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Sinn Fein Belfast Brigade will decide when or if Mary Lou replaces Adams

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Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald

Martin McGuinness and Martina Anderson address nationalists on the Falls Road in support of Gerry Adams, after Mr Adams was taken into police custody for several days last Maysaid

Martin McGuinness and Martina Anderson address nationalists on the Falls Road in support of Gerry Adams, after Mr Adams was taken into police custody for several days last Maysaid

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Mary Lou McDonald

There is nobody better placed to be the leader of Sinn Fein at present than Gerry Adams. At least you know what you're getting. People expect bad behaviour from the greying figurehead with a poor grasp of detail.

They know of his past, even though it's denied. They expect the weird and downright bad behaviour at times. Most know behind the cuddly teddy bear tweets, is a grizzly who raises its ugly head every now and again.

The man who some in Belfast increasingly refer to as "Kim Jong Gerry" has been there almost as long as Mao. That's an achievement he hasn't managed on his own. He is there, until the Belfast kitchen cabinet who run Sinn Fein can find someone else who they can mould into position. A figurehead who can marry the army side with the New Sinn Fein, who need to appeal to those in the South uneasy with the past being brought into the present, and who wish to lend their vote to the cleaner side of the party.

But, when the Belfast leadership decide that they need someone to replace Adams, who is in their sights? No one really. They don't know who they can put in at present, which is why Gerry hasn't been shown the door before now. Better the embarrassing devil you know, than the smart one you're not sure of yet.

Step forward, Mary Lou as a possible contender. A confident, articulate, middle-class mother, who performs well on and off camera, and who wants the position when it arises.

I remember when Mary Lou came into Sinn Fein. She was friendly and smiley and I warmed to her. But Sinn Fein can be bitchy - like any other party. Some on occasion would tear strips off her behind her back. She was "careerist", "pushy", and "talked to those with connections". Republican credentials are everything to certain people, unfortunately it's not a case of what you know, but who you know.

I defended her on more than one occasion to those who put her down, not because of her lack of ability, which she has in abundance, but because they didn't trust a woman who came to the party from Fianna Fail, and who, they said, had no "army background".

"So what?" I said. "She's smart". And smart she is. Whether she is clever enough to realise it yet though, being smart in Sinn Fein can be a double-edged sword.

Her background is useful. Her non-tainting by the IRA pulls in votes, and southern voters don't like to be reminded too much that IRA activity still continued post-ceasefire. But it is exactly this - that she doesn't have IRA credentials - which means that she will have to keep the old guard within the party onside if she has any credible chance of making it to the top.

She's been seen more frequently of late, taking part in meetings north of the Border and commenting much more publicly on the past that isn't hers, which will play well to the gallery of the hardline republicans who need to be prepared - and indeed convinced that they will have someone in place who they can run from the top. Mary Lou needs to go from being her own woman, to being theirs.

Perception is the ultimate in politics, and the Sinn Fein deputy leader has gone from all things to all people (except bankers) - from Mary "middle of the road" Lou, if you will, to Mary "how do I get my leader out of this mess" Lou. That is bound to alienate a few voters who can't abide the IRA connection with Adams, but who are prepared to lend their transfers to the party in the belief that he won't be around much longer.

She's the de facto leader of the party in the South anyway, regularly taking on the sparring mantle during Leaders' Questions. Her Dail sit-in, which many viewed as a stunt to deflect away from my sex abuse allegations and the wider issue, will have made the party transfer toxic to many, but endeared her to the hard left - and crucially the party's hard men in Belfast. Recently, she's taken a more hardline stance herself.

On October 18, Mary Lou had the following to say when asked about internal IRA investigations.

"If it were a thing that for anybody the IRA conducted an investigation into a matter of sexual abuse, that is clearly wrong. It's reprehensible . . ."

However, on Newstalk FM, on November 3, after again stating her opposition with what she termed "rough justice" her response to this question, "Do you agree with Gerry Adams's phrase that the people who ran these IRA courts were decent people?", was telling.

There was a brief pause before she answered: "I believe the people who volunteered to the IRA were decent people, yes I do."

And therein lies the problem. Mary Lou is far from stupid, but is caught in the bind of having to defend both Gerry Adams and the IRA, in a question that in all probability she would rather not have had to answer. What is her strength to the party in terms of progressing electoral advancement, is ironically seen as her weakness by the Northern leadership.

Her personal electoral performance hasn't exactly been plain sailing, which suggests that she is less liked by voters than public and media perception would believe. Recently, her tone and her manner over the IRA sex abuse issue has hardened and time will tell whether she will come out personally unaffected.

It wouldn't matter anyway. The Belfast Brigade of Sinn Fein have a certain way of doing things. They are the people in the background who decide what they want, and who they can use to get it. Whoever comes after Adams will have to be prepared to follow orders from the North, even if it could potentially do damage in the South longer term.

The core vote will remain, but transfers are key in any election, and dancing to the IRA's tune will continue to halt advances made in this area. Sinn Fein has hit a plateau in the North, it doesn't matter what they do there, but the Northerners haven't realised yet the South is a whole different ball game.

What Southerners haven't taken notice of yet is that the party who is berating this Government over water charges and cuts, is the very party who is helping to implement cuts in the North.

Partition in action for the party who prides itself on its "All Island Agenda".

If she does want to become the next Leader of Sinn Fein, it may have to be a case of "Hello, Mary Lou, goodbye conscience", if she is to achieve the full backing of the Belfast crew. Not a comfortable place to be in for anyone, let alone those who have so far been prepared to give Sinn Fein the benefit of the doubt.

Adams going? Be careful what you wish for, it may just come true.

Sunday Independent