Tuesday 16 July 2019

SF might have a new face in North - but Adams still hasn't gone away

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (left) and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill (right) talk to the press in Belfast. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (left) and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill (right) talk to the press in Belfast. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Shane Coleman

The only surprise about Micheál Martin's weekend salvo, aimed at Sinn Féin's recent leadership succession in the North, was that it took so long for it to happen.

Mr Martin's description of Sinn Féin as a "centrally controlled, undemocratic party" drew a predictably immediate and angry riposte from Gerry Adams, but sometimes his party really does make it too easy for its political opponents.

The manner in which Michelle O'Neill emerged as the party's Northern leader a few weeks back was extraordinary. It was the equivalent of the way, a century ago, the Tories used to pick their new leader, with the chosen candidate emerging from a smoke-filled room after consensus was finally reached.

Too much of a stretch comparison-wise? There are no longer 'smoke-filled rooms' but consider what Ms O'Neill told Sean O'Rourke: "Martin [McGuinness] and Gerry [Adams] obviously spoke to me about taking on the role, was I up to it. I said I was. Gerry then put it to the Ard Comhairle and there was a full discussion in relation to it and people were able to give their opinion and voice their views on it and the decision was taken unanimously that I should take on the position."

One wonders did that 'unanimity' include Conor Murphy. The South Armagh man was widely expected to take over from Mr McGuinness. Mr Murphy's absolute loyalty to the Republican movement means he will accept the fait accompli - that's still the Sinn Féin way - but he can hardly be happy about being passed over. Not that we'll ever hear any public dissent.

It's true Sinn Fein was not electing its overall leader. But we are talking about the parliamentary leader in the North - and likely future deputy first minister. In that context, it's hard to disagree with the Fianna Fáil leader when he said one would expect this person to be elected either by parliamentarians or the party membership, instead of being "appointed by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others we don't know about".

It's impossible to be sure about the reasons Ms O'Neill got the nod ahead of Mr Murphy. She's a seriously impressive operator, highly personable and, despite having impeccable Republican credentials, is free of the baggage of the Troubles. But, she also has far less experience than Mr Murphy. This has prompted some to speculate that the politically battle-hardened Mr Murphy might have proved more of a counterpoint to Mr Adams's leadership had he succeeded Mr McGuinness.

Whether there's any truth to that, the manner of Ms O'Neill's appointment left the party open to accusations, as Mr Martin put it, that strategy is still being determined by the IRA "army council". Despite an independent assessment of paramilitary activity a year ago declaring that the army council still existed, albeit with a wholly political focus, Sinn Féin is adamant that it has long left the stage.

Perhaps that is the case. But, from the outside, it certainly does appear that the Belfast boys are calling the shots on all the key decisions, including the one to withdraw from the power-sharing executive.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr McGuinness's decision to bow out from politics, it seemed logical to believe that it might also hasten Mr Adams's departure from the scene. But there's precious little sign of that.

It's always hard to read the Sinn Féin tea leaves, but close observers insist Mr Adams is going nowhere anytime soon. Privately, that won't please everybody in the party south of the Border. There's little doubt that Mr Adams acts as a drag on Sinn Féin support levels in the south. Mary Lou McDonald or Eoin Ó Broin at the helm would surely boost the party in middle-class constituencies.

But Mr Adams's eminence within the Republican movement, and the esteem in which he is held, is such that he and his closest allies will decide when it's time to go - and them alone. And that may not be for some time. One theory is that he may hold off until well into next year and, if Michael D Higgins decides not to seek re-election, opt to run in the presidential election. There's little doubt the position would appeal to somebody who very much regards himself as a statesman.

Whatever will or won't happen, we can say with some certainty that Mr Adams has the plan mapped out in his own head for some time ahead. Love him or hate him, there's no disputing that, as a strategist, he has few peers. You couldn't come through what he has come through over the past half a century without those attributes. And, as we saw during the long gestation period of the peace process, he's more than willing to play the long game.

Which is just as well because nothing major is likely to happen soon, either north or south, for the party. The signs at the moment are that the Dáil will last into 2018 (although that, of course, could change). And north of the Border, there is little optimism that a deal can be agreed with the DUP after the election to get the Executive back in place.

Not in the short term, anyway.

The party is blessed by its opponents in the North, with DUP leader Arlene Foster continuing to do her best impression of one of the unrepentant, old-style unionist leaders of a generation or two ago. Her crass dismissal on Monday of Sinn Féin's demands for an Irish language act was only playing into the party's hands and must have had SDLP strategists privately despairing.

But despite the tribal nature of the exchanges, at some point, the big two in the Assembly will have to do a deal - even if it mightn't happen until towards the end of this year. And, regardless of who Sinn Féin had selected to succeed Mr McGuinness, Mr Adams was always going to be the key figure in reaching such an agreement. He'll be in his absolute element doing so.

He hasn't gone away, you know. And, for better or worse and regardless of what the party's opponents and the media might think or say, the likelihood is that he won't be doing so anytime soon.

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

Irish Independent

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