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Martin McGuinness was always content to play second fiddle to Adams

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Martin McGuinness looks at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at Co-operation Ireland reception in London last November. Photo: PA

Martin McGuinness looks at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at Co-operation Ireland reception in London last November. Photo: PA

PA

Martin McGuinness looks at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at Co-operation Ireland reception in London last November. Photo: PA

How brilliant a political operator must Gerry Adams be that the late Martin McGuinness was consigned, and more than willing, to play second fiddle to the Sinn Féin president.

Mr McGuinness was the darling of the republican movement. His role as an IRA commander, and the de facto fiefdom he created in Derry, gave him a cachet - particularly with the republican hardmen outside Belfast - that Mr Adams could never match. He was also a deep political thinker with sound instincts, as well as being an excellent strategist and planner.

Hundreds of people accompanied Martin McGuinness's Tricolour-draped coffin as it made its way through the streets of Derry to his family home.

There was clearly no absence of steel - the stories of the IRA's ruthless activity in Derry show that - but Mr McGuinness also had an affability, a charm and a personal decency and empathy that could disarm even his fiercest foes.

He had a likeability and an easy manner that Mr Adams could never (or perhaps chose not to) replicate and that was the very opposite of the 'cold Shinner' stereotype.

He was, for better or worse, one of the most important figures in Irish politics over the past half-a-century. Would the ceasefire of 1994 have been possible without him? Perhaps - but not one that brought the majority of the IRA along with the leadership. There's no question his credentials were a key factor in alleviating the concerns of more sceptical hardliners. 'If McGuinness can live with it, so can I'.

Yet despite all this, it was always - and still remains - Mr Adams who is the republican movement's undisputed leader, its father figure. Mr McGuinness more the favourite son - Che Guevara to Mr Adams's Castro perhaps.

It's impossible to know from the outside how close Mr McGuinness and Mr Adams were personally. But, politically, they were inseparable as, from the early 1980s, they slowly (at times painfully so) moved the IRA along the road to peace and constitutional politics.

Yet there was never any doubt as to who was number one. Certainly not once the ceasefire was bedded down and the ballot box completely usurped the armalite. Mr McGuinness was a fine politician - perfectly suited as it turned out for the role of power sharing with Ian Paisley and even Peter Robinson. But, as a Machiavellian strategist, Mr Adams was in a league of his own.

Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness has died aged 66.

It was Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness; not the other way around. And that reality means that, for all the undoubted affection and love for the former deputy first minister within Sinn Féin, his sad and premature passing won't dramatically affect the party's direction or future.

It's always been Mr Adams calling the shots and it will still be Mr Adams calling the shots. Sinn Féin figures will deny it, of course, but the admirable lengths Mr McGuinness went to maintain good relations with the DUP wasn't universally welcomed in republican circles.

There was a feeling in some quarters that the party under Mr McGuinness's leadership in the North had been too willing to compromise and that Arlene Foster and Co had taken advantage of this perceived weakness. And that this had gone down badly, not just with Sinn Féin activists, but with the wider nationalist community. The fact that Sinn Féin's newer hardline approach had paid such spectacular electoral dividends will only have strengthened that view.

It's impossible to be sure, given how secretive Sinn Féin remains, but the nagging feeling persists that Mr McGuinness was a reluctant participant in early January when the party triggered the collapse of the power-sharing Executive.

Without Mr McGuinness, putting that Executive back together may be more difficult. Mrs Foster may live to regret not appreciating how good she had it with the Derry man. Unwisely, she left the deputy first minister no room for manoeuvre. Mr McGuinness was willing to work with unionists and meet them half way - probably more than half way in fact.

Will Mr Adams, or by proxy Michelle O'Neill, now be willing to do so? Will they be willing to compromise, to do what it takes to restore the Executive? Or have they already decided Stormont is less important than a united Ireland, a goal once parked by Sinn Féin but now potentially revived by Brexit?

TV3 to air revealing interview with Martin McGuinness tonight at 9pm.

After a difficult 2016 with the party somewhat marginalised by 'new politics' in the south and consigned to the hind tit in the North, Sinn Féin has all of a sudden got its mojo back. In the North, the absence of Mr McGuinness's name on the ballot paper wasn't felt. Buoyed by Mrs Foster's ill-advised intransigence, SF came within a whisker of overtaking the DUP.

And in the south, recent polls show the party on the rise, overtaking Fine Gael and at 23pc in one poll. Even allowing for the reality that Sinn Féin always underperforms its poll rating, the party can expect seat gains if there is an election this year. With 30-plus seats and a clear willingness to go into coalition, the prospect that Sinn Féin could be in power both sides of the Border by 2018 cannot be dismissed, even if both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are ruling out coalition with it.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr McGuinness's passing influences Mr Adams's plans. The Sinn Féin president wouldn't be human if the death of his closest ally didn't cause him to stop and think about his own life and the potential to do other things outside politics while he has the chance. Mr McGuinness certainly wanted to spend more time with his family but, sadly, fate intervened.

But close observers of Mr Adams are not convinced that he is ready to spend time smelling the roses just yet or, in fact, any time soon. Particularly with the strong likelihood of both a general election and a presidential election in the next 18 months and the opportunities they offer.

Some people in his own party certainly believe a new leader would help expand support in the south. But there's no sign of him going voluntarily and his iconic status in republican circles means he won't be pushed, especially not now.

Politics in the North is undoubtedly poorer for the passing of Martin McGuinness. In a personal sense, Sinn Féin is in mourning. But, politically, it is buoyant. It will quickly regroup and it will do so with the reassuring presence (for them) of Gerry Adams at the helm. It was ever thus.

  • Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast' weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent


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