A historic Sinn Fein Ard Fheis has paved the way for a smooth transition of power after two senior Sinn Fein members ruled themselves out of a potential party leadership contest.
It was a tumultuous night for Sinn Fein when Gerry Adams told the party’s Ard Fheis [party conference] that he would be stepping down as president after 34 years, and would not be running for parliament again.
After years of planning, a generational change in the party leadership went ahead, with Kerry TD and former IRA Commander Martin Ferris, who also announced his retirement, symbolically taking the role of Martin McGuinness, who passed away in March.
The transition away from the perceived ‘old guard’ is dramatic -- the current deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald (pictured, left) and expected successor to Mr Adams only joined the party in 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement.
Popular Pearse Doherty, the party’s finance spokesperson, confirmed that he would not be letting his name go forward. The Donegal TD cited personal reasons for the decision, telling the programme he had young children and needed to balance his time between being a father and his political life. Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in the North (pictured, right), said she had “enough to do” in her current role in the Six Counties.
It had been reported that a special conference would be held next year to select a new leader. However, with Ms McDonald likely to be unopposed, it is expected there may now be a simple announcement by the Sinn Fein officer board that she has taken over the helm.
Mr Adams, who will be 70 on his next birthday, confirmed that Martin McGuinness had also planned to stand aside this year before his sudden death in March.
“I have been enormously privileged to be part of an amazing and evolving collective leadership,” Mr Adams told over 2,000 delegates at the ard fheis,.
“Many comrades have given their entire lives to our struggle - they saw beyond the hardship of the moment and embraced hope,” he said.
“That resilience, like the peace process is opposed by those who uphold the status quo but despite them, we have prevailed.”
The Sinn Fein president said one of the party’s greatest achievements had been to build a peace process.
“We have also recast Sinn Fein into an effective, all-Ireland republican party, with clear policy and political objectives, and the means to achieve them through democratic and peaceful forms of struggle where none existed before,” he said.
“Republicanism has never been stronger.”
Mr Adams said Sinn Fein supported the extension of voting rights in presidential elections to the north and the diaspora, but more controversially, that the party backed the repeal of the eighth amendment of the constitution, which protects the rights of the unborn child.
“Women and their doctors need legal protections,” he said. “Women deserve and are entitled to be trusted and respected.”
Delegates voted to liberalise the party’s stance, voting to support access to abortions where there is a danger to the health of a woman, as is the case in Britain. Previously the party had supported abortion in limited cases, such as fatal foetal abnormality.
Veteran Tyrone republican Francie Molloy spoke passionately against the motion. He is the most senior figure in the north to speak out about the abortion issue, saying the adoption of the motion was akin to “abortion on demand”.
The Ard Fheis also rejected a motion calling for a ‘conscience vote’ on abortion, meaning party members are forced to support the new abortion stance. Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald told delegates that the party would not “cop out” by allowing individual TDs and senators a choice.
Ms McDonald said the free vote is “nothing to do with freedom of conscience and everything do to with political expediency”.
Meath West TD Peadar Toibin, who was previously suspended from the party for six months over his views on abortion, was among those who spoke in support of the conscience vote. He now faces potential expulsion from the party over his position.