Saturday, 20 February 2016

The changing face of Sinn Fein

Photo: Pacemaker/BBC

Like him or dislike him, Gerry Adams remains the most charismatic figure in modern Irish politics. His support for ‘the armed struggle’ in Northern Ireland has brought him enemies, yet some still see him as statesmanlike. However could his time in the sun be about to end? The recent general election campaign has seen him face challenging questions on his competence over Sinn Fein’s taxation policies as well as his close association with the IRA. While most people have made up their minds on how they feel about the Sinn Fein leader, his ability to attract support for his party, particularly in the Republic, may no longer be as potent.

Adams has led Sinn Fein since the 1980’s and all the other political leaders – in Belfast, London and Dublin – from that time are either dead or now retired. Is it time the republican leader stepped off the political stage? This is very unlikely to happen, in the short term at least. He is held in high esteem by the Sinn Fein membership with virtually 100 per cent obedience (there have been rare exceptions such as Peadar Toibin’s dissent on the abortion issue).

So it seems unlikely that there will be a new Sinn Fein leader for some time. However if, for whatever reason, a vacancy emerges it is highly likely to be filled by Dubliner, Mary Lou McDonald. Currently the party’s deputy leader, McDonald is known for her pragmatism and would be a popular successor in contrast to Adams’ more ideological style. If this scenario materialises it could have the effect of broadening Sinn Fein’s support in the Republic.

Adams is the glue that has for so long bound Sinn Fein together as a political force. They are the only political party that campaign on an all-Ireland basis. But since the setting up of the Northern Ireland executive Sinn Fein have become split into two departments – Martin McGuinness taking charge of the Northern operation with Adams leading the party’s Dail contingent.

The leadership had calculated that the party would take power in Northern Ireland, while at the same time entering government in the Republic. Adams moved his base from West Belfast to Louth and this would swiftly lead to a united Ireland. This was a gamble and it looks like their calculation is not going to pay off. Far from unifying, it looks like Sinn Fein has been weakened. The question is if McDonald becomes leader, will Sinn Fein continue to diverge? If this happens the rank and file’s dream of a united Ireland could be as far away as ever.