Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: The dictator who ruled with a rod of iron for more than 30 years heads for the exit (and Mugabe's in a spot of bother too)

As Sinn Fein prepares for life after Gerry Adams, the reality is that restoration of power-sharing is now nothing more than a sideshow, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Most party conferences are about as interesting to outsiders as the annual meeting of the local trainspotters' society. They're for the faithful. The devotees.

This weekend's Sinn Fein ard fheis promises to be different, for two reasons, both connected.

The first is because of Gerry Adams' closing "presidential address" tomorrow. The contents remain as tightly guarded at this stage as the Third Secret of Fatima, although he himself has been hinting at some mysterious major announcement for weeks now.

Is the man who's led the republican movement since 1983 - just three years fewer than dictator Robert Mugabe, whose rule of Zimbabwe also appears to be coming to an end around the same time - about to announce that this will be his last outing as party leader?

The second point of interest in this year's ard fheis, scheduled to open in Dublin later this afternoon, is that the party looks poised to ditch its long-standing opposition to entering coalition in the Republic with either of the country's two main Civil War parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

At the most recent election in the south, held only last year, Sinn Fein was adamant that it would need to be the largest party before considering any kind of arrangement to enter government.

That stance did not serve them well. The party increased its share of the vote, but one reason why most voters still shun the party, apart from its toxic past, is a natural resistance to casting mere protest votes. If elected representatives won't take office, why bother backing them at all?

Some delegates this weekend have put down motions to maintain that absolutist position, but the ard chomairle is seeking approval, instead, to leave its options open by hiving the decision on a possible coalition off to a special ard fheis after any future election, "based on the party's ability to secure a progressive, republican programme for government".

Such a move towards greater political realism is not before time. It's now 10 years since the recession hit. Throughout that period, a new generation of Sinn Fein representatives has emerged, but what's also increased is frustration at being unable to either halt the advance, or ameliorate the effects, of austerity.

In order to do so, they must take power, not simply sit on the sidelines, carping.

Entering coalition as the junior partner carries huge risks. Traditionally, that role has been held in governments in Dublin by the Irish Labour Party, who've often suffered grievously for it.

Smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 UK General Election, are always disproportionately punished.

Sinn Fein ministers risk being a lightning-rod for discontent in the same way. More avowedly Left-wing groupings in Irish politics, who prefer the purity of opposition to the taint of compromise, are already gearing up to attack the move as a sell-out.

Negotiating an acceptable programme for government might not even prove possible. It may be too soon for the centre ground in Irish politics to swallow its distaste and accept Sinn Fein as potential partners.

But that the party may be about to signal a readiness to cut deals with its rivals could turn out to be as historic as the decision to abandon asbentionism with regard to the Dail back in 1986. The two developments at this year's ard fheis are connected because, although Sinn Fein spokespersons refuse to countenance any insults to their beloved leader, Gerry Adams's continued presence would make any coalition arrangement with other parties impossible.

That means Adams has to be nudged out of the picture in advance in favour of someone more acceptable to southern tastes, such as the party's current deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who, while tainted to some extent by her blind loyalty to Gerry, is nonetheless seen by voters in the Republic as an effective, tenacious operator.

Their president being forced to spend more time in Northern Ireland, following the death of Martin McGuinness, has been, albeit in sad circumstances, a political blessing in disguise, giving freer rein to his colleagues back in Dublin to flex their own muscles.

What that's exposed is where the power now lies in Sinn Fein. Northern Ireland used to be where the party looked for leadership. The role of republicans in what they called the "26 counties" was to provide support, both moral and practical, to the "armed struggle".

Deep within the Green Book was even buried an article of faith that the only body with a right to run the country was the IRA army council, most of whose members were based in a small, north-eastern corner of the country.

There are some old war horses still clinging to that quaint superstition, but they've been put in their place by assertive, Dublin-based politicians, many of whom have never even been north of the border and for whom the Provos are little more than a legend.

Spokespersons will go on talking tough to unionists and Downing Street to please the grassroots, and leaders will continue to troop along to IRA-themed shindigs, such as last weekend's march in Ravensdale, Co Louth, when young people decked up in paramilitary fancy dress and marched along to flags and bands in memory of the so-called 'Edentubber Martyrs', who blew themselves up with their own bomb during the border campaign 60 years ago.

These days, though, it's all just spectacle. The Troubles have become a heritage theme park.

From now on, the main business of the party is to be in government in Leinster House, and Northern Ireland must take its place at the back of the queue.

Look at the motions set for debate at this weekend's ard fheis. They're overwhelmingly concerned with bread-and-butter politics in the Republic. Northern Irish concerns are tagged on almost as an afterthought.

As for the party's nominal Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, she'll get to address delegates today, as is her right, but her speech is very much second on the bill to that by Mary Lou McDonald.

Whether that's because the Sinn Fein leadership, with the tacit approval of the IRA, has concluded that a devolved administration more to its liking in Northern Ireland is only achievable by weaponising the muscle of an Irish government, or whether they don't want Stormont back at all, preferring to sit out the Brexit negotiations and see what effect withdrawal from the EU has on the structural cohesion of the United Kingdom, ultimately doesn't matter.

Northern Ireland has become a sideshow to the party's broader ambitions. This weekend's proceedings will merely formalise the handover of power.

Belfast Telegraph

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