Political news

Lack of leadership contest doesn't mean a lack of democracy

When party leaders are elected unopposed critics often claim it is undemocratic but as Political Correspondent John Manley discovers, it's a regular occurrence in Ireland and Britain

Michelle O'Neill (left) and Mary Lou McDonald are expected to assume the roles of Sinn Féin vice-president and president respectively. Picture by Niall Carson /PA Wire

WE'VE been reminded countless times over the past year how the DUP and Sinn Féin have little in common ideologically.

However, there are similarities in the way the two parties have appointed their respective leaders, in that neither has faced internal opposition.

In the history of modern Sinn Féin (post-1969), the party has had only two presidents – its inaugural leader Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams.

Ó Brádaigh emerged as leader after the split with the 'Officials'. At the time, the Provisional Sinn Féin was subordinate to the IRA and the armed campaign took precedence over political activism.

His deputy from 1971–1978 was Dáithí Ó Conaill from Cork who, like Ó Brádaigh, later became a founding member of Republican Sinn Féin.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, the republican movement's political wing didn't attract the same amount of column inches and airtime as it does now.

It was during this period that Gerry Adams came to the fore, first assuming the role of Sinn Féin vice-president and then president.

According to Irish News columnist Brian Feeney, author of Sinn Féin – A Hundred Turbulent Years, there was nothing democratic about Sinn Féin appointments back then.

"Before the 1980s the IRA decided who were going to be the Sinn Féin office bearers," he said.

"Sinn Féin was simply a function of the IRA that did some cheer-leading and enabled them to issue statements, but the army council ran the movement – end of story."

Notably, Mr Feeney claims that during the conflict it would have been impossible for the president of Sinn Féin not to have been in the IRA.

However, he believes times have changed and that Mary Lou McDonald's elevation to party president represents the "first genuine democratic election – or selection" for the republican party.

"Since 1997 when Sinn Féin signed up to the Mitchell Principles of exclusively democratic and peaceful means it has been the primary partner in the republican movement," Mr Feeney said.

"Nominations were open and anybody could have been nominated – it just so happens that she was the only one nominated."

The Irish News columnist, who believes Michelle O'Neill will also assume the deputy president's position with unanimous backing when the party meets at a special ard fheis on February 10, points out that while Mrs McDonald's selection continues a tradition of Sinn Féin's modern leaders being elected unopposed, it's a situation mirrored within the DUP, where both Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster were the only names on the leadership ballot paper.

David McCann, deputy editor of the Slugger O'Toole website, cites numerous examples where leadership succession resembles a coronation rather than a contest.

He points to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Fianna Fáil's Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, and even the SDLP's Mark Durkan, who succeeded John Hume.

"It's not undemocratic if nobody else puts their name forward," he said.

"It tends to happen when the heir apparent is well established – for example, Mary Lou McDonald has been tipped to succeed Adams for five years or more."

Mr McCann believes the eventual selection of a leader is part of a long process of elimination which is mostly hidden from the public.

"It tends to be the outworking of a process with a natural successor emerging over a number of years," he said.

"Also, once that vacancy arises, an air of inevitability takes hold and the outcome appears predetermined."

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