If there was a touch of a Soviet-era change of ruler in Mary Lou McDonald’s ascension to the leadership of Sinn Fein, this weekend – at a meeting of the SF ard-comhairle held, intriguingly, in the Balmoral Hotel in West Belfast – then it is hardly surprising.
There was ever only one candidate to succeed Gerry Adams and the process by which Mary Lou was chosen is every bit as opaque and lacking in open debate as was the transition from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko, a series of successions decided by anonymous Kremlin committees behind firmly closed doors.
In the case of who would be chosen to succeed Gerry Adams, the overwhelming belief is that the decision was Adams’ alone to make and for the rest of the party to endorse. If a committee was involved, it was indubitably not a Sinn Fein one.
This raises two questions which will haunt Mary Lou, at least until she settles them to the satisfaction of everyone, not just the cynics and sceptics.
One is whether Gerry Adams will continue to exercise influence behind the throne. As of now, we have no idea what his role is likely to be in Mary Lou’s SF. Will he retire to the hills of Donegal, take up a teaching post in a women’s college somewhere in New England or, as the smart money has it, plot his bid to succeed Michael D. in the Park?
If it is the latter, then he will run as the Sinn Fein candidate and people can hardly be blamed for viewing him as the real leader of that party, and Mary Lou as a bit of a place holder.
The other closely related question is what influence the IRA will continue to exert over Sinn Fein under a Mary Lou chieftancy?
First of all, be under no illusion. The IRA has really not gone away, you know! And it probably never will.
It exists not in the numbers and strength it once had to be sure, but in skeleton form, with an intelligence department, an armed unit to protect the leadership from dissidents and other enemies, and a leadership which decides policy.
More importantly it keeps control over the IRA’s considerable portfolio of properties and businesses, from holiday homes in Portugal to security firms in Dublin. It is this hoard of valuable assets, in Ireland and abroad, which gives the IRA its real raison d’etre. That, and its unique possession of the united Ireland dream.
The reason people are entitled to ask whether the IRA will intrude into a Mary Lou SF leadership is that there has never been any public repudiation of an IRA edict, uncovered at the time of the 1977 arrest in Dublin of then Chief of Staff, Seamus Twomey, declaring that Sinn Fein had to come under IRA control ‘at every level’.
The order was part of the re-organisation of the republican movement spearheaded by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Ivor Bell and their then allies in the movement, part of which was intended to make the IRA, via Sinn Fein activity, more politically relevant and thus help it to sustain a so-called ‘long war’. It was a Gerry Adams-inspired plan for the Sinn Fein which he led and directed for the next 35 years.
It may be that rather than publicly announcing that it no longer applies that the edict has been allowed to quietly lapse. But we don’t know because not even the original command has been publicly acknowledged, even though anyone who has had dealings with the Provos knew it was the guiding principle.
If Mary Lou wishes to convince people that her leadership will genuinely usher in a new, IRA-free/freer Sinn Fein – a Sinn Fein that Fine Gael would be able to join with in government – then she must address this issue substantively and persuasively. The banishment of Barry McElduff was a start but Mr Varadkar et al will be looking for much more.
Otherwise, like her predecessor, the IRA will haunt her.
If she does what she must, then we will also see how the North adapts to le nouveau regime. Interesting times lie ahead.