People sometimes ask me about a given political situation – a collapsed Executive, an election, an arrest: “What do you think is going to happen?” These are people who don’t know me very well, because if they knew me they’d know that, like nearly all political commentators, I don’t have a crystal ball. (That’ll be enough of that talk, Virginia.)
Despite that, I’m going to risk today making two predictions. They relate to the succession of Mary Lou McDonald to the presidency of Sinn Féin, and Michaelle O’Neill to the position of vice-president.
You’ll note, incidentally, that this change of leadership has been what critics of Sinn Féin have been calling for over the decades. “Gerry Adams is too long in the position of president of Sinn Féin! He’s got too much baggage! Sinn Féin need to pass their leadership to a new generation with unsoiled hands!”
So you’d expect that those critics would now be showering Sinn Féin with telegrams and bouquets, congratulating the party for having turned a corner, turned over a new leaf, made a fresh start, got rid of Gerry.
My two predictions? There will be a striking absence of congratulatory telegrams and flower-petals. Instead, there will be – there already is, so strictly speaking this isn’t a prediction – there will be cries for Mary Lou and Michelle to “dissociate themselves from the IRA’s bloody past.” They must make it clear that, not only are their hands clean, but they detest and reject those people – like Gerry Adams – whose hands are not clean. They must condemn all IRA killings. They must campaign to bulldoze any republican monuments – sorry,any republican shrines to terrorism. They must apologise for the death and suffering the IRA created, they must accept that, in the words of Regina Doherty, any suffering republicans themselves suffered, they “brought it on themselves”. Except the new leadership acts in this way, then a break with the past is meaningless.
That’s my first prediction. The second is that Mary Lou and Michelle will be declared puppets. When they go into negotiations for the return of the north’s Executive, for instance, they may speak and debate, but they will really be acting as ventriloquists’ dummies. In other words, Gerry Adams and the IRA may have left the stage, but they’re really up above it, pulling the strings of the new leadership.
Are these predictions reasonable? Might there not be a case for Mary Lou and Michelle visiting the various republican shrines with a bulldozer, flattening everything in sight so we can have a new start? I have no doubt the case will be made but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an obtuse or even deliberately obtuse way of thinking.
Sinn Féin is a republican party. Throughout the period of conflict here, they repeatedly asserted their support of the IRA – not in all cases but in the great majority. To have a president and vice-president of Sinn Féin who then would systematically disown the armed struggle and make clear their contempt for memorials to such men and women of violence – I mean, come on. Republicans are actually proud of their comrades who died in the period of conflict – just as unionists are proud of British militarists. Witness the large statue in the middle of Lisburn dedicated to the memory of the men and women of the UDR. So I confidently say that Mary Lou and Michelle will be bombarded with claims that they have not left republicanism’s past behind. What were originally talked of as clean skins will be muddied and blood-spattered by linking them with the past.
The second thing that unionist politicians will do is claim that Mary Lou and Michelle are just mouthpieces for republicans – the voice will really be the voice of Gerry Adams and other unseen figures. I mean, how could two women like Mary Lou and Michelle be so attractive and at the same time head up a huge and dynamic organization like Sinn Féin? So they must be puppets.
Gerry Adams was on The Andrew Marr show last Sunday. In it, he was his usual calm and thoughtful self. So here’s the thing: is the republican movement going to put him out to pasture, leave him to stare moodily at the sky and greenery, an interesting but essentially useless relic of the past?
What fools they would be if they did. My guess – my hope – is that Gerry Adams will continue to influence Sinn Féin policy. What kind of dumb organisation would it be if it turned a deaf ear to the thoughts of the man who brought the movement into politics while never distancing himself from the IRA, who has shown the kind of political judgement that has made Sinn Féin the largest nationalist party in Ireland?
On the contrary. Sinn Féin will, if they’re smart – and yes, Virginia, they are – if they’re smart they’ll refer and even defer to the wisdom and accumulated experience of Gerry Adams. It is, after all, a republican movement. And as Bobby Sands said, everyone can make a contribution to the struggle, however small. Gerry Adams has had and will have a huge contribution to make, and being the savvy organization they are, Sinn Féin will use the Adams contribution in all major decision-making. The baton has been passed to a new generation, but that doesn’t mean the one who passed the baton ceases to exist. Gerry Adams has left the stage but he hasn’t gone away. Buiochas le Dia – Thanks be to God.