Adams may be stepping down, but the boys in the back room have not gone away, you know
‘Inter-generational’ republicans like the Sinn Fein president don’t ‘do’ retirement, says Nelson McCausland
The forthcoming ‘retirement’ of Gerry Adams brought to mind the title of a song from an old Hollywood Western starring James Stewart. It was the 1939 film Destry Rides Again and in it Marlene Dietrich sang a song about The Boys in the Back Room. Her opening lines were: “See what the boys in the back room will have and tell them I’m having the same.”
Next year, someone new will replace Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Fein, but some things won’t change and ‘the boys in the back room’ will still be there, setting the Sinn Fein strategy and directing the party.
Earlier this year, Micheal Martin described Sinn Fein as a ‘centrally-controlled, undemocratic party’ and said that its strategy was still determined by the IRA ‘army council’.
Indeed, in 2015, an independent assessment of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland reported that the ‘army council’ still existed, but had a ‘wholly political focus’.
‘The boys in the back room’ are still there and will still be there, so we should not be expecting any significant change as a result of Gerry’s impending retirement.
As regards Gerry Adams himself, what will be his role? In more recent years, he has tried to cultivate a bizarre image of a tree-hugger, who loves rubber ducks and teddy bears, but I don’t imagine for one moment that Adams will devote his retirement to expanding his collections of teddy bears and rubber ducks.
Nor do I imagine that he will sign up for evening classes in ‘memory improvement’.
I suspect it will be more a case of stepping back than stepping down. He will be freed from the responsibilities of a Louth TD and from the routine duties of a party president, but I have no doubt he will continue to meet with ‘the boys in the back room’ to develop the Sinn Fein strategy.
Of course, it’s an old song from 1939, but that’s a date that should be embedded in the mind and memory of Gerry Adams and the wider Adams family.
I say ‘should’, because there are signs that Gerry tends to forget things, so just in case, I will point out that 1939 was the year when his uncle, Dominic Adams, a senior member of the IRA, left England very suddenly in the wake of a no-warning IRA bomb that killed five innocent people and injured 70 others in the city of Coventry.
That atrocity is a reminder of the inter-generational nature of Irish republican terrorism. It is also a reminder that Gerry Adams is a member of an inter-generational republican family and inter-generational republicans, like Gerry Adams, don’t do ‘retirement’.
It is looking increasingly likely that Mary Lou McDonald will be his successor, with possibly Michelle O’Neill as her deputy. That would provide a north-south balance and would also ensure that the two most public figures in Sinn Fein were younger and female.
Indeed, some republicans may hope that this will help them electorally.
They have peaked in Northern Ireland and they are stuck around 14% in opinion polls in the Republic. So, would a Mary-Lou and Michelle leadership do better?
Earlier this year, Michelle O’Neill got off to a good start electorally among nationalists in Northern Ireland, but is probably as much a hate figure to unionists as Gerry Adams. Indeed, that was one of the factors in the resurgence of unionism at the subsequent Westminster election.
With the retirement of Adams, the spotlight will turn more and more on Mary Lou McDonald and time will tell how she stands up to the scrutiny.
Some of her recent performances in the Dail have certainly not shown her in a good light and might well be described by the Ulster-Scots word ‘coorse’.
She will also inherit the presidency of a party that is facing internal problems, especially in the Republic.
With the recent reports of resignations and bullying and with a significant drop in support in the most recent opinion poll, the new Sinn Fein president may not have her sorrows to seek.