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Picking a favourite to replace Martin McGuinness is no easy task

It's widely believed that Mary Lou McDonald will succeed Gerry Adams when he eventually stands down as Sinn Fein president. But who will follow Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister when he leaves the stage? Who indeed, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 06/01/2016

Sinn Fein leaders (left to right) Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein leaders (left to right) Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams

There is one marked difference in how Sinn Fein conducts its affairs in the two jurisdictions on this island. In the Republic the succession is clear. Things may not work out as expected, but at least there is an expectation in place that when Gerry Adams steps down as leader of the party he will be replaced by Mary Lou McDonald.

True, there have been others at Adams' side in the past who fell back into insignificance, but Mary Lou looks like the real thing.

The entire political system in the south now takes it for granted that she is a future president of Sinn Fein and very likely a future Taoiseach.

But look at the north and ask who is likely to replace Martin McGuinness and the answer is not so clear. There is no obvious successor, no Shinner-in-waiting.

Not that McGuinness has given any hint that he is ready to go, but that won't stop speculation mounting as the next Assembly election approaches in May.

He is 65 years old, an age at which most people retire - if they can afford to. That is the age at which most of the top tier of the last generation of the SDLP stepped down.

If McGuinness does carry on after the next election he will be 70 for the election after that.

He is at an age at which a man is vulnerable and he has seen how the stress and the busyness and the rich food have affected Peter Robinson, his outgoing partner in the leadership of the Executive.

He is bound to have asked himself how much longer he can go on. Yet, who would replace him?

Sinn Fein shuffles people around. None of the ministers in the last Executive was carried forward into the current one and few if any of the current batch can confidently expect to retain their jobs after May.

There are good and bad ways of reading this. As a republican socialist party, it really should not be cultivating personalities - celebrity politicians.

The practice of paying each member the average industrial wage signals to all that they needn't be over-ambitious.

Spreading the workload can be a good thing. It gives experience of office to a wider range of people, yet it also prevents anyone staying in place long enough to become an obvious choice as a future leader.

Other political parties have generally tended to bring forward talent and keep it in place. The most obvious example was the DUP, which retained Robinson as a patient deputy for decades so that it was unthinkable that anyone but he would replace Ian Paisley.

Similarly, the party signalled that Arlene Foster would move smoothly into the leader's chair when Robinson stepped aside.

And Sinn Fein has designated an heir in the Republic, but not here. It has actually clipped the wings of any who rose to prominence before they could get comfortably used to the idea that they might be rising to the top.

An obvious future leader of a few years ago was Conor Murphy. He is 52 years old. He held ministerial office as Minister for Regional Development. But he got sidelined off to Westminster, to the wilderness of abstention.

In Regional Development he had worked close to Foster when she was Environment Minister in neighbouring offices in the DoE building in Belfast's Adelaide Street. So, he looks like a good choice.

And yet he has virtually no current media profile, is estranged from the Assembly, and is missing years of valuable preparation for higher office - his obvious skills apparently going to waste.

When McGuinness stepped aside from office to fight the Irish presidential election in 2012 he appointed John O'Dowd, the Education Minister, to fill in for him.

O'Dowd has one handicap as an Education Minister, which would show up even more starkly as First Minister representing the country abroad, he does not speak well. In fact, he does not speak grammatical English.

The most energetic Sinn Fein politician is Mairtin O Muilleoir. He has created a huge media profile for himself and a massive range of contacts. He is a media magnate and bounces back and forth across the Atlantic to his political and business associates.

As Lord Mayor of Belfast he was almost frenetic and reaped votes for himself personally which his party could not have secured without him.

Voters like him, despite the fact that he is a Sinn Feiner, whereas with most of the party's candidates it works the other way round.

They get elected by people who hardly know them personally, because the party leadership has appointed them and the party machine works for them.

Much depends on whether the party would want a self-made celebrity and past form suggests that it doesn't - the top man himself being the one exception.

Just look at the number of senior party activists who have been prominent for a while and then shoved back. Caitriona Ruane? She's on the Policing Board, having been an Education Minister.

A year ago Gerry Kelly (centre left) was the out-front media manager, the one routinely fielded against Stephen Nolan. No more.

Michelle Gildernew (left) was so disheartened by her move from being Agriculture Minister to being an abstaining MP that she suffered depression and wrote candidly about it.

Sinn Fein, in the north at least, is the party that picks you up and puts you down again. McGuinness may have no obvious successor because he simply has no intention of standing down, but that would be bad planning, making no allowance for the the kind of disruption that the DUP managed so well.

If the security briefings supplied during the recent crisis talks are to be relied on, the IRA may believe that the decision on the succession rests with the army council and, certainly, many key appointments to date have been former gun-toters.

They include Jennifer McCann, a junior minister, and Caral ni Chuilin, the Culture Minister.

But with the DUP now having appointed a leader who was a child during the Troubles, many will think it desirable that Sinn Fein should also be led by someone with clean hands.

Mrs Foster was never in Ulster Resistance; she did not parade on hillsides with a gun licence like, or march with a Third Force.

She did not sit at the table with paramilitaries, planning strikes, or threatening to bring the country to a standstill.

Wouldn't it be good to have leaders on both sides whose roots are not in belligerence?

Ironically, though, the decision may not be taken in the north at all, but by party president for life Gerry Adams, or even by his heir Mary Lou McDonald.

Malachi O'Doherty's unauthorised biography of Gerry Adams will be published by Faber & Faber in May

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