In retrospect, it was an obvious move. So obvious that none of the pundits even sniffed it. Sinn Féin allowed several days for them scratch their heads and wonder who might run in Arthur Morgan’s vacated seat, mmm, , maybe some young guy, mmm maybe a dark horse, mmm, you never know with these things. Well now they know. Gerry is running.
And the reason Gerry Adams will stand for election in Louth and give up his seat in Stormont and Westminster is that Sinn Féin are safe in the north. Martin McGuinness’s performance at ‘East Belfast Speaks Out’ last week confirmed that he is not just popular among republicans and nationalists but that a considerable number of unionists have a regard for him that is becoming less sneaking by the day. In part it’s got to do with McGuinness’s trenchant criticism of dissident republican activity; it’s also got to do with the confidence and firmness he projects. He may not be someone who has matters firmly by the throat but that’s how he comes across. A lot of unionists are reassured by that, especially when they glance from him to the grey figure of Peter Robinson. As for the SDLP, their leader Maggie Ritchie’s performance at their annual conference last week confirmed what most people would have thought impossible: she makes Mark Durkan look good. There is only one question mark hanging over the SDLP and that’s at what pace they are moving towards final asphyxiation. For the Shinners in the north, it’s mission accomplished.
The south is another matter. Sinn Féin’s last electoral outing wasn’t disastrous but it was nothing that called for street celebrations. Mary Lou MacDonald is struggling to create the firm electoral base she must have if she’s to become the foremost Sinn Féin figure in the south. With the economic crisis biting to the bone and the established parties clearly clueless about how to turn things around (who are the economic illiterates now?), Sinn Féin should be moving to fill massive electoral gaps –- but they’re not. Gerry Adams hopes his appearance at the polls in the south will act as a catalyst for a Shinner resurgence throughout the state.
Some say the Sinn Féin president is gambling for very high stakes, and so he is. If he doesn’t win Morgan’s seat at the next election it’ll be a body blow to Sinn Féin prospects in the south, already less than rosy. But all politicians gamble, each time they go to the polls. Gerry Adams gambles but always as carefully as possible. He takes chances – you haven’t forgotten he led republicans from war to the Good Friday Agreement, have you? – but the chances he takes are always as minimal as he can make them. So while Morgan gained only the fourth seat in Louth last time out, it’s still a Sinn Féin seat. Had Adams gone after a non-Sinn Féin seat or gone head-to-head with some senior figure in one of the other political parties, tried to break new ground for Sinn Féin, that would have been truly daring. Going for Morgan’s seat is a gamble but one he can expect to win. Which leaves us with the main question underlying the whole exercise: will his presence in the race provide the electrical surge that’s needed if republicanism in the south is to be revitalised and resume its onward march? Six months from now we should have the answer.