Account Manager Jack Gibson gives us his take on Sinn Féin’s 2017 Ard Fheis, which took place at the weekend.
This weekend, the Chambré team travelled to Dublin to observe the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.
We suspected it would be an historic event – and were proved correct. Gerry Adams announced on Sunday night that he would be stepping down as party President, and as TD for Louth.
In his speech, Adams called a special Ard Fheis to take place next year. This will permit a handover of power – though it also allows Sinn Féin some invaluable TV air-time and profile, ahead of a possible early General Election in Ireland in 2018/19.
It was thus a classic bit of Adams strategy – the sort we’ve grown used to over his 34 years in charge.
For much of Adams’ political career his statements and speeches were read by actors on Irish and UK television. But 1998 was a turning-point – since then he’s led Sinn Féin to government in Northern Ireland and major party status in Ireland.
His departure will be, in short, a hugely significant moment for politics across this island.
Elsewhere, the Ard Fheis went pretty much as expected.
Mary-Lou McDonald, widely expected to succeed Adams as Uachtarán Shinn Féin, gave another assured speech. Her ability to command these sorts of events must be part of the reason why Adams is happy to stand down (of course it will be for Sinn Féin members to vote on his successor at a special Ard Fheis next year).
“Leo [Varadkar, Irish Taoiseach] says I’m cranky”, she said. “Leo, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
And Michelle O’Neill delivered her take on the talks to ‘restart’ the NI Executive. She said “the people […] voted for a step change, and no return to the status quo.”
In other words, don’t expect an Executive any time soon…
The Ard Fheis is always an unusual conference for us, and our fellow neutrals.
Most other modern party conferences are really media events. They’re opportunities for the parties to raise their profile, and make their pitch to voters – and to engage with business and campaign groups.
Sinn Féin, however, is different. The prime focus of the Ard Fheis is the party – it’s a big gathering to agree policy.
This means it’s always a fascinating event for us policy wonks. And especially this year, as the press was predicting the party’s abortion debate could get quite heated.
As expected, there were some passionate contributions to the debate. However, in the end, party members voted for a modest relaxation of the law – supporting abortion where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in the cases [of] rape or sexual abuse”.
With Adams announcing his retirement, and heartfelt tributes to the late Martin McGuinness, there was a sense of generational change. But still the Ard Fheis had an air of calm about it.
Sinn Féin is demonstrating that leadership change need not be hard-fought. Rather, the party is likely to transition to a new leadership with little fuss.
Moving forward, our next stop is the DUP conference at the La Mon Hotel next weekend. With expected turnout buoyed by the DUP’s confidence and supply deal with the Tories, we’re expecting it to be just as lively as Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis!