Nothing to celebrate in the political longevity of Gerry Adams
The departure of Gerry Adams as leader of Sinn Fein will be riddled with opportunities and dangers for the party, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Gerry Adams is the only person alive who knows what it's like to be the leader of Sinn Fein. That's quite an unusual situation, when you think about it.
There are five men living who've held the position of Fine Gael leader, and there would have been six but for Liam Cosgrave's recent death. Four present and former Fianna Fail leaders are still around. The Labour Party can boast six. In Northern Ireland, the tally stands at five for both the SDLP and Ulster Unionists. In the UK, it's six for the Tories, and five for Labour. The longest serving party leader in the 26 counties, Micheal Martin, has only been in the job for six years.
Adams, by contrast, has been in charge of his party for so long - 34 years at the last count - that he's managed to outlive every single one of his predecessors.
Normally it's only dictators, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who get to share that unusual experience, though that's coming to an end for him too thanks to a coup by the country's military.
The only vaguely democratic parallel is with the DUP. Besides the current leader, Arlene Foster, they have just one previous incumbent, Peter Robinson, and that's because their party's founder, the late Ian Paisley, led his troops for a staggering 37 years before stepping down in 2008. The comparison hardly flatters SF, however, because the DUP is deeply weird too.
It's easy to forget that such longevity in modern politics is not only peculiar, but downright abnormal. Democratic parties tend to replace their leaders periodically as part of a natural cycle of renewal. In the process, new ideas are debated and absorbed. Consider the Fine Gael leadership contest before the summer. Predictions that the face-off between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney would prove a damp squib were laid firmly to rest by a series of sparky debates that energised party members, particularly younger ones.
That hasn't happened in Sinn Fein in living memory. That puts the party right now in uncharted territory, after Gerry Adams used his keynote "Presidential Address" at this weekend's Ard Fheis in Dublin to finally set out what the man himself previously dubbed "a plan for orderly leadership change".
This obsession with an orderly transfer of power is also typical of dictatorships. Rather than letting change happen organically, it must be organised, controlled, directed from the centre. Those in command of tightly structured organisations such as Sinn Fein are always terrified of relinquishing power, so they want to oversee the succession. In the North, that was done in the crudest way possible. After Martin McGuinness died, his successor as party leader at the devolved Stormont assembly was handpicked by the ard chomairle and whoever sits behind them in the shadows, pulling the strings. There was no election. No choice for party members. Michelle O'Neill was simply crowned queen.
Such a mockery of democracy wouldn't sit well in the Republic, so there must be a vote for a new leader. Unfortunately, elections are unpredictable. Hence the micromanagement of Adams's departure.
It's all about reducing the variables so that the chosen one, surely deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, has the smoothest possible route to victory, while giving a false impression of transparency.
For Gerry Adams, though, these recent weeks have not simply been driven by a need for an orderly transfer of power. His constant burning desire to stay in the spotlight has also come into play. He first announced that he would be making yesterday's announcement back in September, ensuring two-and-a-half months of speculation to fill the news vacuum. November also neatly coincides with the publication of his latest book, which bears the unintentionally ironic title, Never Give Up. (Never Miss An Opportunity would be more like it).
Last week he also let it be known that he'd joined Snapchat, the photo and messaging app most popular with young people, to add to a social media presence which has seen him amass more than 150,000 followers on Twitter. "The team tells me Snapchat is where all the cool people hang out," was the cringeworthy way he announced his increasingly tiresome narcissistic desire for attention.
What next? A stint on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here?
By concentrating on the "what happens next?" part of Gerry's journey, awkward questions about the past are diverted into a series of mawkish cliches about how he ended the war in Northern Ireland, and brought the IRA in from the wilderness, largely united, despite settling for far less than for what it fought.
Making a virtue of necessity, apologists for Adams have become masters at spinning positives out of a litany of negatives. His conceit is recast as bonhomie. Gaffes become a sign of his essential guilelessness. His longevity, meanwhile, is cast as evidence of an eternal popularity, rather than a symptom of a deeply dysfunctional political machine.
Dictatorships share this enthusiasm for endurance, because it allows the regime to paint the dear leader's popularity as if it was natural, rather than manufactured and ruthlessly maintained.
When this rot sets in on a national level, it manifests itself principally in a breakdown of the boundaries between different arms of the state, and the concentration of power in one man. This is exactly what happened to SF under Adams. The organisation became a personality cult. It warped the normal development of the party, and held back any possible challenger.
It will be fascinating to see whether SF can use the opportunity of Adams's departure to normalise itself. It will certainly have to, if it wants to halt the decline in the polls, which at this stage looks more like a trend than a temporary blip. The centre ground of politics was a shaky place to be in the worst days of the recession. Having such a toxic leader during that period held back SF considerably. He's now heading into the sunset at a time when the centre is reasserting itself, and Irish opinion is coalescing once more around the two traditional parties of government.
It's very possible that SF will face a squeeze at the next election, and fall backwards, allowing Gerry's admirers to assert that past increases in support at each election, from 6.9pc in 2007 to 9.9pc in 2011 and 13.8pc in 2016, were a personal endorsement of his leadership rather than a reaction to austerity.
If SF's immediate future is to replace Labour as the first choice partner for FG or FF in future coalitions - and the retreat from the former insistence on being the largest party in terms of seats before entering government, which has been taking place at this weekend's Ard Fheis at the behest of the ard chomairle, would suggest this is exactly where the party's headed - then Adams obviously had to go.
SF in government will be a hard enough sell to potential partners without expecting them to accept such a shadowy, divisive figure as Tanaiste. If the party then suffers electorally as a result, as Labour's always done in the past, then Adams will at least escape the blame for leading them to ruin.
Equally interesting will be how the North reacts to being relegated to its new role as a passenger when it's more used to being in the driving seat. The republican movement was meant to be in the grip of hard men from West Belfast and Crossmaglen, not Trinity College-educated former Fianna Failers such as Mary Lou McDonald. Coming out of decades of conflict, in which the North's needs inevitably dominated, Adams was well placed to impose his will on the party nationally, and Sinn Fein may secretly be planning to keep him on board, in the back seat as it were, to maintain that continuity.
It remains to be seen whether Mary Lou can muster the same authority to keep malcontents in Northern Ireland on a leash while concentrating, as she must, on economic and political priorities in the Republic. They won't have the same inclination to do what she says when their interests clash.