Un­char­tered ter­ri­tory as the re­al­ity of Adams step­ping down sinks in

Irish Examiner - - Opinion - Ger­ard Howlin

T“In pol­i­tics, time is the ul­ti­mate en­emy. Mov­ing ahead of it to the end is a rare achieve­ment

HIS Satur­day at 8.30pm the Sinn Féin ard fheis will go live on RTÉ from the RDS. Gerry Adams will share his in­ten­tions and time­line for step­ping down as party leader. He may or may not con­test the next elec­tion in Louth. It will be, as these things are, the be­gin­ning of the end of an era.

In the case of Adams and Sinn Féin, it is more ap­pro­pri­ate, how­ever, to speak of epoch. Some have said for a long time, that he is hold­ing Sinn Féin back. I dis­agree. The truth closer to the fact is that he may be hold­ing it to­gether. This is es­pe­cially so since the death of Martin McGuin­ness. There is no split in sight, but there are mul­ti­ple chal­lenges pulling in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. On Sun­day morn­ing Sinn Féin will awaken to the re­al­ity of a non-charis­matic move­ment, ad­just­ing to the de­par­ture of a charis­matic leader. It is un­charted ter­ri­tory.

I don’t think Adams is as much cling­ing on these last few years as he is trapped by rel­a­tive suc­cess, and a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem about suc­ces­sion. Longevity is one mea­sure of it. He en­joys longer ten­ure than any leader in na­tion­al­ist Ire­land since de Valera. In a sense, like de Valera, he is blighted by self­en­forced con­tin­u­ance as his own ef­fi­cacy wanes. Par­nell, Pearse, Collins and even McGuin­ness all lived briefly enough to en­joy the claim that they were taken be­fore their time. But in pol­i­tics, time is the ul­ti­mate en­emy. Mov­ing ahead of it to the end is a rare achieve­ment.

Is­sues of per­son­nel, pol­icy and sur­round­ing cul­ture will all chal­lenge Sinn Féin. This is­sue of per­son­nel is not the lack of a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor. There are sev­eral. It is whether any from the next, and by def­i­ni­tion non-charis­matic gen­er­a­tion, can hold to­gether a very com­plex or­gan­ism.

No po­lit­i­cal party ap­proaches Sinn Féin’s self-im­posed dis­ci­pline. This partly arises from its mil­i­taris­tic past. It is also one, which when ap­plied to a bur­geon­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion North and South, served well so far. You may never have taken part in the strug­gle, but you could im­i­tate the at­tributes of those who did. Ul­ti­mately, that won’t be sus­tain­able.

Last Sun­day, one party TD Peadar Tóibín crit­i­cised what he con­sid­ers is the pro-choice bias of the Oireach­tas com­mit­tee ex­am­in­ing abor­tion. He was promptly rounded on by his own. I took his dis­sen­sion as a re­deem­ing fea­ture, sig­nalling some plu­ral­ity in what pub­licly is a very mono­tone party. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how Tóibín fares this week­end. It is not that the party lacks de­bate. It is that there are a se­ries of in­ter­nal spa­ces, one usu­ally firmly en­closed within the other, where it takes place. Elec­tion to par­lia­men­tary of­fice does not equate to equiv­a­lent sta­tus therein. Re­mem­ber, in the his­tory of the of­fi­cial IRA, ul­ti­mately that was the fi­nal break­ing point be­tween its po­lit­i­cal wing, the Work­ers Party and those of its elected TDs who sub­se­quently be­came Demo­cratic Left. In a sense what was Sinn Féin be­fore Adams, could never sur­vive the apos­tasy of tak­ing seats in par­ti­tion­ist par­lia­ments.

With elec­tion comes the ca­reerism and ego­tism of par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics. Party man­age­ment across two ju­ris­dic­tions, while at­tempt­ing gen­er­a­tional change and deal­ing with cul­tural change, will be daunt­ing for Adams’s suc­ces­sor.

The chal­lenge of mov­ing on Sinn Féin suc­cess­fully and in­tact goes be­yond per­son­nel. There is the deeper is­sue of what Sinn Féin is. The party Adams joined, and ini­tially led, was small. It was as much a cul­ture of armed force repub­li­can­ism passed clan­des­tinely through small groups of peo­ple, as any sort of a po­lit­i­cal party.

That pre-ex­ist­ing cul­ture prior to 1969-70 was re­in­forced by the con­flict which fol­lowed. There is a layer of peo­ple near Adams’s own age at the cen­tre of Sinn Féin now. Few are house­hold names. All like him, must of ne­ces­sity fade away. The claim made for those in their 40s now is that they were there at the end of the con­flict. They have over­lapped for a much longer time since, with those who are truly repub­li­can.

The em­pha­sis in Sinn Féin on com­mem­o­ra­tion is for a pur­pose. It is about pro­long­ing au­then­tic­ity and pass­ing it on. But time marches on even more in­sis­tently. It, and par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­ern­ment brings the ef­fect of neu­tral­i­sa­tion. Para­dox­i­cally their po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, help to keep the Sinn Féin flame alive in­ter­nally, with reg­u­lar top­ups of rhetor­i­cal kerosene.

Over what time­line, and in what man­ner, Gerry Adams goes is to be re­vealed. What he will leave in­tact be­sides a re­mark­able record of sur­vival, adap­ta­tion and retelling of his own story, is a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion. Is Sinn Féin na­tion­al­ist, repub­li­can or rad­i­cal left. It would say all three. Those who are on its left say it is es­sen­tially a na­tion­al­ist party with left poli­cies.

The point is that it will com­pro­mise as needs be to fur­ther its na­tion­al­ist agenda, which it will in­ter­pret as coter­mi­nous with its own po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est. This is es­sen­tially its re­cent his­tory. Its iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Syriza in Greece is a case in point. Syriza a Marx­ist party, in the gov­ern­ment of an EU mem­ber state, sim­ply couldn’t walk the walk, and buck­led.

Lat­terly, Sinn Féin has em­braced Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism, and this will be pa­raded promi­nently next week­end. But the mean­ing of na­tion­al­ism has changed ut­terly. It is the pre­rog­a­tive of Farage and Trump. An ef­fec­tive mod­ern pol­i­tics can no longer be based on land, lan­guage, na­tion and re­li­gion. Nowhere is that more ev­i­dent than in Cat­alo­nia. Sinn Féin has it­self es­chewed re­li­gion. Lan­guage has never re­cov­ered as an Ir­ish sig­ni­fier. Purely ter­ri­to­rial na­tion­al­ism may have made sense — lit­er­ally on the ground — in North­ern Ire­land. But it is sense­less else­where. The Ir­ish story, over the same time­line as the peace process, changed from one of emi­gra­tion to im­mi­gra­tion. Sinn Féin, to its credit, played a role in­hibit­ing any rise in xeno­pho­bia. But the re­mains of a 19th-cen­tury na­tion­al­ism will not re­play suc­cess­fully in the 21st cen­tury. Lo­cal­ism, not na­tion­al­ism, is the an­ti­dote to glob­al­ism.

Lead­ing on af­ter a charis­matic leader is an en­deav­our sel­dom marked by suc­cess. There are too many com­par­isons. Habits of loy­alty to older, vet­eran lead­ers, don’t trans­fer eas­ily to con­tem­po­raries. This is not sim­ply a chang­ing of the guard. It is a change of an en­tire order and cul­ture.

A new leader will be caught be­tween the past and the present. They will have to nav­i­gate in­her­ited pol­i­tics of protest, in a re­cov­er­ing econ­omy. Ir­ish eco­nomic re­cov­er­ies, of course, can dis­ap­pear. But if it doesn’t the mes­sage must adapt. If it adapts, is it sim­ply neu­tralised? What Gerry Adams gave Sinn Féin is in­deli­ble iden­tity. For many — and to be frank I in­clude my­self — that iden­tity was largely neg­a­tive. It’s pro­ject­ing force, re­pelling.

But with­out him, and af­ter the death of Martin McGuin­ness, what will dis­tin­guish Sinn Féin 10 or even five years from now?

Pic­ture: Mark Mar­low/PA Wire

Gerry Adams: Rather than cling­ing on, he is trapped by rel­a­tive suc­cess and a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem about suc­ces­sion.

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