The Adams Gamble

As a republican and Sinn Fein supporter, I’m very much in two minds over Gerry Adams’ decision to contest Louth. Worst case scenario has him losing the seat, experiencing an electoral and political humiliation which will likely end his leadership of the party and solidify a narrative as Sinn Fein as an exclusively northern entity that will take a long time to overcome.

Best case scenario for the party is a resounding electoral mandate for the party leader which provides a wind bringing with it a couple of additonal seats taking the party’s tally nearer to 10 than 5 seats, consolidating the party’s status as the minor opposition party alongside Fianna Fail following the next Dail election.

But there are deeper reasons for my reticence. A potential victory for Adams will undoubtedly provide the party with a boost, north and south, and once again reassert the fact that Sinn Fein are the only genuine article when it comes to being interested in pursuing a united Ireland- and on that note, poor Margaret Ritchie must be aware that her decision to declare the SDLP’s number one priority as a united Ireland will beg the question: ‘just what are you doing south of the border to achieve that objective?

Yet an Adams victory in Louth will not conceal the fact that Sinn Fein continues to struggle to attract election candidates, representatives and advisors from beyond the core republican communities of the north, and the party’s underwhelming performance in the Executive and Assembly chamber, coupled with the failure of its handful of TDs to make much noise in the Dail, suggests that even an electoral victory for Adams in Louth will not address the party’s unfitness for purpose in the new post-peace process era.

 In spite of the party’s electoral dominance within northern nationalism for the past decade, the party has failed to recruit an elected tier of representatives and indeed even advisors from outside of the republican heartlands, something that has contributed to the failure to see off the SDLP and make inroads into minority nationalist and middle class nationalist communities. When you consider that, until very recently, voters in Glengormley had an Ardoyne-based councillor and a Derry-based MLA as their Sinn Fein representatives, you begin to appreciate the extent to which the party has failed to capitalise on its decade of dominance.  

And Glengormley is, of course, a relative success story for the party. Look to East Antrim, the entire Strangford/ North Down/ Ards Peninsula region and other pockets such as Carryduff/ Greater South Belfast (beyond the Lr Ormeau) for a credible Sinn Fein presence and you’ll quickly conclude your search to be one conducted in vain. 

Where, for instance, is the upwardly mobile nationalist demographic constituency which effectively delivered Sinn Fein’s era of electoral dominance within the party?

The stark reality is that Sinn Fein has been unable to attract the post-conflict generation to actively take up the baton as party representatives at a time when it should have been able to make off with the richest of pickings. 

Parachuting Adams into Louth may work in the short term, and perhaps it will be accompanied by a fresh approach to the issue of strategically developing and growing the party, but the evidence to date suggests the republican leadership continues to have a massive blind spot to such matters.

Adams’ own constituency of West Belfast neatly exemplifies the point. Sinn Fein hold five of the six Assembly seats. Adams’ four fellow party MLAs are highly respected local republicans who have personally dedicated the better part of their lives to republicanism.

Yet none of Adams’ party colleagues could credibly be considered as MP material, nor would any be realistically considered as contenders for Ministerial office at Stormont. This picture is repeated across the north for the party, so much so that the elevation of Billy Leonard to Stormont through co-option in East Derry at least seemed to provide the party with a particularly talented and professionally skilled representative poised to hold high office for the party within the Assembly chamber and/ or Executive.

Alas, it would appear that Leonard has been demoted in favour of another local republican whose constituency status has stumped broader strategic considerations. 

There are some reasons for optimism. Pearse Doherty’s rise to prominence within the party suggests that Sinn Fein has found the credible indigenous southern leader it has been looking, even if it is the case that he’ll likely be assigned Adams’ most senior pitbull status in the Dail in the short term in the event that the republican plan comes good at election time.  

But, ultimately, the party will have to address the root problems concerning how it conducts its internal business if it is to develop as a more effective political force both north and south.