Belfast Telegraph

Stalin's shadow is looming large as Sinn Fein now faces a future without Adams

The SF president is the longest-serving party leader in the West, but how will it ultimately survive after he stands down, asks Shane Coleman

The film The Death of Stalin is currently winning rave reviews for its blackly comedic take on the chaos and power struggles in the Soviet Politburo after the demise of the man who ruthlessly ruled the party for three decades.

It seems somehow appropriate that it's showing in cinemas on the same weekend as the Sinn Fein ard fheis, where it's predicted Gerry Adams will finally set a timeline for his departure as party president.

When he does finally go, how will Sinn Fein cope without the man who has been not just a party leader, but a father figure to republicans since the early-1980s (longer than Stalin led the Communist Party and the Soviet Union)?

Just to be clear, there's no suggested comparison between the lives of Adams and Stalin. That would be ridiculous.

Adams, understandably given the history of the Troubles, has his fierce critics and divides opinion, but he ultimately delivered the ceasefire and peace. Stalin, in contrast, was one of the greatest monsters of the 20th century. Any parallels are only in the way the two men came to personify the extraordinarily centralised parties which they controlled.

Stalin's passing prompted a wave of mass hysteria that went even beyond the millions of party members. Even those with reason to despise him for what he had done to their families were afraid for the future.

There won't, of course, be quite the same paroxysms of grief when Adams steps down as Sinn Fein leader. But there must be question marks about how his party will cope.

Last Monday marked Adams' 35th anniversary as Sinn Fein president. Back in 1983, Sinn Fein was largely a political flag of convenience for a ruthless IRA war machine - a 10% party in Northern Ireland and a non-entity in the Republic.

Today, whether or not the IRA "army council" still formally exists, the war is most definitely over; Sinn Fein is neck-and-neck with the DUP in Northern Ireland and the third-biggest party in the Republic. It was Adams, along with the late Martin McGuinness, who guided the movement along that journey. That they did so while, in the main, avoiding a serious split was an extraordinary feat that took infinite amounts of patience and shrewd manoeuvering on their part.

It may not be comprehensible to non-republicans, but, because of all this, trust in Adams is absolute. A dependency has been created that perhaps will be fully understood only after he has gone.

And yet go he must, at some point in the not-too-distant future. Adams has spent the best part of 50 years fighting the war and then building the peace. That takes some toll.

He may have wanted to go a couple of years ago, but was prevailed on to stay by the Belfast cadres who still retain such an influence in the party.

But, given he has never served in ministerial office, Adams may also be tempted by the potential to finally be part of a government - with the next general election in the Republic a final opportunity to achieve that.

But has Sinn Fein's best chance gone? As a radical, non-establishment party, should it not have made far greater gains in the Republic given the extent of the economic meltdown - perhaps even become the biggest party?

Instead, the disaffected vote spread all over the place, particularly to independents.

And, as the anger over the crash has receded and the economy started to roar again, voters have moved back to the "Big Two" parties.

The most recent opinion poll had two out of three voters plumping for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail - unthinkable just a short while ago - with Sinn Fein down at just 14%.

How much of that failure to deliver on the obvious opportunity from the crisis was down to Adams - the public perception of him and a view that, under his leadership, Sinn Fein still wasn't a conventional political party?

If Mary Lou McDonald had been at the helm in 2016 - when voters had yet to feel the recovery and seemed to be (yet again) searching for something new - would Sinn Fein, and not Fianna Fail, have been the story of the election?

We'll never know.

What happens next is now more relevant. Adams' designated successor (as with the Bolsheviks, these things are decided behind closed doors) seems to be McDonald. She is a seriously impressive politician, but she will face challenges that didn't exist for Adams.

There won't be a split post-Gerry, but there may be some fragmentation, familiar to more conventional political parties.

There are tentative signs - in the public differences between TDs on abortion - of a dilution in the army-like discipline. Will the new leader call the shots in Northern Ireland? Will the Belfast diehards try to retain their iron-like grip on party tactics and direction, or can they be finally eased out of the picture, as surely needs to happen?

Sinn Fein is very different, north and south. Without Adams, with his foot on both sides of the border, it's hard not to see tensions emerging between the two wings.

And once the sense of continuity is broken, it's hard to get it back. After 27 years of one manager, Manchester United have had three since Alex Ferguson left in 2013. Stalin's successor Khrushchev was challenged and overthrown in a way that would never have happened during the old regime.

Unlike with Stalin, it's not that nobody in Sinn Fein would dare to challenge Adams, it's more that it would be unthinkable to do so. The party has come through so much and is so centrally controlled that Adams effectively is Sinn Fein.

That won't be the case for Mary Lou McDonald.

And how will her more centrist approach dovetail with the radical, Left-wing intellectualism that rising star Eoin O Broin brings to the table? Welcome to "normal" politics, folks.

None of this is to suggest the future is bleak for Sinn Fein - far from it. The hopes of usurping Fianna Fail look gone, but Labour's old niche as the "half" party is definitely up for grabs.

And that will mean a place in government at some point.

It's just there's a bit to go before that happens - starting this weekend.

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