Brexit and a a looming election in the Republic provide opportunities for the party on both sides of the border. Will they seize them?by Pádraig Belton / November 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Ireland’s Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, speaks to the press in Downing street. Photo: PA Ireland, both sides of the border, now faces what for many years seemed unthinkable: a Sinn Féin after Gerry Adams. The worldwide face of Irish republicanism made a surprise announcement this week explaioning that he will step down as president of Sinn Féin in 2018, and will not stand for re-election for his seat in Ireland’s lower house, the Dáil. Adams, who turned 69 in October, has been leader of Sinn Féin since he was 35. No preceding head of the party ever lasted as president for more than 13 years; but Adams has managed 34. The prospect of Irish politics after Adams raises the question of whether Sinn Féin might start to distance itself finally from its Troubles-era baggage. Combine this with the near-certainty he will be succeeded by the party’s adroit deputy leader, 48 year-old Mary Lou McDonald who represents Dublin Central, and the outlines of a Southern Strategy glimmer into view. McDonald’s advantage “is very much that she is southern with no connection to the Troubles of the past,” says Dr Matthew Whiting, a politics lecturer at the University of Birmingham with a forthcoming book on Sinn Féin and the IRA. For one thing, moving south and down a generation will mean a cultural shift within Sinn Féin. There are other rising stars who will now feel due a turn, like Matt Carthy MEP (a midlands native) who leads on their all-Ireland strategy, and Eoin Ó Broin, an author who represents Dublin Mid-West in the Dáil. But says historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, “the party is in trouble [in the south] because the people it’s been attracting aren’t schooled into unquestioning obedience and want to be consulted.” “Hence the loss of ten per cent of their councillors in the last couple of years and loud complaints of bullying and harassment which are having a bad effect on recruitment.” It is certainly true that without Adams holding the whole thing together, pressure for the party to be less top-down may prove hard to resist. While all this plays out, Ireland may meanwhile face an election any time between Christmas and the end of next year. The timing of Adams’s announcement, with this in mind, is not accidental. Mick Fealty, founder of Slugger O’Toole—a widely-read Northern Irish politics blog—explains that Adams pulling back is “about giving Mary Lou some space for going after middle Ireland.” Sinn Féin must widen their appeal McDonald, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, is also an able performer in the Dáil, something no-one would say about Adams. “Gerry was never very comfortable in the Dáil,” says Deaglán de Bréadún, author of Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin and former Irish Times Northern editor and political correspondent. “He never did all that well in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate—he also never quite got his head around the minutiae of southern politics,” he says. In Ireland’s last General Election in 2016, Adams gave several disastrous interviews about taxation. “Tax policy is very important in an election—people want to know how much tax they’re going to be paying. Mary Lou wouldn’t allow herself to get into that situation, you know,” says de Bréadún. But a key challenge for McDonald will be detoxifying her party’s image enough that it starts to look like an alluring coalition partner. McDonald might not have much time to put a new stamp on the party, before it goes on the hustings. Part of this is honing its policy chops—never Sinn Féin’s strong suit—so it reaches beyond disaffected anti-austerity voters, and finds something to offer middle earners disenchanted with the capital’s lack of housing and Ireland’s short supply of mortgages. At the moment, Fine Gael—which has undergone its own generational renewal while in government and put 38 year-old Leo Varadkar now at its head—governs with a minority on 66 seats. Fianna Fáil has chosen to prop up this minority government with its 44 seats, but can collapse the arrangement at any time and force an election. Sinn Féin hovers back a bit, on 14 seats. With the electoral collapse of Labour in 2016, wiped out from 33 seats to 7, Ireland lacks a large party on the left. Fianna Fáil is Sinn Féin’s main rival, but Sinn Féin also is somewhat anti-establishment, and can hope to draw a few disaffected voters from across the political spectrum. “Fine Gael has incumbency and the economy, Fianna Fáil has sheer hunger and scale, and it’s in that landscape Sinn Féin has got to pull off its best machine performance ever,” Fealty says. And that’s only to keep what it’s got. A leader in name only? The overriding danger, with unhelpful implications for all this generational updating, is that Adams (to coin a phrase) won’t go away, you know. McDonald will be leader in name only—ruining any rebranding potential available to the party. Adams’s reference in a speech in September to an “orderly transition” as part of “our ten-year plan” gives a tantalising inkling he may not quite plan to relinquish influence overnight. He has form here, having allowed Martin McGuinness to serve as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2017 while still retaining a key public role. “Mary Lou will have to report to the senior leadership even though most are not known to the public—that makes it much easier for Adams to manage because he’s outside the public gaze,” Fealty says. “I think the republican movement will continue to be run behind the scenes by Adams, along with Bobby Storey, Spike Murray, and the rest of the tiny group of unelected veteran IRA men, for as long as they can get away with it,” says Dudley Edwards. Into all of this fits Brexit. The Adams mission has been to use Brexit as a means of creating opportunities for trouble-making. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,” he said on the radio last 24 June. (Meanwhile, the North’s dissident republicans are pro-Brexit. This is not simple.) Brexit is not adding much to Britain’s lustre in Ireland, which could play to Sinn Féin’s nationalist strengths. But Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin are already tussling to distance themselves more from Brexit and London. It’s a crowded field. Last of all, if Adams truly retires, a final danger is he will now spend more time with his Twitter account. Trump Twitter has at least given us a vaguely interesting psychological portrait into a narcissist. Adam’s Twitter, however, takes us into a bizarre, Through-the-Looking-Glass world of pop lyrics happening through his head, dreams of Cadbury Creme Eggs, bathtub ducks, and the strangely evocative complaint, ‘Every1 else gotta strawberry on their Pavlova except me!! Why?’. All things considered, though, it’s a price worth paying.