Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Adams steered Sinn Fein to unrivalled success, but not to a united Ireland

 

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein's ard fheis in Dublin was a hugely impressive event that will be the envy of its political opponents on this side of the border even if they won't admit it.

Around 2,500 delegates packed into the RDS for a gathering the size of which no other party in Northern Ireland could even begin to rival.

But it was more than just the numbers.

The energy, enthusiasm and breadth of talent on display was obvious as long queues formed to speak on so many motions.

There were important policy changes too - on abortion, and entering a coalition government as a junior partner in the Republic.

Sinn Fein has clearly recognised that the demographic it's chasing, the young vote, is strongly pro-choice and a shift in position was needed.

The arguments of so many speakers, particularly that of Dublin councillor Sarah Holland, whose greengrocer father Harry was murdered by youths in west Belfast in 2007, were received as passionately as they were delivered.

Sinn Fein's change of policy on abortion wasn't half-hearted. On paper anyway, it seems at least as liberal as the 1967 Abortion Act. Mid-Ulster MP Francie Molloy, who opposed the policy change, warned it could have repercussions on the ground. Pro-life activists in Tyrone have certainly campaigned against the party before.

Pockets of older voters in rural areas may in future not turn out or may switch to the SDLP.

But Sinn Fein's new position presents far more problems than opportunities for its nationalist rival.

SDLP policy opposing abortion even in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality looks positively archaic.

Expect Sinn Fein to now constantly remind Colum Eastwood that while he talks the talk about a young, modern, dynamic leadership, his party's abortion policy doesn't live up to this.

Michelle O'Neill's ard fheis address on Friday was hardly inspiring as she repeated Sinn Fein's now single transferable speech on the reasons for the stalemate at Stormont.

But the very fact that she didn't launch a stinging attack on the DUP, which delegates likely would have warmly received, suggests that her party isn't ruling out a deal to restore power-sharing.

In the Republic, Sinn Fein has faced constant criticism that it's a party of protest, not power. An ard fheis vote opened the way for it to enter a future coalition government as a junior partner.

A fiery address by Matt Carthy MEP secured the best response of any conference speaker and he is clearly one to watch as a possible future Sinn Fein leader.

He referred to "one rotten Fianna Fail government being replaced by a rotten Fine Gael government" and lambasted homelessness and a health system that has left elderly people and children lying on hospital trolleys. But in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein was in government for 10 years, the party's record in improving the lot of the poor and vulnerable is not one to be proud of.

Similarly, ard fheis declarations that the unionist majority is gone and that a united Ireland has never been nearer are pure fantasy.

Nobody explained how going into government with Leo Varadkar - who recently said that more than 50% plus one would be needed for Irish unity - would lead to the elusive republic. Sinn Fein has enjoyed unrivalled electoral success under its outgoing president but it is no nearer to achieving its key traditional goal. A united Ireland by 2016 has now become a border poll by 2022.

"If I was asked to measure the success of Sinn Fein, I would say judge us on the changes we bring about," said Gerry Adams.

And therein lies the problem for him. In terms of delivering fundamental constitutional change, history won't record any great victory for him.

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