With Northern Ireland divided, what next for Sinn Féin?

With Brexit and a government breakdown, Gerry Adams may linger for a while yet. 

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In November, at Sinn Féin’s ard fheis (party conference), one of the most confident of recent years, delegates paid a raucous tribute to the legacy of its departing president, Gerry Adams, and the late Martin McGuinness. At the same time, #itwasntawar started appearing on Twitter. It was accompanied with the photos of victims of the IRA, the bloodied streets of Enniskillen and the haunting image of the murdered mother of ten, Jean McConville. Those sharing the images wanted to remind the party of the “cutting edge” of physical force republicanism and its devastating impact on families and communities across Ireland and Britain.

Unionist detestation of Adams has remained constant over the course of his 34 years as president of Sinn Féin. McGuinness achieved a seemingly genuine accommodation with unionism, attested to by the depth of his response to the death of Ian Paisley and the sincerity of Paisley son’s tribute to McGuinness following his own passing. It is difficult to imagine Adams being met with such venerations. While McGuinness was in devolved government with the Democratic Unionist Party, Adams was caught describing their partners in government as “bastards”, suggesting that the equality agenda should be used to “break them”.

Yet Sinn Féin has successfully established itself as the voice of northern nationalism, following a skilful decapitation of the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party. The erosion of unionism’s majority status at Stormont for the first time in March is also an incredibly significant watermark for the party.

In 2011, Adams, for a long time MP for Belfast West, quit his post and stood as a Teachtaí Dála (deputy) for Louth, south of the border in the Republic. Since then, he has steadily increased his party’s standing as the third force in southern politics, though his slapdash performance in the last general election generated concerns from colleagues about his competency. His associations or otherwise with the IRA have been off-putting to a section of the southern electorate. For this reason too, transition to a new generation, led by his touted successor Mary Lou McDonald, could make the party more palatable as a truly all-Ireland political vehicle.

Adams’s purported exit from the stage comes at a turbulent time for the island of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there was hope that following the DUP's own conference, talks to restore devolution could resume. Since then, though, this has been eclipsed by the Irish border question. The DUP, currently threatening to bring down the UK government over the question of a special deal for Northern Ireland, is in no mood for compromise. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s northern leader, has also been clear that there is no possibility of an imminent return to talks. 

The DUP’s decision to back something which seems increasingly inimical to the island of Ireland’s interests has moved discussion of unity or special status for Northern Ireland into the mainstream of political discourse. Despite the echo chamber of most party conferences, there was genuine belief among Sinn Féin members that current circumstances could lead to “a nation once again”. (Of course, it remains unlikely that Brexit will cause the Damascene conversion needed by thousands of unionists to tip the scales in favour of a united Ireland, as the DUP's furious intervention in Brexit negotiations has demonstrated.)

Adams’s decision to step down poses challenges for Sinn Féin. His strategic expertise and knowledge are difficult to replace, while none of his touted replacements have anything akin to his stature in the wider republican movement. The party’s talent seems to be squarely located in the south of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, it seems to have been struck down by the managerial tendencies that have emerged in local politicians since devolution. 

In 1995, at a time when peace in Northern Ireland still seemed possible rather than probable, Adams told a republican gathering that the IRA “haven't gone away, you know”. The quote is often thrown at Sinn Féin by its detractors to suggest a less than firm commitment towards ballot box politics. Michelle O’Neill’s pronouncements on the talks process are often delivered with an inscrutable Adams in shot. Nearly 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, unionism and nationalism seem to have reached a new divide. Some question whether after all this time Adams will ever be able to go away.

Andrew McQuillan is a political consultant at Dods. He writes in a personal capacity.

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