It is time for Gerry Adams to go, but will his grip on Sinn Féin remain? | Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty
Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill (left, pictured with Adams), was appointed without a vote by the Assembly party she is to lead. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The maxim that all political careers end in failure will not apply to Gerry Adams. He has managed his departure in such a way as to avert any demand from the party that he go.

No one in Sinn Féin was thought likely to step forward as a challenger; this is not a party that caters for the dissenting voice. One of the embarrassments of recent times has been the number of councillors resigning and claiming that they have been bullied by the party hierarchy.

As for Adams himself, he was seen as having stayed on too long and lost his focus on his brief. His performance on economic issues during the last general election in the Republic was sloppy. The prospects of the party governing in coalition were undermined by his leadership, with potential partners fearful of yet another scandal emerging. He was being muttered against. But it says much that none of those muttering had the courage to break cover and present a challenge to him.

Adams’s achievement may be to have shaped Sinn Féin in his image so firmly that his departure will make no difference

So all sides understood it was time for Adams to go. But this had to be managed in such a way that the party could be assured he really was stepping down without it appearing to turn against him.

Adams has been stepping back in recent months. In Donegal, near his Gortahork retreat, people tell stories of bumping into Adams, now a noticeably fit 69, and his dog at the top of Mount Errigal. But he has also been politically busy in the North, where he pretty much pulled down the institutions and stirred the party into action.

Ostensibly, it was the decision of Martin McGuinness, in the last weeks of his life, to crash devolution by resigning and forcing an election. Weeks before this, the satirists were calling him “Marlene” (a fusion of Martin and Arlene Foster), an indication of how solid the relationship between Sinn Féin and the DUP then seemed.

But Foster refused McGuinness’s demand that she step aside to allow an investigation into her management of a renewable heating subsidy scheme that was run without cost controls.

When Adams came North in the midst of all that to embolden the party, the issue suddenly became much deeper and wider. It became about the DUP’s inability to accord equality to republicans, to Irish-language speakers, to victims of the security forces, as well as its record on gay and lesbian rights. Battles long lost, or paused, were resumed.

And the electorate in the North liked that. An election in March brought it almost level with the DUP in Stormont and ended the Unionist majority. Despite this being the greatest ever advance in republican politics in the North, Adams chose not to capitalise on it but to prolong negotiations to force a DUP humiliation.

The Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin, its ruling executive, had by then appointed Michelle O’Neill to the new post of northern leader. She was no new voice. She was the representative of Gerry Adams on Earth, delivering his message, often with him standing at her shoulder.

She was appointed without a vote by the Assembly party that she is to lead, and that inevitably raises questions about how democratic the appointment of Adams’s successor will be.

This is a party that was fostered by the IRA and which for most of its history took instructions from the IRA. But now there is to be a procedure for replacing Adams as president, we will be able to see how transparent that process is, or if it really is so unnaturally coherent as a political party that no alternative vision exists within it.

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.

• Malachi O’Doherty is a writer living in Belfast. He is the author of two books on the IRA