End of an era for divisive figure who achieved much
It comes as no surprise that Gerry Adams' announcement to step down as leader of Sinn Féin in 2018 has polarised public opinion.
On the one hand there are those who consider Adams a peacemaker, someone who saved republicanism from itself by shifting the emphasis away from paramilitary activity to peaceful politics. On the other hand is the view that Adams should reveal what he knows about the death and destruction caused by the IRA during a long and protracted era of violence in which he was a central figure, even if the Belfast man has repeatedly denied ever being in the IRA.
For over 35 years now this two-way quarrel over Adams' legacy has resulted in nothing but stalemate and there is little to suggest this is going to change simply because he is stepping down from a role he has made his own since 1983. However, many feel the loss of his Westminster seat to the SDLP's Joe Hendron in 1992 - a seat he emphatically won back at the next election - coupled with the IRA's juxtaposition between waging a war for propaganda purposes rather than its traditional platform of a united Ireland, hastened Adams in his decision to shift the republican movement towards achieving political objectives.
If nothing else, Adams must be credited with realising that the concept of 'fighting' to end partition had run out of road and was obstructing Sinn Féin's political progress. This transition was not easy for Adams but he successfully persuaded a majority of republicans that constitutional nationalism and unionist consent for a united Ireland needed to take precedence over the bomb and bullet. Adams also skilfully used the much maligned decommission of IRA weapons to gain political concessions, which also proved equally disruptive for political unionism, leading to the eventual demise of David Trimble's UUP.
The expected coronation of Mary Lou McDonald as leader is a seismic shift away from the dominance of northern personnel at the helm of Sinn Fein stretching back to the early 1980s. Mary Lou stood squarely, and visibly, by Adams' side during many of his most recent criticisms, from the Jean McConville murder to revelations of his brother Liam's sexual abuse - all of which resulted in strong public criticism. Conversely, her loyalty was considered an acid test by the many within the more furtive quarters of the republican movement's northern circle.
The announcement that Martin Ferris is also to step down at the next election came as a surprise to many. Ferris, considered a hardliner within the republican movement, spent 10 years in jail for trying to import arms aboard the Marita Ann in 1984. His successor is likely to be his daughter, Toiréasa, who is currently a formidable and enthusiastic councillor on Kerry County Council.
But at the core of Saturday's SF Ard Fheis is the representation of a fundamental change of guard and a transfer of power from those who came to the realisation that armed conflict alone could not achieve a united Ireland, to a new generation wedded in the pursuit of achieving its objectives through constitutional politics, north and south. Adams has placed his own retirement within this broader generational shift.
Under the circumstances, time spent debating the merits of the past only come at the expense of hindering the progress of the future. Time will tell if the new face of Sinn Fein can draft a new script for the party's future but the passing of a motion paving the way for SF participation in government as coalition partners is a sure sign of intention.