Gerry Adams steps down as Sinn Fein leader
The 69-year-old has been a leading figure of the republican movement for more than three decades
Gerry Adams has stepped down as Sinn Fein president after 34 years leading the republican party. The move ushers in a generational shift in Northern Irish politics.
The 69-year-old announced his intention to stand down in November. He will be replaced by Mary-Lou McDonald, 48, who was elected unopposed as the party’s president. She will be the first leader with no direct involvement in the decades-long conflict that ravaged Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles.
Ms McDonald was sworn in in a ceremony in Dublin on Saturday, officially ending Mr Adams’ tenure. His retirement is the second big loss to the republican movement after the death in March last year of fellow republican leader Martin McGuinness in March last year.
The two men had dominated republican politics in the region for more than three decades.
Mr Adams played a pivotal role in the Good Friday peace agreement brokered in 1998 with the help of British prime minister Tony Blair. He is believed to have played an instrumental role in convincing the Irish Republican Army to disarm and end their decade-long battle with the British government.
He also encouraged Sinn Fein, the group’s political wing,, and party he led, to participate in politics and eventually join the executive. Unlike McGuinness, he has always denied membership of the IRA.
But in recent years, Mr Adams’ personal popularity has fluctuated on both sides of the border. Sinn Fein has shared power in Northern Ireland in spells since 2007. It is in negotiations to try to restore the devolved Belfast executive but it has never governed in the South, and has grown to establish itself as the third largest party.
While it trails the centre-right Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties by some distance in opinion polls, recent surveys suggest some voters would be more willing to vote for a party led by Ms McDonald than by Mr Adams.
Mr Adams was a British MP between 1983 and 1992, and from 1997 to 2011, although never took his seat at Westminster because of Sinn Fein’s policy of abstention in the British parliament.
In an interview with The Belfast Telegraph, he said: “Those who detest me will continue to detest me. Those people who admire me will continue to admire me.”
He also said he was dismayed it took so long to reach a ceasefire to the conflict in 1994. “I regret that it took so long,” he said. “That’s an awful long time and a lot of people were killed or injured and traumatised in between.”
The transition comes as Northern Ireland’s political landscape remains deadlocked.
The region has been without an executive and sitting assembly for more than a year since Sinn Fein withdrew from the power-sharing government, saying it was not being treated as an equal partner by the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party.
The two parties, representing mainly Roman Catholic proponents of uniting with the rest of Ireland and mostly Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have failed to meet a number of several deadlines to reach agreement since then.
Some have said that the current political deadlock in Stormont puts the entire peace process at risk.
“We have made some progress but there are still considerable obstacles. But, as I said to our unionist friends, this is the last chance agreement,” Mr Adams said on Friday, as he left Stormont for the last time.
He also said that the Good Friday Agreement was “in some difficulty”.
But sources were optimistic the crisis was nearing solution over sticking points that included same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Northern Ireland, although permitted in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the rights of Irish-language speakers. Local media reported that Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadakar and UK Prime Minister Theresa May were on standby to visit Stormont next week.
The British government, which is overseeing the talks with the Irish government, has taken steps towards ruling the region directly from London for the first time in a decade, setting its budget late last year.
Many in the province fear that direct rule would further destabilise the balance between Sinn Fein and the DUP who, until last year, had run the province since 2007.
In her first speech as president, Ms McDonald is expected to set out an ambitious agenda to modernise the party, getting it into government in the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, to bring about the goal of a united Ireland.
* Additional reporting by agencies
Updated: February 10, 2018 11:09 PM