Saturday 14 December 2019

This is democracy, with a North Korean flavour

What matters is not that a woman is nominally in charge of Sinn Fein - but who's in charge of her, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Mary Lou McDonald will succeed Gerry Adams. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Mary Lou McDonald will succeed Gerry Adams. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Sinn Fein has announced that Mary Lou McDonald will be anointed unopposed as next leader of Sinn Fein.

"Admitted" would be a more accurate word. It's hardly a cause of pride that the country's third largest party couldn't even orchestrate a proper leadership contest. It's been 34 years since the last one. You'd think that at least one of the scores of elected representatives who've emerged since then would want to take a shot at it, no pun intended.

Not least since Mary Lou herself said she didn't want to simply be crowned queen of all Ireland, and outgoing leader Gerry Adams insisted the next leader would be elected openly and democratically.

But no, not a single one of those energetic young guns has dared to step up and make a pitch at becoming boss. The final date for nominations passed last Friday evening with a single applicant. Well, it cuts down on paperwork, if nothing else.

In a way, Adams is right. SF is perfectly open about what it's doing. It doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's a centrally controlled oligarchy.

A clever devil's advocate could even make the case that the handover is democratic too, since McDonald will be confirmed at a special ard fheis next month. Delegates will be free to say no, if that's what they feel inclined to do. But if this is democracy, then it's a North Korea-style version. Kim Jong-un stands for election to his country's Supreme People's Assembly, too. Also unopposed, naturally, but he did command a 100pc approval from voters in his region last time, on a 100pc turnout, so that presumably is all above board, too.

Does SF really have no feeling for how bad this looks to ordinary voters who don't share the same nostalgia for this quasi-militia discipline?

If anything, this weekend marks a step backwards. When Gerry Adams stood at the 1983 ard fheis to succeed Ruairi O Bradaigh, it was the first time that SF had ever elected its leader. Now they've gone back to thinking and acting like a revolutionary elite, not a modern political party. Couldn't they at least pretend to be normal?

Put it this way. It's hardly a coincidence that the announcement was made at a press conference during this weekend's ard chomhairle meeting in West Belfast, rather than in Dublin. Symbolism matters.

Nor that Mary Lou chose to emphasise, in her first speech to the gathering, a belief that the party was entering "a defining chapter in our achievement of a united Ireland and the ending of partition". That smacked more of reassurance that she wouldn't be emphasising social or economic concerns over ancient shibboleths about seeing off the Brits.

Seeing Mary Lou's ascension to party president as a victory for women would be equally naive. The Dublin Central TD has a different set of chromosomes to her predecessor, but she's done no more than Gerry for women hurt by the republican movement, except to offer meaningless platitudes. What matters is not that a woman is now nominally in charge of SF, but who's in charge of her.

Sunday Independent

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