Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sinn Féin will have no shortage of contenders to replace ailing McGuinness

Mary Lou McDonald and Conor Murphy Picture: Tom Burke
Mary Lou McDonald and Conor Murphy Picture: Tom Burke

Malachi O'Doherty

Whatever is ailing Martin McGuinness is serious, for now, and has political implications that can not be ignored, however indelicate it seems to mention that fact.

Arlene Foster has suggested that one feature of the current political crisis was that senior members of Sinn Féin were jockeying for position in the knowledge that the Deputy First Minister was seriously ill. She was reviled on social media for "bad taste".

It would be a pity if she really believed that her political problems were not substantially of her own making.

It also seems unlikely that Sinn Féin will have much of a contest for the new northern leadership. That appointment will be made by Gerry Adams and a few close advisers.

The speculation among journalists and commentators would probably light on Conor Murphy as the favourite.

Mr Murphy has several advantages. For one, he was in the IRA. This may still count for something. Just a year ago a security assessment for the Executive said that many in the IRA believed they still controlled Sinn Féin, and while Sinn Féin denied that, disabusing the army council of that delusion may bring some discomfort. On the other hand, this may be exactly the right time to appoint someone with no paramilitary past.

That might soothe relations with the DUP, yet Mr Murphy worked alongside Mrs Foster in the same office building in Adelaide Street and they got on well.

Mr Murphy might also bring baggage with him. He told Jeremy Paxman on 'Newsnight', when he was a minister, that he had spoken to the IRA and confirmed with it that it had not killed Paul Quinn in 2007.

This could rebound on him as collusion in a massive lie. It has echoes of the problem that Gerry Adams faces in the South with the Brian Stack debacle.

Might Máirtín Ó Muilleoir be the next DFM? He is seen as being both clever and charismatic. He has no IRA record and he is hugely personable on the media, as well as having international contacts and a proven record. If he is not a serious contender, then Sinn Féin is not a normal party yet.

Michelle Gildernew has been a minister and an MP, albeit an abstainer. She has the intelligence and the charm. But she has embarrassed the party a couple of times, once by writing candidly about how being shifted from the Assembly had triggered depression, and speaking in support of disgraced businessman Sean Quinn.

Then there is John O'Dowd, a former education minister who handled his brief assertively while, at the same time, preferring colloquial to textbook grammar. He took over as Deputy First Minister when Mr McGuinness was contesting the 2012 presidential election. That surely is some degree of endorsement of him. And there is no IRA record there.

Yet Mr Adams and his coterie may look further afield.

Another MLA might be asked to stand down to make room for, say, Pearse Doherty or even Mary Lou McDonald.

Here are two brilliant politicians at the very top of the party whose advance towards the leadership is still blocked by the incumbent Mr Adams's fondness for the job.

It might seem unlikely, but it is not impossible that either would be sent North given the importance of retaining the all-island character of the party.

The danger of having separate leadership structures on each side of the Border, drifting further apart as old leaders move on, is that Sinn Féin would be a partitioned party, organic evidence of the inevitability of the very evil they exist to oppose, partition.

Ms McDonald might not be keen on the job, but she has been at Mr Adams's side in the North during past talks processes.

Or Mr Adams might even take the job himself.

That would extract him from the routine horror of being mocked in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil, which is determined to beat back competition from Sinn Féin for the Republican vote.

But currently no vacancy exists, and given the difficulty of the choice, Mr Adams and others might be thinking back to the marvellous recovery that Ian Paisley made from an illness that seemed likely to end his career - and wishing similar blessings upon Mr McGuinness.

Irish Independent

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