change in the movement. The powerbase of Sinn Féin may move back to Dublin after decades in the North, and the imperatives of southern politics could take precedence as a result.

Mary Lou's background is far removed from that of the Northern working-class leadership cadres that dominated the party in the latter half of the Troubles.

When the 29-year-old Trinity College graduate from Rathgar first spoke at an Ard Fheis 20 years ago, her leader was Bertie Ahern and her party was Fianna Fáil.

She later claimed Bertie Ahern's party was not left wing enough for her: "There was a discussion and I raised the idea of - I don't think I even used the word 'equality', I think I used the word 'equity' - and there was a kind of a puzzled intake of breath."

Within a few months of her Ard Fheis debut, the promising young treasurer of a Fianna Fáil cumann in Dublin West had defected to Sinn Féin and quickly became a rising star of the party. By that time the Troubles were over.

It sometimes seemed that Mary Lou was being groomed to be leader almost from the start, appearing by the side of Gerry Adams at every opportunity in the early years of her political career. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh sees both Mary Lou and Michelle O'Neill as capable leaders, but wonders whether they will have the strategic vision of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

"That is built up when you have 30 or 40 years experience in the job," said the senator.

It also remains to be seen if Adams really departs the political scene, or continues to exert influence. He was not a visible presence in the McElduff episode, but it is hard to imagine that he took a back seat during the unfolding crisis.

Paramilitary tradition

To the party leadership, O'Neill must have been seen as the ideal politician to take over at the helm in Sinn Féin in the North and make the transition to a new generation.

The 41-year-old from Clonoe had no involvement in the IRA campaign during the Troubles and is seen as liberal and progressive in her outlook, but her family was steeped in paramilitary tradition.

O'Neill's late father, Brendan Doris, also known as Basil, was an IRA member who was interned in the 1970s, before returning to the "struggle".

Her cousin, Tony Doris, was one of three IRA men shot dead in an SAS ambush in 1991.

The manner of her appointment a year ago certainly raised eyebrows, and led to criticism that the party had not yet adopted conventional democratic structures.

She gave a vague explanation of the process in an RTÉ interview: "The party has internal ­processes and we went through the Ard Chomhairle and the officer board, and Martin and Gerry spoke to me and asked me to take on the position."

Eoin O'Malley, lecturer in politics at Dublin City University, says: "The way she was chosen was a bit like the Tory party of old. She just emerged, and it was no grassroots choice."

Although she was not a well-known figure south of the border when she emerged as leader, O'Neill had considerable experience as a minister in the health and agriculture departments. Acquaintances described her as competent and "immensely personable".

In a candid interview with the Sunday World, O'Neill has spoken about how becoming pregnant with her daughter Saoirse at the age of 16 had made her a stronger person. She also has a grown-up son Ryan.

"Being a young mum, well it's my life experience, it made me what I am, it makes you stronger, I think," she said.

"I know what it's like to be in difficult situations, I know what it's like to struggle, I know what it's like to go to school and have a baby at home, and to be studying for your exams and all those things that go with it."

Her ultimate test of leadership will come as she tries to rebuild bridges with Arlene Foster of the DUP and put the Humpty Dumpty of the power-sharing executive back together again.

Mary Lou will also have a role in this as the leader of an all-Ireland party. While guiding the party in the Dáil towards power, she will have to keep an eye on the party's strategic goal, as spelled out by Gerry Adams in a recent blog post about the new leadership. A united Ireland is still the ultimate target.

As the departing leader put it: "This is our primary political and strategic national objective and nothing will change that until we achieve that."


SF's odd couple at a glance

Mary Lou McDonald

Age: 48

Education: Notre Dame des Missions convent school, graduated in English from Trinity College.

Family: Christened Mary Louise and grew up in Rathgar. Met her husband Martin watching a World Cup match in a pub in 1990. Two children, Iseult and Gearóid.

Career path: Joined Sinn Féin after a brief stint in Fianna Fáil. Elected to the European Parliament in 2004,but lost her seat in 2009. Appointed deputy leader, 2009. Elected to the Dáil at the 2011. By Thursday of this week, she was the only candidate to take over from Gerry Adams as leader.

What she says: Filmed in a supermarket for TV3 "I'm just looking for Cheerios… Cheerios and a united Ireland."

Michelle O'Neill

Age: 41

Family: Daughter of ex-IRA volunteer and SF councillor, Brendan "Basil" Doris, who died in 2006. Grew up in Clonoe, Co Tyrone. Mother of two grown-up children, Saoirse and Ryan.

Education: St Patrick's Girls Academy, Dungannon. Trained as an accounting technician.

Career path: Elected as a councillor 2005, elected as Member of the Legislative Assembly 2007, served as Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Health in Northern Executive, appointed leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland 2017.

What she says: "Obviously I do have a family background steeped in republican history and that's something I'm very proud of: my family and who I am and where I come from. I very much don't think that should define the future and who I am. That doesn't make me closed off to any one section of society."

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section