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These are the big tests facing Mary Lou as she fills Gerry's shoes

Today she becomes Sinn Féin leader, but what next?

IT’S BEEN A long time coming.

No matter what way you look at it, Gerry Adams’ 35-year leadership of Sinn Féin is rather unheard of for a normal political party.

But then Sinn Féin is not, or at least has not been, a ‘normal’ political party during that period.

Even supporters of the party would acknowledge that its singular goal for a united Ireland and links to the Provisional IRA mark it out as different.

For Sinn Féin people, that difference is part of the reason why they support the party. For detractors, that difference is why they say they never will.

But today’s election of Mary Lou McDonald is very much about two things: maintaining those in that former group while wooing those in the latter.

It is a difficult task and one which apparently not one other person in the party’s 13,000-strong  membership felt up to.

So, for McDonald to be a success for her party and her supporters, what are the biggest challenges she needs to address?

Getting out from under his long shadow

PastedImage-97292 Adams' shoes, which McDonald presumably has to fill. Source: Twitter/GerryAdamsSF

Even before McDonald takes over the reins of Sinn Féin today, the leadership transition has already been dogged by questions of whether the new leader will actually be the woman in charge.

Adams’ leadership was always about more than just the party but wider Irish republicanism too.

So while McDonald will hold the title of Sinn Féin leader after today, it will be up to her to show she can be that dominant voice.

That will require her to be as vocal as she has been since she was elected to the Dáil on the third attempt, but it will also require Adams to be less so.

That second part may be more difficult with Adams having various platforms beyond the one he is elected to. More than any other Irish politician he has not been shy in using them.

His controversial Twitter account has more followers than the Taoiseach and his personal blog is regularly used to discuss policy. He’s also likely to add to his back catalogue of books now he has more time on his hands..

And that’s only in public.

While Sinn Féin members may say that McDonald’s elevation from deputy to leader was unremarkable, the internal conversations that led to nobody standing against her leave a blank space that the public were not privy to.

That alone creates questions for voters about how decisions are made and who makes them.

Dealing with bullying claims and party casualties

File Photo SINN FÉIN HAS slapped two of its local representatives in north Dublin with disciplinary measures after a meeting of the party’s governing board. The meeting yesterday evening of the party’s Ard Chomhairle resulted in a six-month suspensio Councillor Noeleen Reilly recently resigned from the party. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Sinn Féin has been losing party representatives on an almost monthly basis of late and this week was dealing with the fallout from the latest, that of Ballymun-based councillor Noeleen Reilly.

In a familiar tale, Reilly said there was a campaign of bullying against her in the party. She herself had been suspended by the party two days before she quit.

Other resignations, such as that of councillors Seamus Morris and Sorcha O’Neill and Dáil deputy Sandra McLellan TD all had similar narratives.

The party leadership has denied that bullying is widespread within the party and McDonald has claimed it is just a matter of “a transition from a smaller party to a larger party”.

But these answers have become so familiar that they won’t carry much weight until people stop leaving the party.

Or at the very least those who are leaving can say they feel their concerns were dealt with adequately.

At present that can’t be said and it is becoming a problem for the party.

The first step in dealing with any problem is acknowledging it exists and doing just that would be a good start for McDonald’s leadership.

To govern or not to govern

Sinn Fein leadership Sinn Féin's leader and deputy leader side-by-side. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

Of all of its selling points to voters, Sinn Féin regularly trumpets the fact that it is an all-Ireland party.

This is true, but the party is not currently in government in either parts of the island.

Sinn Féin argues that the 13-month-old deadlock in Stormont is about securing the same rights afforded to people in the Republic and the UK, such as language rights and same-sex marriage.

But the reality remains that no deal has been made with the DUP and compromise has proved elusive. This is from a party that is as accustomed to difficult negotiations as any.

The failure leaves the party open to the allegation that it has no interest being in power and would rather shout from the sidelines.

Whether the allegation is fair or not, the party showed no appetite to enter government in the Republic when a similar vacuum existed here after the last election.

The hurlers-on-the-ditch charge will persist until Sinn Féin shows itself to be a party that can compromise to achieve some of its aims – while perhaps putting others on the long finger.

The challenge for McDonald is to craft a message for Dáil voters that shows they can do this while not losing their core support and anti-establishment edge.

It’s a difficult balancing act but if it were achieved it would be the first major victory for McDonald that her predecessors never quite managed.

Read: Vincent Browne returns to our screens with documentary on life of Gerry Adams >

Read: ‘Under pressure’ to attend meetings, Kelly says he borrowed bolt cutters from gym to remove clamp >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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