PUBLIC anger about Gerry Adams’s past, prompted by the RTÉ documentary The Disappeared, and his alleged inaction over his brother’s crimes of child sex abuse is probably trumped by public apathy.
In any event the public furore is emphatically neither shared nor spreading within Sinn Féin. Gerry Adams’s departure is not imminent. What perplexes Sinn Féin members far more than their leader’s past, is their own future.
Adams’s past is both his achievement and his achilles heel. Those, and they remain the great majority in the Republic, who cannot countenance Sinn Féin, revile the paramilitarism that gave Adams his original political base and subsequent status as a peacemaker. If many grudgingly give him some credit for the latter they will never forgive him for the former. The problem, however, for those whose project is the containment of Sinn Féin is that time has out-marched them. The genie is out of the bottle.
Sinn Féin is now almost a constitutional party. It has a growing base of support in the Republic. It is in government in Northern Ireland. It has corps of younger representatives who are credible, if completely uncritical of their leaders. It is a strictly disciplined party. In contrast to others, careerism as well as public criticism, is restrained.
Adams’s election to the Dáil in Louth in 2011 was a morale boost and an electoral plus for Sinn Féin. He left his comfort zone of Belfast and the issues he has developed a lifetime’s fluency with to come south, and enter a Dáil where he found neither the fear nor respect he was accustomed to. His parliamentary performance is patchy at best. And recurring issues about the disappeared; his own brother; and his utterly disbelieved claim not to have been in, let alone a leader of the IRA, are a past that remain unremittingly present.
A younger generation of voters may be too young to recall that past. But Adams is 65 and there are still two generations of older voters who can remember and will likely never forgive. It is an open question now who the inexorable onward march of time ultimately favours. That, however, is the question that confronts his party. Their issue is not how they get rid of him, it is how they go on after him.
If Adams’s departure is not imminent, and neither is Martin McGuinness’s, the ultimate end of their era is visible on the horizon. McGuinness is 63, in apparent robust health and clearly enjoying ministerial office. But for politicians in their mid-60s time is not ultimately on their side. Their own beckoning departure is part of a larger generational change for politics on the island. Peter Robinson, Enda Kenny, and Eamon Gilmore are all in the autumn and approaching the end of their careers.
After 2016 the political landscape will be transformed. By then there will have been elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster, and the Dáil. Leaders not lucky enough to be shipped out to an EU post in Brussels may be thrown overboard by an electorate. In any event the still standing survivors will be preparing to hand over the reins.
That year is a seminal date for Adams. It is highly unlikely he will forego the opportunity to lead what he sees as the republican movement into the centenary of the Easter Rising. This will be his opportunity for vindication, or at least the measure that is possible. It is also likely to be his last chance to shape the historical narrative against which his past actions will ultimately be judged in the future.
The irony of Adams’s position is that he is already dispensable to Sinn Féin’s electoral offering in the south. And the south is the new centre of gravity for Sinn Féin. This is a major psychological and political adjustment for the party. It requires in the future a reversal of its past when tactics and strategy were dominated by their utility in the north. But if Adams’s strictly limited appeal south of the border may be at, or is approaching its sell-by date, his necessity for navigating the underlying Sinn Féin project remains real.
In historical terms he has succeeded in parlaying the paramilitary into the political. He encircled and then successfully undermined the defences of every political bulwark on this island. In the North, Sinn Féin is the new establishment. In the Republic politicians like Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty show every sign of preparing to settle happily into establishment politics when the time is right. There remains now only a tactical decision over timing; not any anguish over the principle.
If the much-feared progress of Sinn Féin is an unpalatable reality for its opponents, its ultimate success is a still unsolved conundrum for its architect. Firstly the great Sinn Féin advance has been 30 years in the making but hardly half that time actually happening in the south. Its tally of just under 10% of the vote in the general election and 14% for Martin McGuinness in the presidential election is appreciable. But it is less than the breakthrough predicted at intervals for Sinn Féin and to date not delivered on.
Continuing electoral progress in the south is the main goal of Sinn Féin. Constructing a succession for a new, young, and likely southern leader without losing traction in the north remains a major challenge. This is why for now if in purely southern electoral terms Adams is replaceable, in reality he is not. It is impossible to see a Pearse Doherty or Mary Lou McDonald having the same traction as Adams or McGuinness north of the border. No younger Sinn Féin personality in the North is either offering or being promoted with the enthusiasm of Doherty and McDonald in the south. Though John O’Dowd is highly spoken of.
And the departure of Adams and McGuinness will have to be both staggered as well as stage managed. The dissident republican flank is small but virulent and it is waiting. When they are gone a party whose centre of gravity has moved south may not be as able to hold onto hard republican sentiment in the north. And in moving its gravity south Sinn Féin is also moving its identity deeper into a constitutional normalcy.
FREED from the gun smoke that forever lingers around Adams and McGuinness Sinn Féin may be ready for respectability. But afflicted with respectability what will Sinn Féin actually stand for? Adams with much more opportunism and improvisation than the strategic genius imputed to him would allow, has led his party a long way. But the problems of normalcy for Sinn Féin are potentially acute. The money, limelight and exceptionalism that came with terrorism and then with the peace process will all be gone. So too will its iconic if highly divisive longstanding leaders. Sinn Féin will be just another soft-left party among others dependent on the perfidy of southern votes and potentially dangerously detached from its northern republican roots.
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