If Gerry Adams had been at the Sinn Féin ard fheis in Dublin six weeks ago, he would have been given a hero’s welcome. Imagine the warm-up he would have received from his successor, Mary Lou McDonald. The foot soldiers in the nostalgic audience would have raised the roof.
erry wasn’t there. He wasn’t wanted. Even less wanted would have been an audience going wild about him on live television.
Gerry and his senior Sinn Féin gang still carry clout in Northern Ireland. They are a big negative in the parts of the Republic that Mary Lou wants to woo. They are bogeymen in many constituencies where Sinn Féin need to win votes to gain power. They are utterly irrelevant to the young voters in the Republic who are expecting Sinn Féin to deliver houses.
The name of the game at the ard fheis was to keep southern voters happy. Gerry scares them. Gerry won’t deliver houses. Housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin, the man who challenged Gerry last week, is seen by young southern voters as the man who will.
Eoin was one of the anointed ones at the ard fheis, one of the 12 Sinn Féin apostles carefully selected to sit on the platform for Mary Lou’s speech, aired on live prime time TV. Gerry was probably watching from across the Border.
He will have noticed who was on the platform. It was full of guys like Eoin.
Where was Gerry’s pal Gerry Kelly, the man from Sinn Féin’s military wing, who had only hours earlier delivered the doubting Shinners’ votes to the Sinn Féin hierarchy intent on supporting the hated Special Criminal Court? There was no room for him.
No room either for the deposed former bomber Martina Anderson or her controversial niece, Elisha McCallion. Martina had recently been shafted and replaced as an MLA by a ‘lilywhite’, Ciara Ferguson. Ciara was on stage, catching the eye of the cameras.
If there was one defining difference in the platform party from earlier days, it was generational. There were no old men from the North in the cameras’ range. The platform was stuffed with the Ó Broin generation. Apart from Eoin (49), the group from the Republic consisted of Mary Lou (52), Louise O’Reilly (48), David Cullinane (47), Matt Carthy (44) and Pearse Doherty (44).
From Northern Ireland, in the limelight were Ciara Ferguson (50), Conor Murphy (58), Declan Kearney (56), Michelle O’Neill (44), Caoimhe Archibald (40) and Deirdre Hargey (whose age is a state secret, at her own insistence). No one was over 60. The average age of the southern Sinn Féin members on parade was 47.
Those are the faces Sinn Féin wants us to see. It was a triumph for the younger, well-educated, gender-balanced southern non-combatants. Ex-prisoners were limited to one from Northern Ireland, finance minister Conor Murphy. Safe enough, because very few people in Dublin’s middle- class suburbs would know him from Adam.
The younger generation’s prominence showed it is the demographic in the frontline for all public occasions. Ó Broin is the living symbol of its domination of Sinn Féin media events. His competence, the financial fluency of Pearse Doherty, the responsible opposition stances of Matt Carthy, David Cullinane and Louise O’Reilly, were on display. The choreography was superb.
Suddenly, last Tuesday, the oxygen of internal party triumph seems to have gone to Eoin Ó Broin’s head. He suggested that veteran Gerry Adams — officially retired but still a deity in republican eyes — should apologise for his part in an utterly insensitive Christmas video.
Ó Broin’s undoubted abilities and consequent popularity in certain sections of the electorate does not give him a licence to commit republican heresy. Just because Gerry’s gang was not on the platform at the ard fheis, it doesn’t mean they no longer count. It simply means Sinn Féin doesn’t want us to see them.
On Tuesday, Ó Broin was a man inebriated with the over-confidence to give his former leader a reprimand. He was sadly mistaken. The backlash was mighty. David Cullinane, Matt Carthy, Louise O’Reilly and other TDs piled in behind Adams. There was no question of him apologising.
The defence of Adams was coming from the younger southern TDs, not from the predictable MLAs or ex-prisoners from Northern Ireland. It was coming from those in the same mould as Ó Broin. The ranks closed like clockwork. Gerry was not for shafting.
Ó Broin was isolated. He may be in tune with the public, but he read the mood of the party wrong.
Finally, Mary Lou surfaced, giving her former patron the all-clear. Ó Broin was forced to back-pedal. He suddenly felt an apology from Adams was no longer necessary, as the Derry-based creator of the video had withdrawn it. The card with Adams in a Santy hat had been removed from the shelves.
Mary Lou was at her best. She didn’t appear on the RTÉ airwaves, but instead took the Press Association news agency route to insist the video sketch was for a very good cause, “the Foyle Rescue”. She went on to say: “And as regards Sinn Féin, people will have different views on this, you know? We don’t have a party position on it.”
Seasoned Sinn Féin watchers wondered if they were hallucinating. Had party discipline cracked? Sinn Féin was beginning to behave like a normal political party. They were fighting their internal battles in public. TDs were going on solo runs. They were allowed “different views”.
Sinn Féin was sounding less like a single voice and more like a coalition of conflicting interests — the old and the young, the north and the south, former IRA guerillas and the lilywhites. Individual TDs were apparently entitled to certain freedoms.
Is Sinn Féin already ruing the day it lost sincere pro-lifers like Peadar Tóibín and Carol Nolan by denying them freedom of conscience on the right-to-life issue?
In the offensive video, Adams sang the Republican slogan “Tiocfaidh ár lá” at a doorstep. Mary Lou made no reference to that when she said her piece. It would have been difficult for her. As recently as 2018, she herself had brought her first ard fheis speech as leader to a climax with the same words, “Tiocfaidh ár lá”, and “Up the rebels”. The foot soldiers gave her a standing ovation. At that time, she was trying to send them the same coded signal as Adams — that they were welcome under her new leadership.
Eoin Ó Broin had jumped the gun. It still seems a bit too early for that.