MUCH has been said and written, in the last week in particular, about Gerry Adams as he handed over the presidency of Sinn Féin to Mary Lou McDonald, amid speculation as to whether this would really mean a break from the party’s links with the IRA and the violence it perpetrated during the unsuccessful armed struggle to achieve a United Ireland, or will we merely get more of the same?
Its continued reticence about condemning many of the atrocities committed by republicans during the final three decades of the 20th century is somewhat understandable in the North where emotions are a lot more raw, especially as many nationalists were victims of equally unforgiveable acts of violence perpetrated by loyalist paramilitaries, sometimes in collusion with the police and the British Army. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all violence must be condemned equally across the board, especially after it all proving so futile in the end.
Vincent Browne’s two-part documentary on Gerry Adams on TV3 last week certainly did not spare the now former Sinn Féin president, who has continued to deny ever being a member of the IRA army council, which the political wing had to defer to before making important decisions as they needed to keep the men of violence part of a peace process that has led such a fragile existence in Northern Ireland since the early years of this century. The difficulties in forming a new Northern Assembly executive ever since the election just under 12 months ago are testament as to how much on a knife-edge things are up there.
Adams’ chosen successor to the late Martin McGuinness as de facto Sinn Féin leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, does not seem to have the gravitas or clout her predecessor possessed to get things done and cut deals with political opponents. It has been made more difficult for her by the defiance of Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party who have reverted to intransigence mode as they prop up the minority UK Conservative Party government.
With a southerner, in Mary Lou McDonald, having taken over as Sinn Féin party president, it will be interesting to see if she can bring fresh impetus to the quest to form a new executive at Stormont in order to head off the threat of direct rule from Westminster. Some critics of Sinn Féin reckon that she will still be working in the shadow of Gerry Adams, as he more or less ordained her rise to the top job and nobody else dared take her on in a contest for the leadership, so the prospect of her being given a free rein is unlikely.
Political opponents in the south, especially Fianna Fáil, are anxious to pigeonhole her as the latest iteration of Adams’ old guard and its leader, Micheál Martin, has been quite cutting about this before she even gets a chance to put her own stamp on her leadership by using militaristic terminology to describe her pedigree – perhaps oblivious to the irony that Ms McDonald started out in politics with his own party! His description of her as ‘a good soldier within Sinn Féin in terms of holding the line and defending the indefensible’ was patronising, to say the least, as he once more ruled out any future coalition with his nemesis.
The Fianna Fáil leader is obviously fearful that Sinn Féin with a new figurehead distancing it from a past that most of the younger voters nowadays know or care little about would make further electoral strides at the expense of his own party, so he decided that attack was the best means of defence. This came across as rather mean and disingenuous before she even had a chance to set out her stall, but it suits Mr Martin to tar her with the same brush as he has been using on Gerry Adams since he entered politics in the Republic of Ireland.
He does have a point about trying the defend the indefensible Sinn Féin has a tendency not to regard wrongdoing by its own elected representatives as seriously as that done by political opponents. Leading up to Ms McDonald’s accession to the leadership of Sinn Féin, we had the spectre of MP Barry McElduff’s silly but insulting video of him going around with a Kingsmill sliced pan on his head on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre of 10 Protestant workmen by the Provisional IRA and then another one of MLA Gerry Kelly cutting off a clamp after had he parked illegally outside a Belfast gym, both met with only qualified criticism.
If she wants to establish strong credentials as party leader, especially in the south, Mary Lou McDonald will need to throw off the shackles of the past and be forthright in her criticism of all wrongdoing, especially when it comes to errant Sinn Féin members.