The recent election of the IRA’s former head of intelligence to a prominent position in Sinn Féin north of the border is being viewed by some as an attempt to prepare the ground for the eventual election of a southern politician to take over from Gerry Adams.
In a significant development away from the ard fheis in Wexford, west Belfast republican and close Adams confident Bobby Storey was elected chairperson of the six-county Cúige almost two weeks ago.
The IRA veteran, a towering 6ft 5in, spent almost 20 years in jail for gun attacks on the British Army, masterminded the escape of 38 IRA men in 1983 from the Maze, and was believed to have helped plan the 2002 theft of highly confidential police files from the Castlereagh complex.
Storey had been chairman of Belfast Sinn Féin but, according to republicans, his step-up to the tier below Ard Chomhairle level can be viewed in two ways.
Firstly, it’s a clear message to “put it up to dissident republicans that they are out on their own”.
A second, more interesting interpretation is that, when Adams eventually decides to stand down, there is concern in the North that “clean-skin” contenders for party president, such as Dublin Central TD Mary Lou McDonald, would not have the authority or clout to face off any dissident republican threat.
Clean skins is a reference to the new breed of Sinn Féin politicians who never had any association with the IRA and there is concern amongst former provisionals that dissidents would increase their activities if they sensed weakness in the mainstream republican leadership. One source put it simply: “This is a rebalancing act. The dissident threat is diminishing because many are either jailed or on the run, but we’re taking no chances in the future. With Bobby [Storey] in the frame the message will be clear.”
And the party’s deputy leader wasted no time on Saturday clearly stating her republican credentials, presumably with northern delegates in mind, saying the whole community, including IRA volunteers and their families, suffered during the “war”.
Mary Lou McDonald told the Opera House that the response of thousands of young men and women to the conflict (i.e. the IRA) was no different to her grandmother’s generation in Co Tipperary in the 1920s.
She attacked those who wanted to rewrite history and vilify republicans by laying the blame for the conflict against communities who fought against “a rotten, sectarian state”.
“The same people who abandoned northern citizens, who stood idly by as the pograms raged, and the British troops came onto the streets, those same people wanted nationalists to roll over in the face of an orange state,” she said.
Some of her criticisms were clearly aimed at Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who, especially the former, waste no time taking a cut off Gerry Adams’ IRA past in Leinster House. It was described as “a shrine to violent conflict” by justice spokesman Padraig Mac Lochlainn in a separate speech supporting the IRA campaign.
Both speeches were viewed as an endorsement of Adams’ leadership and backing up his controversial post-Smithwick comments that the IRA gang which gunned down RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan were carrying out their duty.
When party chairman Declan Kearney told a packed Opera House the relentless campaign of vilification against Adams should stop immediately, the resulting cheers and applause showed his leadership was not an issue for Sinn Féin.
Yet it is an impediment to Sinn Féin gaining more votes from certain sectors of the electorate. The murder of Jean McConville, his paedophile brother Liam, and constant denials of IRA membership all have the potential to produce even more uncomfortable moments for Adams in the heat of election campaigns.
All that aside, the pressure is on the Sinn Féin president deliver.
While the party has a reasonable chance of returning one of its three candidates to the European Parliament, it is local elections that will be the testing ground as to whether its policies, or (arguably) lack of, are appealing to voters. It certainly cannot afford any hiccups over Mr Adams’ past.
For the first time, it is fielding candidates in every constituency in the country and to make progress it has to pick up the ground that the Coalition or other parties surrender.
Securing almost 10% in the 2011 general election, Sinn Féin is fairly steady at 17%-18% in a number of Red C polls. It’s strong in the border counties and urban areas but needs to expand its appeal all over the country.
As deputy first minister Martin McGuinness found during his presidential campaign and once again on Friday night in Wexford, there’s hardly a corner in the country that hasn’t suffered at the hands of the IRA.
As he walked through the Opera House on Friday night he apologised and offered to meet the family of IRA murder victim Garda Seamus Quaid. They had asked for a commemorative plaque to the dead garda be removed, as the decision to hold the ard fheis in the Opera House was a “slap in the face for the family”.
It’s 20 years since the IRA declared its historic ceasefire and the same Adams/McGuinness leadership survives to this day, with old colleagues such as Bobby Storey in key positions.
Adams’ leadership and the violence of the past may be an issue for some voters, but the reality is Sinn Féin has been a mainstream political party for quite some time and the May elections will show how far they have come... and possibly for how much longer Gerry Adams’ four-decade long leadership will last.
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