Belfast Telegraph

Life after Adams - Can Sinn Fein bury the ghosts of the party's paramilitary past to make gains north and south?

As Gerry Adams steps down, Sinn Fein's future will be in the hands of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill. Can they bury the ghosts of the party's paramilitary past to make gains north and south? Their weak response to former MP Barry McElduff's Kingsmill insult doesn't augur well.

By Kim Bielenberg

When Gerry Adams finally steps down as Sinn Fein leader at a special ard fheis on February 10, after 35 years in charge, he will pass the republican torch to a new generation.

The future of the movement, inextricably linked with Adams, the IRA and armed struggle, will be left in the hands of two women - Mary Lou McDonald as party president and Michelle O'Neill as leader in Northern Ireland.

McDonald and O'Neill, two women of different backgrounds, have the opportunity to bring their party to new electoral heights and, possibly, play a role in government on both sides of the border.

Without a fully fledged opposition in the Dail as a result of Fianna Fail's confidence-and-supply arrangement, McDonald has the wind in her sails. Labour has also been slow to recover as Sinn Fein's main rival after it was forced to implement draconian cutbacks while in government.

Sinn Fein will be hoping for gains at the polls with a McDonald bounce, but there is also a risk that, without Adams, the party's icon, at the helm, Sinn Fein will lose its cohesion and sense of identity.

This week we saw the challenges still faced by the movement over links with its paramilitary past with the resignation of Barry McElduff as the party's West Tyrone MP.

McElduff quit as a result of controversy 10 days after he posted a video of himself in a shop with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head.

He was crass, or idiotic, enough to put the video out on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre, in which 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by the IRA. Whether it was intentional or accidental, he caused understandable outrage by appearing to mock the victims of one of the IRA's worst atrocities.

Perhaps you could put it down to inexperience, but neither O'Neill nor McDonald emerged with much credit from their handling of the episode, at least in its initial stages.

If they were in another political party, where members are more inclined to be outspoken, Sinn Fein TDs and senior figures would have reacted quickly to the stunt. But both McDonald and O'Neill joined other Sinn Fein figures in staying silent for days.

When O'Neill finally reacted with a public statement on the Monday afterwards, her tone seemed to lack conviction.

The initial penalty imposed on McElduff - three months' suspension on full pay - was also regarded as meaningless in a party that declines to take seats in Westminster.

Two days later, leader-in-waiting McDonald seemed even more woolly in her response as she described the lenient sanction as "appropriate and proportionate", but in the days that followed, public revulsion grew and McElduff eventually had to quit his job.

When O'Neill came forward on Monday of this week to make a statement about the resignation, her tone had changed markedly. There was a strong hint that McElduff had been pushed when she said: "Barry recognises that this controversy and his continuing role in public office is compounding the distress to the victims of Kingsmill."

As McDonald looks forward to becoming leader, the McElduff stunt was an example of the difficulties that face her. On the one hand, Sinn Fein wants to present itself as the leading progressive force in Irish politics, a party that advocates social justice, equality, feminism and financial probity. On the other hand, McDonald will have to pay due homage to the party's paramilitary heritage - nestling in the shadow of gunmen at commemorative events.

Ultimately, as the reminders of Kingsmill and other atrocities have shown, these two versions of Sinn Fein are often impossible to reconcile with each other.

How can a party purport to campaign for social justice when its heroes of the past selected targets for murder on a minibus by religion, allowing the one Catholic in the group to go free?

In fairness to the resigning MP, he seemed genuinely contrite as he quit. "Kingsmill was wrong, unjustifiable and sectarian," he said. "It should never have happened."

Among the first tasks of McDonald will be to tackle the sense of dissatisfaction among some in the party ranks, with accusations of bullying and lack of respect shown to certain members.

McDonald seemed to acknowledge some of these difficulties when she officially declared that she would be a candidate to be president of Sinn Fein before Christmas.

"Ensuring a respectful, friendly atmosphere in our party is very important,” she said. “Managing our transition from a smaller to a much larger party is challenging. Where relationships break down or rivalries take hold, where disciplinary issues emerge, it is important that we remember why we each joined Sinn Fein.”

Irish Senator Trevor O Clochartaigh quit the party in November over what he described as “unacceptable behaviour against me and a number of other members locally from a small number of ruthless, unscrupulous and ambitious individuals”.

O Clochartaigh said this week he got on well with McDonald on a personal level. “I would have worked closely with her,” he added. “She is a woman of great capabilities and with a lot of skills and warmth.

“She works well with groups, but she faces a formidable task, because the party needs a serious change in its culture.”

The senator said there needed to be greater professionalisation in the structures of the party, particularly around disciplinary issues. “The code of ethics in the party says you shouldn’t run down your party colleagues, but that was done on a systematic level with people close to me,” he claimed. “I feel those responsible should have been told it was unacceptable, at a minimum, or be suspended.”

When Adams hands over to McDonald, it will mark a sea-change in the movement. The powerbase of Sinn Fein may move back to Dublin after decades in Northern Ireland, and the imperatives of southern politics could take precedence as a result.

McDonald’s background is far removed from that of the northern, working-class leadership cadres that dominated the party in the latter half of the Troubles.

When the 29-year-old Trinity College graduate from Rathgar first spoke at an ard fheis 20 years ago, her leader was Bertie Ahern and her party was Fianna Fail. She later claimed Ahern’s party was not left-wing enough for her: “There was a discussion and I raised the idea of — I don’t think I even used the word ‘equality’, I think I used the word ‘equity’ — and there was a kind of a puzzled intake of breath.”

Within a few months of her ard fheis debut, the promising young treasurer of a Fianna Fail branch in Dublin West had defected to Sinn Fein and quickly became a rising star of the party. By that time, the Troubles were over.

It sometimes seemed that McDonald was being groomed to be leader almost from the start, appearing by the side of Adams at every opportunity in the early years of her political career.

Trevor O Clochartaigh sees both McDonald and O’Neill as capable leaders, but wonders whether they will have the strategic vision of Adams and Martin McGuinness.

“That is built up when you have 30 or 40 years’ experience in the job,” he said.

It also remains to be seen if Adams really departs the political scene or continues to exert influence behind the scenes. He was not a visible presence in the McElduff episode, but it is hard to imagine that he took a back seat during the unfolding crisis.

To the party leadership, O’Neill must have been seen as the ideal politician to take over at the helm of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and make the transition to a new generation.

The 41-year-old, from Clonoe in Co Tyrone, had no involvement in the IRA campaign during the Troubles and is seen as liberal and progressive in her outlook, but her family was steeped in paramilitary tradition. O’Neill’s late father, Brendan Doris, also known as Basil, was an IRA member who was interned in the 1970s. Her cousin, Tony Doris, was one of three IRA men shot dead in an SAS ambush in 1991.

The manner of her appointment a year ago certainly raised eyebrows and led to criticism that the party had not yet adopted conventional democratic structures.

She gave a vague explanation of the process in an RTE interview: “The party has internal ­processes and we went through the ard chomhairle and the officer board and Martin (McGuinness) and Gerry (Adams) spoke to me and asked me to take on the position.”

Eoin O’Malley, lecturer in politics at Dublin City University, says: “The way she was chosen was a bit like the Tory party of old. She just emerged and it was no grassroots choice.”

Although she was not a well-known figure south of the border when she emerged as leader, O’Neill had considerable experience as a minister in Stormont’s health and agriculture departments. Acquaintances described her as competent and “immensely personable”.

O’Neill has spoken about how becoming pregnant with her daughter, Saoirse, at the age of 16 made her a stronger person. She also has a grown-up son, Ryan.

“Being a young mum, well, it’s my life experience, it made me what I am. It makes you stronger, I think,” she told the Sunday World.

“I know what it’s like to be in difficult situations, I know what it’s like to struggle, I know what it’s like to go to school and have a baby at home and to be studying for your exams and all those things that go with it.”

Her ultimate test of leadership will come as she tries to rebuild bridges with Arlene Foster of the DUP and put the Humpty Dumpty of the power-sharing Executive back together again.

McDonald will also have a role in this as the leader of an all-Ireland party. While guiding Sinn Fein in the Dail towards power, she will have to keep an eye on the party’s strategic goal, as spelled out by Adams in a recent blog post about the new leadership. A united Ireland is still the ultimate target.

As the departing leader put it: “This is our primary political and strategic national objective and nothing will change that until we achieve that.”

Dedicated but with much still to prove

Mary Lou McDonald

Age: 48

Education: Notre Dame des Missions convent school, graduated in English from Trinity College Dublin.

Family: Christened Mary Louise and grew up in Rathgar. Met her husband, Martin, watching a World Cup match in a pub in 1990. Two children, Iseult and Gearoid.

Career path: Joined Sinn Fein after a brief stint in Fianna Fail. Elected to the European Parliament in 2004, but lost her seat in 2009. Appointed deputy leader in 2009. Elected to the Dail in 2011. She is the only candidate to take over from Gerry Adams as leader.

What she says: Filmed in a supermarket for TV3, “I’m just looking for Cheerios ... Cheerios and a united Ireland.”

Scion of staunchly republican family

Michelle O’Neill

Age: 41

Family: Daughter of ex-IRA member and Sinn Fein councillor Brendan ‘Basil’ Doris, who died in 2006. Grew up in Clonoe, Co Tyrone. Mother of two grown-up children, Saoirse and Ryan.

Education: St Patrick’s Girls Academy, Dungannon. Trained as an accounting technician.

Career path: Elected as a councillor in 2005. Elected as MLA in 2007, served as Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Health in the Executive. Appointed leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland last year.

What she says: “Obviously, I do have a family background steeped in republican history, and that’s something I’m very proud of — my family and who I am and where I come from. I very much don’t think that should define the future and who I am. That doesn’t make me closed-off to any one section of society.”

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