Gerry Adams’ departure is a defining moment for Sinn Fein. It will signal a changing of the guard that will be both a challenge to and opportunity for the party.
Gerry Adams was the personification of the armed force Republican tradition in Irish politics- hence why many political opponents, victims and Troubles’ survivors can not look past that when considering the man and his role over the past half-century of Irish politics.
Yet this is also why his achievements, when analysed in an historical context, will mark him out from others of his generation.
His leadership was critical to navigating a Republican Movement through conflict to ceasefire and the subsequent compromises of the Good Friday Agreement, onward to the closing down of militant republicanism (including decommissioning and disbandment) and shaping of an effective and credible all Ireland political party- all achieved whilst ensuring the notoriously fractious republican tradition remained remarkably cohesive, fraying only at the edges.
He decided in the final phase of his career as leader to leave west Belfast for Louth, taking a seat in the Dail to help embed and grow the party in the South, ensuring that the centre of gravity for Sinn Fein moved decisively southwards in the process.
The longevity of his service as party leader, some 34 years, was crucial to allowing him to steer republicanism onto a new path, though it did ensure that the party’s evolution in the post-conflict and post-peace process era was (and remains) stunted.
His greatest strength was in his capacity to plan and strategise for the medium and long term, something that has borne fruit through the shaping (and very existence) of the peace process and the healthy electoral condition of the party he led for so long.
He helped the party grow from bit player in the Dail to the third largest party and pre-eminent voice of the Irish Left, a position which will likely be consolidated by the ascent of an emerging leadership more ideologically (as opposed to merely rhetorically) pivoted on the Left.
But whilst Sinn Fein at National level in the Dail would appear well positioned to smoothly transition to a Mary Lou McDonald leadership, supported by an impressive legislative tier of spokespersons, it is in the north that the party faces its greatest challenge today.
In the absence of McGuinness and Adams, northern Sinn Fein collectively cuts a much diminished figure, and it will be interesting to see if Michelle O’Neill can begin to make her own mark as leader, drive a leadership core team that can help her mould the party.
That is no easy task for, whilst Adams and McGuinness excelled at a leadership approach which prepared the party support base and activists for significant changes to republican orthodoxy, the price of prioritizing cohesion included slowing the pace of reform, resulting in the evolution of a party in the north not yet functioning as it should and must as the pre-eminent representative voice of northern nationalism.
The opportunities for Sinn Fein are manifold. Shedding Troubles’ baggage has the potential to open up support for the party from a section of the electorate that would not have been comfortable voting for an Adams-led Sinn Fein, both north and south. Whilst opposition parties in the South will strive to tar the emerging Sinn Fein leadership with the actions of the IRA from yesteryear, they will know the impact of that line of attack will be significantly diminished now (it was already waning). It should also be noted that generational change has already boosted the party’s electoral appeal in the north, and nowhere was that more apparent than through John Finucane’s North Belfast election performance in June (his prominent role during this Ard Fheis was noteworthy.)
Adams’ main concern will be to ensure that the emerging leadership recognize the central importance of maintaining party cohesion and unity on a north-south basis. This was never a concern for the party when led by Adams and McGuinness, leaders bound by a shared experience of conflict and a lifetime of intuitively working as a partnership. The asymmetrical nature of the party’s development, north and south, will be a potential source of friction, and expediting a reform process in the north to sharpen its operation will be necessary to restore a balance in a party in which the ideological direction is being firmly determined by Dublin.
His name and legacy will continue to provoke sharply divergent opinions, but Gerry Adams’ place in Irish history was secured a long time ago.