Belfast Telegraph

Michelle O'Neill appointment consistent with Sinn Fein's ideological turnaround as it aims to shed military past

By Anthony McIntyre

A day after a PSNI member is injured in a north Belfast shooting, Sinn Fein appoints Michelle O'Neill as their replacement for Martin McGuinness.

Although a matter of hours separated both events, the gulf between the current Sinn Fein and Sunday's armed attack can only be measured in light years. The appointment of O'Neill, much more pronounced and important than calls from Gerry Kelly for informers to come forward with information about Sunday's armed incident, is entirely consistent with Sinn Fein's ongoing and sustained abandonment of its revolutionary past and the comprehensive embracing of constitutionalism.

The symbolism should not be understated. The incumbents of the political careers bequeathed by the IRA's armed struggle are stamping the party imprimatur on the IRA's catastrophic failure to secure an end to British rule by churning out leaders essentially not all that different from those that led the SDLP in opposition to the IRA's armed campaign.

Sinn Fein has no shortage of former high-profile IRA prisoners serving as MLAs from which to choose a new leader for its Stormont Assembly team. That it opted not to is indicative of its persistent and irreversible journey away from its former self.

Military actions (subject to the odd exception if the PSNI is to be believed about the killing of Kevin McGuigan) are very much a thing of the past as the poacher vies with rivals to become the best gamekeeper on the manor.

The handover of the reins to Michelle O'Neill, seeing former IRA figures like Gerry Kelly, Sean Lynch and Pat Sheehan inter alia overlooked, suggests that something more than a mere generational change is taking place.

Leadership is not just being passed from the old to the young, but also from the military to the civilian.

Party boss Gerry Adams, in the wake of McGuinness's departure, is easily the most prominent martial politician among those greying figures left standing on the bridge between military past and constitutional present.

With Martin McGuinness gone and Adams' deficiencies persistently laid bare in the south, the Louth TD will look increasingly out of place as he strives valiantly, but vainly to assert his "alternative facts" in a party fronted increasingly by women like Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald, for whom alternative facts are the source of never ending discomfort.

This is even when for the sake of optics and a display of party unity they pretend to believe them.

The DUP, sensing the competing strains at play, is depicting O'Neill as one more dummy for the ventriloquist. In the wake of the announcement, the Arlene Foster-led party took to tweeting a large image of Gerry Adams with a diminutive Michelle O'Neill safely ensconced in his breast pocket. Their summation: a different deputy, same problem.

There is nothing complicated about the DUP pitch: despite the democratic veneer, the appointment of a non-martial politician to lead Sinn Fein in the north, the caudillo and his camarilla are still pulling the strings. A clear declaration of intent by the DUP to fight a bruising election battle, it leaves Sinn Fein to ponder the strategic matter of whether Michelle O'Neill can galvanise the party vote and energise the voters.

If Gerry Adams being replaced by Paul Maskey as MP for West Belfast is indicative of future projections, the trend will not be upward. How popular the appointment will be within Sinn Fein remains a matter for conjecture.

O'Neill was part of the Assembly team that has been accused of "roll-over republicanism". Martin McGuinness's palpable physical frailty came to personify an Assembly team malaise which saw it swallow ignominy after insult and which, up until it collapsed the power-splitting Executive, responded to DUP slap-downs as if they were pats on the back.

The deference, rather than defiance, shown to the DUP so inflamed the "sectarian" ire of the party grassroots that it felt sufficiently emboldened to trump the careerist cartel which the DUP had strategically banked on refusing to upend the institutions.

The corollary: if Sinn Fein fails to increase its vote and share of Assembly seats under Michelle O'Neill's leadership, coupled with the possibility of the DUP ceding no ground to the UUP, or TUV, it will lead to her position being vulnerable.

Unlike Martin McGuinness, she is far from unassailable.

Dr Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner, journalist and co-founder of The Blanket, an online magazine that critically analysed the peace process. He blogs at: thepensivequill.am

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