NEXT year marks the 25th anniversary of Sinn Féin's seminal ardfheis in Dublin's Mansion House when it voted to end its policy of abstention from the Dáil. Who in the party would have imagined then that, a quarter of a century later, the man who masterminded that fundamental shift in the republican movement's core values would be walking through the front gate of Leinster House as a TD?
Gerry Adams' decision to stand in Louth in the next general election is testament in equal measures to Sinn Féin's extraordinary rise to prominence in Northern politics and its very obvious failure to build on its initial gains in the Republic.
Adams remains the undisputed dominant force in the republican movement but, with Sinn Féin ensconced in government at Stormont and Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister, he is no longer indispensable in the north. He and the rest of the party leadership have taken a calculated gamble that he can now best serve in spreading the Sinn Féin gospel in the south.
The move solves a local problem for Sinn Féin in Louth. However, the party hopes that it will also fill a leadership vacuum that has long existed south of the border and lift Sinn Féin's fortunes across the entire 26 counties.
The local business first. With Arthur Morgan deciding to call time on his Dáil career, the Sinn Féin seat was looking vulnerable, even though the party performed strongly in the local elections, winning six seats – one more than Fianna Fáil – across the five wards in Louth County Council.
Tomas Sharkey, an articulate and hard-working councillor, had been earmarked as his replacement. But although he topped the poll in Dundalk South with over 2,200 votes in the local elections, his performance in the European elections – when he was outpolled by the second Sinn Féin candidate Kathleen Funchion – caused some anxiety in the party about whether he was ready to take over from Morgan. The option of running Adams, long-mooted at the very top of the organisation but until now never sanctioned, began to crystallise.
A number of strategists in the other political parties privately believe Sinn Féin has taken the easy option in running Adams in Louth, with one questioning "why not run him where you don't have a seat?"
There is logic in that view but it misses the point that losing its seat in Louth – one of the two constituencies where H-Block candidates took a seat in the general election of 1981 – would have been a disastrous setback for Sinn Féin. Adams' candidature should ensure that doesn't happen. Sinn Féin also seems to have learned the lesson of its disastrous decision to eschew the more obvious choice of running Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin Mid-West in the 2007 general election – where she surely would have won a seat – to instead try to take on Bertie Ahern in his own backyard.
"We can't take it for granted that he'll win the seat but he should. There is a very strong organisation and it's a much easier sell [for Sinn Féin] in the border counties than in Dublin," one source close to the party said. Rival parties agreed last week that Adams was "odds-on" to take the seat, albeit with the caveat that so was Mairead McGuinness in 2007. "Louth is different," one strategist said.
But, given the party base there and the fact that the local organisation seems to be onside with the decision, Adams should be comfortably elected. The national picture, however, is probably the main factor in Sinn Féin's decision. Seven or eight years ago, the party looked on the verge of a serious breakthrough in the south. There were widespread predictions then that it could realistically target a dozen seats. If it was known then how the economy would implode, the forecasts would have been significantly more bullish. Yet the party has remained becalmed, losing a seat in the last general election and watching enviously as Labour has virtually trebled its support base on the back of the economic woes.
Adams' presence as a candidate in the next general election is no panacea for Sinn Féin's problems in the south but at least it gives it a focal point nationally that it has so obviously lacked. Mary Lou McDonald was anointed to fill that role but her failure to get elected to the Dáil in 2007 and hold her European seat two years later meant that she could not do so.
Adams' presence and profile should help ensure that Sinn Féin isn't forgotten about in a campaign that is likely to be seen as a virtual procession towards a Fine Gael-Labour government with a massive majority.
However, Adams' involvement could also prove a double-edged sword. He no longer has the superstar status that he enjoyed in the south around the middle of the last decade, when he routinely had the highest leadership ratings of any party leader. His supreme skills as a negotiator are of little help in the cut and thrust of debate that is so routine in southern politics and with which Adams has struggled to cope.
He looked like a fish out of water in the 2007 general election when his weakness on economics and his lack of feel for life in the south were badly exposed – most notably in a televised debate with the leaders of the smaller parties a few nights before polling day.
Making a sacrifice
Listener response last week on local radio station LMFM suggested there would be a percentage of the electorate for whom a northern accent might not appeal. There is precious little Adams can do about that – although he will be leaving his beloved west Belfast to live in Dundalk, which at the age of 62 is a considerable sacrifice.
He can and will be brushing up on his knowledge of economics. Privately, Sinn Féin figures say that it's something that all its senior people have needed to do given the current crisis and the fact that the peace process is no longer all encompassing. They point to the recent Sinn Féin pre-budget document – a well- considered and thoughtful piece of work – and its building of relations with left-leaning economists as evidence of a new emphasis in this regard.
Whatever Gerry Adams is, he is no fool. He knows his weaknesses and it would be surprising if he wasn't working on addressing them between now and the election campaign.
The party's goals for the next general election will be relatively modest. Unlike in 2007, Sinn Féin knows that with everything pointing to a Fine Gael-Labour landslide, government or holding the balance of power is not an option this time around.
The aim must be to get to seven seats, which will give it technical status in the Dáil – and, with that, considerable speaking rights. That would require holding its four existing seats – including Dublin South-Central, where Aengus Ó Snodaigh scraped in last time, and Kerry North/Limerick West, where Martin Ferris or Fianna Fáil could be vulnerable in the face of the challenge from Labour's Arthur Spring.
And it would mean gains in both Donegal constituencies – which is very doable – and the trickier task of Sean Crowe regaining his seat in Dublin South-West, where Labour will be extremely strong.
The seven-seat target may be modest in comparison to a few years back, but it is far from a given. There is a niggling feeling that the chance to build on the peace process and initial electoral gains in the south has been lost, if not forever, then for a very long time.
Against that, the party seems to have learned from its mistakes and has adopted a back-to-basics approach of appealing to its working-class and lower middle-class target audience, rather than trying to make it accessible to middle-class voters, who were unlikely to vote for Sinn Féin anyway. "There is a better understanding [now] of who we are," one party source said.
Ultimately, much will depend on how Adams performs. By taking the party president out of his comfort zone in the north and putting him centre stage in the south, Sinn Féin has taken something of a gamble. But, given its static poll performances in recent years, it was a gamble it simply had to take.