Given the previously cited ten-year transition, sceptics will doubt the reality of Adams’ departure. In fact, he’ll likely melt back into the collective leadership of Sinn Fein. With only Sean Murray left on the Ard Comhairle, the military men now mostly sit back in the shadows.
Their names are not widely known to the public but they are familiar to senior members in other parties from the periodic bouts of negotiations that might almost have been engineered to give them a role in the politics if not the government of Northern Ireland.
Partition is failing SF
Concerns about the continuing coherence of the party north and south are well founded, but it is the divergence of the material politics of the two jurisdictions which have created that incoherence, making hard-to-manage problems for the central controllers of the party.
As John Manley notes in today’s Irish News, last autumn “was supposed to herald the beginning of a new era of cooperation but it instead provided the bookend to a decade of devolution.”
Fighting southern cuts whilst mandating them in the north forced them to choose a live game in the south and mothballing the north. Behind them is a trail of half-promises on health and infrastructure, an agreed draft Programme for Government.
And the first-ever Sinn Fein budget remains something of a mythic creature: ie, much talked about but never actually seen.
Michelle O’Neill quipped that she would have her hands too full in Northern Ireland to become Deputy President. A sliver of a hint, perhaps, that someway into the new year that she may finally return to the northern job she eschewed last January.
The DUP, now with a much larger game of their own to play (including the deepening of British sovereignty across the UK) is in no hurry to press them for an early return, and may even be prepared to let them fight a southern election early in the new year before a restart.
And letting Brexit and the welfare cuts run their course they will claim ‘it was like that when we got here’. They will tell their voters that delivery can wait until they eventually win a border poll in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years times. Always jam tomorrow.
As for the southern strategy, Mary Lou has two potential advantages. Getting Gerry off the TV screens of the leader’s debate disposes of a huge weakness for the party in making a successful pitch to middle Ireland which has much more to do with competence than his past.
She is a good debater with the potential to reach middle-class voters the party needs to become invaluable to any future coalition. She must also maintain Gerry’s visceral appeal to the current southern base which is overrepresented amongst those most marginalised.
What the Belfast-based leadership has never understood about the southern game is that successful political engagement requires a policy offering to underwrite their (up to now successful) populist appeal.
That requires an investment in the business of doing government, something the party has thus far studiously avoided, as that abandoned budget can testify.
The decision to drop the bar on going into government as the smaller party is better seen as part of a short-term survival tactic. The party has been playing around with this line for months and seemed shaken when Micheal Martin slammed that heavy door in their faces.
Their drop in the polls (quite substantial if you compare their ratings of between 18% and 24% just two years ago with the 14%-18% range now) is a positioning problem. Since standing aside from the horse trading in Spring 2016 the party has struggled for relevance.
Unless Mary Lou is able to communicate a realistic possibility that they would go into government there is a danger their voters will switch higher preferences to those who clearly will. Necessity being the mother of invention, they simply had no choice.
The most positive aspect of the Ard Fheis was the increase in the numbers attending. That’s a sign that the southern machine is growing and should not be underestimated by any of their rivals. But the climate in which southern politics is being conducted is also changing.
Five years ago the plan uppermost in Adams mind was taking on and destroying Fianna Fail. And whilst the recession was in full tilt and negative equity was a full on problem for former working-class FF voters, that was a possibility.
But since 2013 the economy has been in rebound. The lack of house building has created some serious social problems, but it has also ensured that Dublin house prices are back where they were before 2008, with the average price now at €401,890.
Pearse Doherty’s early bravura performances in the Dail after the long-delayed Donegal by-election in late 2010 almost perfectly captured the sense of rage amongst those voters who found themselves in penury, but that same tone is not getting the broad hearing it once did.
The opportunity for taking on FF was lost in last year’s election, when their arch rivals more than doubled its representation, replenishing its Dail contingent, and putting clear green water between themselves and Sinn Fein.
Battle for Republicanism
The FF Leader Micheal Martin has inflicted the most limiting damage on southern Sinn Fein: something which is unlikely to change on the run into the next election, whenever it comes. He spoke yesterday, turning the party’s own oddly partitionist strategy against itself:
…for the island as a whole, their blockade against the Northern institutions is causing immense and potentially permanent damage.
Every day they prevent the Assembly and Executive starting their work is another day when British ministers preside over cuts to education, health and other essential services with no mandate from the people of Northern Ireland.
Every day they choose to leave Northern Ireland exposed and voiceless is a day when Sinn Fein becomes more complicit in the Tory fiasco that is Brexit.
They can’t run away from their responsibility for the impact of their decisions. Maybe they want a chaotic Brexit because they think it will cause immense damage to Northern Ireland and will help them.
As Brian Feeney rightly notes in the Irish News “Sinn Féin is going to throw the kitchen sink at the next election to the Dáil likely next year”. Unlike Northern Ireland however, there will be a fair old amount of traffic coming the other way. And some of it will hurt.
The party’s dominance in the north springs from its undisputed ability to control the narrative. Through this, their main achievement has been to use a series of controversies to slowly switch the question from politics to culture, thus relieving any serious pressure to deliver.
The frozen north
But the switch between March (which they won hands down) and June when the DUP walked away with most of the patronage and political prizes (routing the SDLP at Westminster simply extinguished nationalist representative voice in the NI public square).
Peter Robinson’s golden rule was: never be the first to walk out. He tested this thesis almost to destruction, and to the great amusement of the press after the Provisionals were suspected of the assassination of one of their street gang rivals, and his hokey-cokey routine.
In the end, it was Sinn Fein who buckled first, a move forced upon them, in retrospect by the fatal illness that beset their only senior player in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness and the sheer impatience of their base at their inability to deliver.
A one, two or three-year break will do little to change that. Nor indeed will the endless promises of a border poll that given the degree of polarisation engendered by the inability to do partnership government and the numbers, they are unlikely to be granted soon.
Legacy or a very long goodbye?
This morning, John Cushnahan pleads for a hard-headed analysis of the Adams legacy, pointing that the Provisional IRA killed more Catholics than any other protagonists in the conflict, he then poses the question as to how NI defends itself against the fallout of Brexit:
…even if those historical actions are set aside, the question has to be posed to Mr. Adams as he prepares to depart the political stage – what does he intend to do before he leaves it to resurrect the north’s power-sharing institutions so that together we can minimise the economic and political fallout from Brexit.
Don’t hold your breath, John. Nigel Dodds was the guest of the day on the BBC’s Daily Politics. His on-screen encounter with SF’s Chris Hassard was as brief as Chris’s own fleeting delivery of the day’s centrally constructed statement, gifting Dodds the last word:
I can see they feel outmanoeuvred and out-negotiated by the Tony Blairs and the Jonathan Powells and the Peter Hains of the day, but that’s their problem. The reality is that we have entered into agreements with them which we have honoured.
Remember when the programme for government was drawn up before Christmas with Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein never raised the issue of Irish language with us, they never put it in the draft programme for government. They’re all over the place.
Some of us suspect that what’s happening in Sinn Fein is that they have their eyes on the southern election next year in the Irish Republic and the people in the leadership simply want to sit out Brexit and difficult decisions at Stormont and want to keep the devolved institutions down until they get the Irish election out of the way.
Mary Lou had little to do with the setting of that northern strategy, and the polite fiction that she is anything more than Uachtaran Shinn Fein in name only will only be gainsaid by the degree to which Sinn Fein’s strategy north as well as south changes after Adams exit.
But I suspect that the longtime Adams watcher and biographer Malachi O’Doherty has it right:
It could be that Adams going might entice Fianna Fáil to seek a coalition with Sinn Féin. He is the one they find most off-putting. But a leader seen as an appointee would not be an attractive partner. Adams’s ultimate achievement may be to have shaped Sinn Féin in his image so firmly that his departure will make no difference.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty