Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein ard fheis: Gerry Adams' eventual exit means tricky times ahead for republicans

By Suzanne Breen

Gerry Adams has hung around longer than every other political leader on the world stage bar Robert Mugabe and now it seems he'll outlast him too.

As the Zimbabwean President is under military house arrest in Harare, the Sinn Fein President opens his party's ard fheis in Dublin today 34 years after becoming leader.

Five British prime ministers, seven taoisigh, and five US presidents have come and gone on his watch. His has been a remarkable political career and he is being allowed to choose the terms of his leaving.

After first mentioning it last year, he will announce when he's stepping down on Saturday night just before the Sinn Fein ard fheis closes. This is a very long goodbye.

When Mr Adams does retire, he may be awarded some honorary party title. Even if he's not, it's difficult to believe he won't remain the key behind-the-scenes figure in Sinn Fein wielding influence regardless of who takes over.

Truly powerful leaders get to choose their successors and Mr Adams strongly supports Mary Lou McDonald who is the runaway 1/50 favourite with Paddy Power. But there are tricky times ahead for Sinn Fein, perhaps more in the medium- than short-term.

With Mr Adams goes a mountain of IRA baggage that should enhance Sinn Fein's electoral chances in the Republic.

But for a party in which the cult of personality has become so central, it's very challenging to lose two totemic leaders like Adams and Martin McGuinness in a relatively short space of time.

Under a leader with no IRA CV, the old style military discipline will begin to crumble within Sinn Fein.

The flurry of resignations and allegations of bullying in the Republic, show that internal tensions are there just as in every other party. While Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland has seen far fewer public divisions, this may change.

A party led by Mary Lou McDonald won't command the same loyalty from the republican base as one led by Adams or McGuinness.

That unwavering commitment that party activists show is for men who brought the movement through the war, the hunger strike, and all those dark, dreadful days - not for a woman from south Co Dublin who was filmed out shopping for prawns.

We are entering what are truly fascinating times for Sinn Fein.

Mr Adams has taken Sinn Fein from the political margins to become the wealthiest party in Northern Ireland.

If it reaches a deal with the DUP, it could be back in government at Stormont.

A role as junior partner in a Dublin administration could be on the cards after the next Dail election.

Of course, the Sinn Fein President has secured all this by bringing his party from its traditional republican position of 'a united Ireland or nothing' and taking it on the long slow journey to constitutional nationalism.

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