It's time for Gerry Adams to go | Mick Fealty

Resigning as president of Sinn Féin is the best way for Gerry Adams to encourage the renewal the party so badly needs

Somewhere Machiavelli advises his Prince that the best way to retain power is to make his power contestable. That runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom in politics, but Machiavelli had a long time to contemplate on his estate to contemplate where he'd gone wrong in his role of advisory to the Florentine head of state.

"Contestable" is not a term that anyone would use about the office of president of Sinn Féin; a post held by Gerry Adams since 1983. But times have changed considerable since Sinn Féin was a minor partner conjoined to the paramilitary priorities of what was then known as the Provisional IRA.

Although the party he leads has enjoyed extraordinary success in Northern Ireland, in rising from a small clandestine group of diehard Republicans to Northern Irish nationalism's party of choice it has clearly stalled in its own longer-term ambition to become a functioning part of government in the Republic. In the run-up to the last general election the party confidently predicted it would more than double its seats in the Dail. In the event it was lucky to hold on to four out of the five it had before the election. In the last set of elections in June, it lost its one MEP and three of its most senior and experienced councillors have walked.

This matters to a party which has promised to unify the island under its own revolutionary aegis; albeit by the ballot box rather than the gun.

According to a uncannily New Labour-like deal, the task of leadership was split between two men. Martin McGuinness was to take the junior role in consolidating the party's position in Northern Ireland, while Adams as party president would lead the charge in the Republic. With hindsight there is little doubt that Adams had the tougher job. The party in Northern Ireland has substantial assets, a clear focus and an identity. It has few of these advantages in the Republic. Adams' failure as the face and voice of the party's campaign in the Republic came within weeks of McGuinness's installation as deputy first minister. Since then, one has prospered whilst the other has virtually faded from public view.

The lack of forward momentum for party in the south is causing it to slowly falling apart. Writing in An Phoblacht, Toireasa Ferris, one of the rising stars of the southern party, noted wistfully:

"Remember the passion, the self-confidence, the enthusiasm there was in Sinn Féin at the time many of us joined? We need to get back that self-belief. We need to set a clear direction for the party in the 26 Counties so we know exactly what we are fighting for. We cannot continue to flounder.

"Many of our activists and councillors have shown immense dedication and self-sacrifice over the last few years for little reward. Their commitment cannot be taken for granted. The worst thing this party could do would be to circle the wagons and shy away from the debate we need to have."

Ferris's frustration is one shared by much of the younger talent within the party in the north as well as the south. In any other party it would be read as a problem with an ageing leadership unable to read the mood of the people and to deliver the kind of success to which it has become accustomed. In Sinn Féin, for so long a paramilitary-led organisation, that's easier to say than to accomplish.

Adams will be 61 this autumn, and rumours of his imminent retirement, along with those of his failing health, abound. He once entertained thoughts, encouraged by high poll ratings as party leader throughout the period of the peace process, of running for the presidency of Ireland in 2012. But those personal ambitions appear to be over now. Yet now might be a good time for Adams to call it a day, or at the very least announce he would like his post as president to become contestable. It could open the field to younger candidates perhaps more energetic and politically fluent with the southern polity, and signal the party's determination to follow a path of genuine restructuring and renewal.

It is far from clear who Adams's successor might be. His own preference is the party's former MEP, Mary Lou McDonald. She became party vice president just before losing her seat. If public office is now the marker of success for a party, it is unlikely that she'd be taken seriously in the south, and as a southerner would carry little weight with the northern dominated senior party ranks.

A new leader might have to countenance a parting of the ways between north and south, leaving those in the Republic a freer hand to develop their own political ecology. Someone such as the Donegal senator Pearse Doherty who, although still youthful also comes from the border county par excellence, might be a stronger bet.

What may be staying the party's hand is the turbulence it may bring. Adams is the last of all the major party leaders to remain in office and will be keenly aware that those parties which have already swapped leaders have experienced huge problems; in the case of Hume's SDLP and Trimble's UUP, disastrously so.

But Adams's once powerful presence is fading almost week by week. As Fionnuala O'Connor notes today in the Irish Times, he "takes off abroad again, like a latter-day John Hume, but without the one-time network of powerful friends".

Of course, with the once-charismatic Adams gone the office of party president would never be the same again. And in Northern Ireland at least, McGuinness would continue to call the big political shots. But this may be his last chance to do something both powerful and significant, before his political capital and physical strength fade away entirely.


Mick Fealty

The GuardianTramp

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