Another week, another Troubles related maelstrom for Sinn Féin to deal with. Austin Stack, the son of Brian Stack, a prison officer in Portlaoise prison, who was murdered by the IRA in 1983, is alleging that Gerry Adams is failing to cooperate fully with the Garda investigation in relation to his father’s murder. In 2013, a meeting was arranged by Adams between Austin Stack, his brother Oliver and a senior IRA commander who supposedly knows Brian Stack’s killer. Stack wants Adams to go to the Gardaí with information regarding the IRA commander. Adams claims he's told the Gardaí all he knows and that he and Stack entered into a confidentiality agreement when he agreed to help Stack discover his father's murderer and find closure. The controversy took a dramatic turn when Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell in the Dáil claimed Martin Ferris and Dessie Ellis, two Sinn Féin TDs, had knowledge relevant to the case and that they were two of four people named by Adams in an email he sent to Garda commissioner Noirin O Sullivan back in February. Adams claims these names were provided by Stack while Stack denies this. The whole thing has quickly descended into a 'he said, he said' farce, culminating in Stack directly confronting Adams at a Sinn Féin media event last week.
Sinn Féin might protest that these scandals are manipulated by the other parties to score political points against Sinn Féin and that certain journalists and newspapers would use any excuse to throw dirt at Gerry Adams. And they’d be correct. But that doesn’t mean there’s never any substance to the stories nor does it change to damage it does to their image. The fact remains that as long as he’s there, as long as he’s the president of Sinn Féin hostile elements within the press and in other political parties are always going to take advantage of similar situations.
The problem Sinn Féin have is that they’re not a normal political party. That’s not meant to be an insult, it’s just a fact. Less than two decades ago they were the political wing of a paramilitary organisation waging war against the United Kingdom. While their transition to constitutional politics has been remarkable – and something which Adams and Martin McGuinness both deserve great credit for – the Troubles and its discontents still have a sizeable impact on how the party is governed and how it operates. A good example of this in action was the Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy case at the beginning of the year. Slab was a senior IRA commander in South Armagh during the Troubles. In December last year, he was convicted of tax evasion. Gerry Adams refused to condemn Slab and infamously referred to him as a “good republican” when pressed by the media for a comment. The press harangued Adams for weeks over his tepid response to a former IRA commander being convicted of a very serious offence and this flew into overdrive as the general election campaign began in February, just as Slab was due to be sentenced. Still, Adams was unmoved. The issue wouldn’t go away and it dominated the headlines as elements within the media ratcheted up their anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric. The reason Adams couldn’t condemn Slab, of course, was because Slab was instrumental in bringing the South Armagh brigade of the IRA to a ceasefire and convincing them to sign up for the Good Friday Agreement. He remains a respected figure in republican circles in the North today. Adams knows he cannot turn his back on those people as they still wield quite a lot of power and influence in Sinn Féin.
After the election ended and Sinn Féin didn’t do quite as well as was anticipated, many of their supporters pointed to the vindictive coverage they were subjected to by the media, particularly the Irish Independent which railed against Sinn Féin with a series of hostile and exaggeratory front pages. They do have a point. The Irish Independent’s behaviour throughout the campaign was shameful and a taster of the incendiary political reporting British tabloids dabble in. But it seemed to work. Sinn Féin did not do as well as they perhaps should have and the front page headlines and damning editorials certainly played a part. Government ministers were able to echo the commentary in the press to attack Sinn Féin and the party’s candidates found it incredibly difficult to worm itself out of questions about the party’s past. Gerry Adams’ “legacy issues” were brought up by Joan Burton, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin at the leaders' debates and he was challenged on them in radio and television interviews. While Sinn Féin wanted to focus on their vision of a “fairer republic” they kept being pegged back to the past. Sinn Féin and their supporters can complain about this all they want but this isn’t going to change; the hostile media aren’t going to disappear tomorrow morning and as long as Adams remains there will always be a Maria Cahill or an Austin Stack.
The party is very much at a crossroads and it’s difficult to know how they’re going to navigate it. They’ve made great strides in the last decade – both in terms of candidates elected to the Dáil and members recruited – and there is potential for them to continue to grow as Ireland’s largest left wing party. But they seem to have plateaued and the popular theory suggests that Adams might be the reason for it. Many posit that a sizeable chunk of the electorate – particularly those over the age of 40 who lived through the worst years of the Troubles- will never vote for Sinn Féin as long as Adams is their leader as he is indelibly associated with one of the darkest chapters in recent Irish history. Whether they’re right or wrong to think that doesn’t really matter to Sinn Féin but it does matter if it continues to hurt them electorally.
The legacy linked crises Adams and the party continuously have to navigate also impacts upon the younger politicians, such as Mary Loy McDonald and Pearse Doherty, as they’re forced to row behind their leader and toe the party line. While it’s understandable that they do this, it does seem to undermine their credibility in the eyes of the public. Adams remains popular with the Sinn Féin base and the constant barrage of media criticism has fostered a sort of siege mentality among Sinn Féin supporters but they’re not the people who Sinn Féin need to convince to vote for them.
Adams stepping down – and if he is to leave it will be by stepping down rather than being pushed – would not be an easy transition and how the party deals with his legacy will be challenging. The republican aspect of their identity is still naturally strong but it is their left wing platforms and policies – rather than any rhetoric about reunification or border polls – that has helped bolster their expansion in the last decade. That expansion could be further bolstered with either McDonald or Doherty at the helm. As a duo, they complement each other very well; McDonald is the firebrand politician with a gift for oration while Doherty is the policy wonk who revels in catching out other parties on their facts and figures. They’re both very popular with the public and, crucially, they have no Troubles related baggage that hostile elements within the media can throw at them. They’ll still try, of course, but the shit won’t stick nearly as much as it does with Adams. While they may still be compelled to be deferential towards unsavoury figures from The Troubles - as Adams was with Slab Murphy - they would help ease Sinn Féin's transition to a more conventional political party, which seems to be what the party wants.
It’s said that the party is undertaking a ten year strategy in order to properly prepare itself to enter government in the South over the next decade. A leadership transition, with Adams and Martin McGuinness both stepping aside, is a part of that strategy. No timeframe is being provided, however. It’s in the party’s best interests that Adams steps aside sooner rather than later. His legacy and his achievements as well as his shortcomings will be scrutinised by commentators and historians for decades to come but if the party wants to be pragmatic about its future it requires a new lease of life at the top. While it can never totally abandon or shed itself of its past, it has to look to a future where it does not feature as prominently in its commentary and coverage. Adams can remain as an elder statesman, appearing during election campaigns and ard fheiseanna to rally the troops, but a new generation need to start doing the heavy lifting. In short, Sinn Féin need to start focusing on formulating a viable left wing alternative to the policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and winning elections, rather than arguments.