Back in the days when Britannia ruled the waves, the party of government had a unique method of selecting a new leader, writes Michael Clifford
Party big wigs would retire to a smoke-filled room, tipple brandy, and determine which leader would best serve the interests of those assembled.
It was taken as a given that the interests of the assembled coincided with the interests of the party and what was good for the party was good for country and empire.
This was a ‘mock-yah’ form of democracy, in which a small, privileged group wielded power way beyond their mandate.
The new leader knew where the bread was buttered, and what was expected. And on everybody trundled, plundering half the world, ruling with an iron fist where required, and offering up buckets of self-praise for Britannia as the greatest bastion of democracy known to the civilised world.
As far as I know, neither Gerry Adams nor Martin McGuinness smokes. Maybe either, or both, enjoy the odd snifter of brandy, but a wild guess might conclude that they would be more at home sharing a bottle of red wine.
Apart from that, though, it’s difficult to spot much difference in the selection of new leaders between the empire-mongers of 19th century Britain and the self-styled republicans in 21st century Ireland.
Two weeks ago, Michelle O’Neill was chosen, selected, anointed, conferred, confirmed, directed, instructed, or even ordered to take the role of leader of Sinn Féin in the North.
There is absolutely no evidence that she was elected. In fact, there has been no effort to even suggest that either the elected representatives or the membership of the party, North, South or both, had any input into her anointment.
This is astonishing. What is even more astonishing is that nobody in the party has as much as batted an eyelid. In both jurisdictions — and let’s drop the pretence that the party treats the two as one — Sinn Féin has in recent years been boosted by the election of a coterie of intelligent, able representatives.
Not one of them has even expressed an opinion on the manner in which Ms O’Neill was anointed. In parliament North and South, they argue passionately for parity of esteem for all, social justice, the basic tenets of democracy. They rail against “the elite” who have purportedly hijacked democracy at the expense of “the people”.
Yet, within the confines of their own party, they button lips and grin and bear a system which appears to involve a few individuals, pushing on in years, deciding who will lead the party into the future.
The discipline required to suppress any expression of independent thought on the matter is military in its bearing, and abhorrent to the actual ideals of republicanism.
A few days before she was anointed, word seeped into the media that Ms O’Neill was the chosen one. She was, we were told, “selected” by the leadership. But which leadership exactly?
Last Tuesday on RTÉ, Seán O’Rourke pressed her on the detail.
“The party has internal processes and we went through the Árd Chomhairle and the officer board and Martin and Gerry spoke to me,” Ms O’Neill said.
Right, well that’s clear as mud.
O’Rourke pressed her again.
“Were you elected or anointed?” he asked.
“I was chosen by the Árd Chomhairle, she said.
“There was a decision in the room, yes. It was put to the Árd Chomhairle and unanimously decided that I would be leader. Martin and Gerry spoke to me in relation to taking on the role, Gerry then put it to the Árd Chomhairle and we had a full discussion on it, people had their views.”
Right. The decision was unanimous, and people had their views, so presumably all views coincided with the recommendation from Mr Adams. Everybody got in line.
There was no alternative opinion. What Gerry said went, or at the very least, his powers of persuasion were enough to change the mind of anybody in the room with a different opinion.
The O’Rourke interview also illuminated that there apparently was a perfunctory process by which Ms O’Neill was selected.
Is there any record of that meeting, when it occurred or what was said? Is there any morsel at all in there for the notion of democracy?
In the absence of any transparency in the selection of a leader, speculation fills the vacuum. Is the chosen one anointed by the same personnel who peopled the army council of the IRA, as some suggest?
Or is it just Martin and Gerry, who have been both in the leadership of the so-called republican movement for nigh on 45 years? Do they regard the party as their personal fiefdom?
What criteria was used in the selection of Ms O’Neill? Was her family background considered? Her father served time in prison for membership of the IRA.
That might be irrelevant to the bright young things who want to effect social change in democratic societies, but it could mean something to those of the background and vintage of Messrs Adams and McGuinness.
It simply wouldn’t do to be slackening the leash of control to a Johnny-come-lately republican who signed up principally to effect socio-economic change.
No doubt she has plenty of attributes but, in the absence of a transparent process, the voter is left all at sea as to the reasoning behind why she was selected.
Later in the year there is expected to be another anointment, this time in the southern jurisdiction. Mary Lou McDonald is the favourite to succeed Mr Adams. Unlike, say Leo Varadkar, she need not canvass support among elected representatives. Unlike, say Jeremy Corbyn, her elevation will not be dependent primarily on any appeal to the wider membership of the party.
If the constituent elements of the party were fully involved, then the long-term project could be blown off course with the election of somebody wielding strong or independent thoughts on how the party should evolve.
Instead, it has been determined prospective voters have no right to know how exactly the party is being governed, and who is pulling the strings.
If anything the anointment of O’Neill is a reminder once more that there remains something of the night about Sinn Féin, even in its present incarnation. And that may go some way to explaining why, despite the political turmoil around the world, this country is still governed by the same old, same old.
Sinn Féin was the obvious vehicle to drive a degree of dramatic change.
But despite disillusion with the old order, it still prevails in this country. How could it be otherwise when in some ways, the alternative is more a throwback to the days of empire than a gateway to a bright, new world.
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