Brian Feeney: Adams departure is part of relentless drive towards government in the Republic

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams addresses the ard fheis in the RDS, Dublin. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams addresses the ard fheis in the RDS, Dublin. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams addresses the ard fheis in the RDS, Dublin. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

SATURDAY night’s Sinn Féin ard fheis was historic for more reasons than Gerry Adams announcing his retirement.

Of course that announcement got all the publicity including lengthy heavyweight political obituaries of Adams. After all he has been the dominant figure in Irish republicanism for over 40 years, ever since he emerged as leader of the newly established Northern Command in 1976.

In 1983 when Adams took the presidency of Sinn Féin, it signalled the dominance of northerners in the republican movement.

Instead of being simply a cheer leader for the IRA Sinn Féin had emerged as a political force. That year Gerry Adams had been elected MP for West Belfast, the constituency’s first ever republican MP, defeating the former SDLP leader Gerry Fitt. It was a sign of things to come.

The northern dominance that Adams established was reinforced in 1986 when Adams and his supporters managed to oust Ruairi Ó Brádaigh and southern ideologues by driving through the ard fheis decision to take any seats Sinn Féin won in the south.

Let’s look to the future. Saturday night last was historic because the republican movement has pivoted south again reversing the northern preponderance of the eighties and nineties.

Adams’s move south in 2011 indicated the shift in emphasis to the Dáil. Saturday set it in stone. The ard fheis was all about the Dáil and southern politics.

The next Sinn Féin president will be Mary Lou McDonald. She’s head and shoulders above any other contender but most importantly no one from the north will challenge her.

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Michelle O’Neill has already ruled herself out. The party leader has to be in the Dáil because the party desperately wants to be in government in Dublin. Maybe O’Neill will become deputy leader but the weight is in the Dáil.

Sinn Féin know that they will automatically be in any revamped northern executive with O’Neill as Deputy first Minister. They decisively stuffed the moribund SDLP in 2017 gaining 71 per cent of nationalist votes in June.

The next assembly election isn’t due until 2022 but whenever it is the result in nationalism is a foregone conclusion. Therefore Sinn Féin is going to throw the kitchen sink at the next election to the Dáil likely next year.

Passing a resolution to allow the party to enter coalition as a junior partner was part of that Sinn Féin drive to get into government. They need to get about 30 seats, up from their present 23. Adams has privately acknowledged that his media performance in the last election was dreadful. He may have cost the party three seats.

The sulphurous cloud he carries around him also caps the party’s potential expansion. All polls suggest that as long as he leads the party a slice of voters will never touch Sinn Féin. So Adams’s departure is part of the same relentless drive towards government in the south.

Of course Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar must say they won’t go into coalition with Sinn Féin. They have to say that but if arithmetic requires they’d go into coalition with Oul Nick. Remember, Fine Gael went in with the Stickies.