The Dáil will rise on Friday until January 17. Santa Claus will come, and the last real truth in our post-fact society will be celebrated. If Santa Claus were to be unmasked, what would be left? Barbie dolls have replaced the baby Jesus. 2016, like 1966, marked the culmination and the end of an era. Our own general election was the aftershock, which, after the earthquake of 2011, ended a system that endured, albeit with permeations, since 1932. Abroad, Brexit and Donald Trump have only begun the unravelling of assumed certainties. Still, some do continue.
One that does is Gerry Adams. He may choose to retire as Sinn Féin leader, but he won’t be dispatched. None of the eddying in the media whirlpool is even mildly consequential. Indeed, far from being an impetus for his departure, it has always reinforced the resolve not to allow Sinn Féin be buffered by commentary it knows full well is fundamentally hostile to it.
However, I have a sense this may be Gerry Adams’ last Christmas as leader of Sinn Féin, but only because he chooses it to be. The fundamental question facing him has nothing to do with the late Brian Stack, or any one of thousands of other unresolved cases. These, tragically for their families, are probably destined to be the permanently unanswered incidents, of what for now is a politically resolved violent conflict.
The paradox of Sinn Féin is that while its past obsesses its critics, the party is focused on its future. It is the viability of that future which may prompt Adams to retire in 2017, or at least prepare to do so. My hypothesis is based on a view that, all things being equal, he is not inclined to lead his party in another general election, which will probably be in 2018. Of course, it could be much sooner; even sudden. There is even a slim chance of the Dáil lengthening its life into 2019. But, for now, 2018 seems the most likely date. It will also mark Adams’ 70th birthday. And, in terms of longevity, his leadership of Sinn Féin will have outlasted Éamon de Valera’s leadership of Fianna Fáil. But these are sentimental considerations. More hard-headed ones will likely prevail.
One simple one is he must go sometime — and anyone approaching 70 has more yesterdays than tomorrows. Another is that, with 23 seats in this Dáil, Sinn Féin is, if further progress can be made, on the verge of being considered and possibly even essential for coalition. Making those gains, and being the face of an alternative government, requires someone besides Gerry Adams. His leaving the role of president of his party would not necessarily require him to vacate influence. Sinn Féin is not a conventional party. Its parliamentary party is not its nexus or hub.
Just because Sinn Féin is genuinely post-paramilitary does not mean it is parliamentarian in a conventional sense. Its parliamentary party counts for less in its counsels than in any other major party. There are a few dozen people, some of whom hold official positions, but others who don’t (and few are TDs), who count in Sinn Féin. Unlike other parties, there won’t be a dispatch to the elephants graveyard, by his successor. Something akin to the Deng Xiaoping model of ‘paramount leader’ may be a closer model, for the ‘retired’ Adams. But nonetheless, whatever the modalities, the event itself must be countenanced and managed. My sense is that the question occupying Gerry Adams’ mind is the next election, and if he is to hand over, how and when that will happen.
Adams has a very developed sense of his own worth. Historically, he has displayed an almost Parnellite sense of strategic purpose. What has kept him in place, besides ruthless determination, is a correct sense that he is the one holding it all together internally. An unrelentingly on-message party in public is, in reality, an increasingly mixed congregation. It is spread across the island in different polities. Its core group of influencers around Adams are largely his contemporaries or, at least, very long-serving. That’s a Dad’s Army compared to the relatively newly arrived, well-educated, and closet middle-class sorts it sends onto the airwaves. The base of support is solidly working class, however. In Dublin, based on an RTÉ exit poll it got 7% of the middle class but 26% of the working class vote.
Its appeal on the left is challenged by AAA-PBP. The long-held Socialist Party view, which is the base of AAA, is that Sinn Féin isn’t a socialist, or even left, party at all. I agree. It’s a nationalist party with a left wing, which, in policy terms in government, will never be preponderantly leftwing. Like all nationalists, they are hardwired to put considerations of State, even a State they violently contested, before class interests. The electoral path forward is to solidify its political base, while finding a way to simultaneously have a sustained conversation with a perennially self-interested middle class.
Adams’ departure may enable the beginnings of such a dialogue. The logical culmination of it, however, risks alienating its base. Remember, in the face of Labour’s collapse last February, Sinn Féin’s gains were at the modest end of what they, and not just their critics, anticipated. In our fragmenting, angry society, campaigning outward from the centre isn’t working as well for centrist parties. Campaigning towards the centre from the left is always laden with risk. And the exposed flank is not just electoral, it will also be internal.
But that is what Gerry Adams’ successor as leader of Sinn Féin must attempt to do. His electoral limitations, are not an internal party millstone because, for that audience, his highly contested past is his authority. His successor, picked to lead Sinn Féin on into an electoral promised land, will not be afforded similar latitude. The more normal leeway afforded party leaders, usually in direct correlation to their electoral success, will be the new business-as-usual after Adams. His office may be transferable, his limitations may be disposable, but internally his charisma ends with him.
Sinn Féin has a base of councillors and a membership of activists, as distinct from clubhouse members, which is the envy of other parties. It has a number of possible candidates to take over from Adams. But this is no ordinary succession. It is as fundamentally important for Sinn Féin as the transition into the peace process more than 20 years ago. The internal party unit was always the primary concern. How disciplined and coherent will an all-island party, composed of multiple constituencies of place and interest, be after Adams? What most deeply concerns him is not the continual sniping of his detractors, it is the continued continence of his supporters when he is gone.