Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sinn Fein mystery as ex-IRA leaders step down

Belfast Telegraph Political Editor Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph Political Editor Liam Clarke

Sinn Fein is better even than the DUP at avoiding washing its dirty linen in public and keeping the lid on internal discussions.

At times, judging what is going on within such parties is like Cold War Kremlinology. That was the mixture of art and science by which, in the face of official secrecy and an unwaveringly positive party line from communist parties, Kremlin watchers pored over attendances at the party conference and who was on the reviewing stand on revolutionary anniversaries for clues.

Sinn Fein's recent activity reveals that there are a number of faces now missing from the party structures. Two of them are Leo Green , who has stepped down as northern political director, and Jackie McMullan, who left the party's Stormont staff. Both men are former IRA prisoners and hunger strikers and had won respect from political opponents for their ability.

It is something of a misnomer that ex-prisoners working in the Sinn Fein apparatus are hardliners. Leo Green, in particular, was looked on as a progressive and pragmatic voice, in spite of having killed a policeman.

So was Paul Kavanagh, the former bomber, who was Martin McGuinness's special adviser until he was forcibly removed from his position as a result of Jim Allister's bill.

Kavanagh was very much in evidence at the ard fheis, but Green was not. When Ken Reid of UTV and Mark Devenport, his BBC counterpart, tweeted about his absence, and Reid speculated that he had left the party, both men got personal texts from him to choke off speculation.

Green said he had renewed his membership of Sinn Fein on January 24 and that he had not left over any single issue. We are none the wiser except that this man, who cut his political teeth under IRA army discipline, is not about to break ranks with his comrades and speak his mind.

The rumour is that, among other issues, he felt the party had pushed too far in opposition to welfare reform, but this is denied by Sinn Fein. "There are no policy issues, because the people you are talking about remain in the party," Alex Maskey told the BBC.

Conor Murphy, now the abstentionist MP for Newry and Armagh and another former IRA prisoner, is busy brushing off rumours that he pushing for a return to Stormont.

Kremlinologists in the other parties think he could then be positioned to eventually succeed Martin McGuinness, but Murphy, who is publicly happy with any task the party gives him, has done nothing to fuel the speculation. Judging from the ard fheis, in spite of a media heave against him, Gerry Adams is firmly in control, with a standing ovation before he even rose to speak. Bobby Storey, a former IRA director of intelligence and an Adams loyalist through every twist and turn of the peace process, is now northern chairman.

People note movement in the seating arrangements. Michelle Gildernew, another abstentionist MP, who used to be a Stormont minister, complained in December 2012 that leaving Stormont had been "like a wake" and that it had even affected her mental health.

This year, she was to the fore in the ard fheis and on the party's ruling ard comhairle. Can we expect a comeback to Stormont for the charismatic Gildernew?

Last year, we glimpsed what ordinary republicans thought of things through a survey of 50 ard fheis attendees, which the Belfast Telegraph carried out at the conference. This year, permission was refused.

Sinn Fein is battening down that hatches before the elections – and that leaves plenty of room for speculation.

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