John Manley: Prepare to be drip fed developments in the Gerry Adams succession saga

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams announced his plan to relinquish the party leadership after 35 years. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

GERRY Adams is a man who prefers process to sudden shifts, so prepare to be drip fed developments in the party's succession saga for some time yet.

From the initial announcement in September about transitional plans through to Saturday’s signalling of the Sinn Féin leader’s intention to step down after a successor is appointed at a special ard fheis next year, the expected coronation of Mary Lou McDonald will be drawn out.

The Louth TD is placing his own retirement within the broader project of Sinn Féin generational change. His speech to conference included a roll call of fellow republicans with activism stretching across five decades but whose day had come, so to speak. They will be ‘going away’, as the party continues a process of breaking the physical link with armed struggle, while not jettisoning entirely its violent heritage.

Gerry Adams vacates his party’s top job at a time when the goal of a united Ireland is arguably closer than at any stage since partition. The changing demographic tide and the anticipated chaos caused by Brexit have turned the Sinn Féin leader’s pipe dream into a possibility.

In the south, where republican violence never garnered the same degree of support – tacit or active – as it did north of the border, the former West Belfast MP is seen as an impediment to the party’s growth and the ultimate goal of government, most likely as a junior partner in a coalition. The ard fheis’s endorsement of a motion enabling Sinn Féin to join a larger party in government paves the way for this, though they still hold out hope of emerging from an election as the senior partner.

As Mr Adams pointed out in his address, Sinn Féin already has substantial support across Ireland, with 23 TDs, 27 MLAs, seven MPs, four MEPs, etc, and half a million votes cast on its behalf.

Ian Knox cartoon 20/11/17 

There is still room for further expansion, however, particularly in the Republic, where Sinn Féin continues to position itself as the leftist, progressive alternative to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Its adoption of a more liberal abortion policy fits neatly into this narrative though the shift has not been universally welcomed in the party ranks and may yet lead to resignations or defections.

And though the republican movement’s figurehead and key architect of the past four decades is stepping aside as its symbolic leader, it would be naive to believe his far-reaching influence will end there. We heard on Saturday night how he plans to make way for a successor but it remains to be seen what role Gerry Adams will assume when his 35 years as Sinn Féin president finally comes to a close.

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