Political parties frequently undergo changes in their leadership, but rarely do they completely reverse the face of their public image. With Martin McGuinness’s death and Gerry Adams’s resignation as leader of Sinn Fein in Ireland, the party is embarking on a dramatically fresh course in the midst of dangerous times.
The party’s new leaders, two young women in their 40s, will be met in the North by the aging followers of Ian Paisley, and in the South by competitors who only remember the violent years, not the times of successful peace initiatives. This will be a time of difficulty for them both as they move to solidify their positions in the minds of their constituents while also dealing with serious major issues facing the island.
The Good Friday peace plan, agreed to in 1998 by popular vote in both the North and South, is under attack; a return to complete British control of the North looms a real possibility, and Brexit offers a severe threat to all people, North and South.
Forty-seven-year of Mary Lou McDonald, representing her district in Dublin in the Irish parliament, was elected leader of Sinn Fein last month February. She is a graduate of Trinity College, she has two children, and many years of experience in Irish politics. But she has never had any involvement with the violent side of Sinn Fein/IRA.
Her deputy in the North, Michelle O’Neill, 41, and also a mother of two, is from Dungannon in Co. Tyrone. She was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 at the age of 30. She has been a minister of two portfolios and has been praised for her work with all factions in the North. Her father was involved with the IRA, but she has had no involvement, it is said.
They take over a party that has experienced surprising growth and strength over the last 25 years. Under Adams and McGuinness, the party has become a force in government in both the North and South. In the North, it has elected 27 of the 90 members of the governing assembly, and 19 of the 60 members of the Belfast city council. In the South, the people of the Republic have elected 23 Sinn Fein members in the 118-seat National Parliament.
Few had predicted such growth and popular appeal. Today, Sinn Fein is the only party that has achieved such a mandate throughout all of Ireland. It is the party these two young women will lead. It won’t be easy.
The Brexit problem is hard to quantify. The British and the Europeans are negotiating terms of the withdrawal, and, as in all important negotiations, the sides are regularly issuing self-serving press announcements. Essentially, the British want their complete sovereignty while maintaining the benefits they had when they were in the EU.
Ireland’s interest is in how the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be treated, and what is in the future for business dealings with Britain.
Nothing is yet set in stone. There have been several calls for a second vote, but there is little evidence that will happen. The British ego as master of the commonwealth’s fate still prevails. From an Irish standpoint, its leaders must be vigilant in protecting Ireland’s interests. Another very difficult problem is the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly; the government at Stormont has been closed now for more than 13 months, depriving the North of any voice in Brexit negotiations.
In mid-February, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varaker and British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Belfast to discuss the restoration of the Assembly. The talks failed and the Assembly remains closed. It may be that neither side (Sinn Fein and the DUP) want to resolve the issue. For its part, Sinn Fein wants the Irish language used on street signs, public buildings, and government papers as is done in the Republic. This seems to be a bridge too far for the Unionists.
The Unionists feel that because they have given their ten votes in Parliament to Theresa May to keep her party in office, they will be favored in any settlement. Sinn Fein may just be waiting for the next election after they came so close to taking power from the DUP last time.
In any case, the new leaders of Sinn Fein will have to do some heavy thinking if they are to be successful in the coming years.