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30 November 2015

Sinn Fein's politics are as outdated as the party's leaders

In a column in this newspaper eight months ago, I wrote about the determination of the old men to cling on at the helm of Sinn Fein. Since then, Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, has reached 65 and qualified for the British pension, which Gerry Adams, party leader, has now been drawing for two years.

At 66, Alastair McDonnell tried to stay on, too, but was defeated in the SDLP leadership election by 32-year-old Colum Eastwood. Also 66, Peter Robinson is to be replaced as DUP First Minister, almost certainly by 45-year-old Arlene Foster.

In the Republic, 64-year-old Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny knows that, even if he wins the spring election and returns as Taoiseach, he will not be allowed to hang on for long.

Labour's 66-year-old Joan Burton will be similarly under pressure post-election. As will 55-year-old Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail, unless he has a staggering victory.

It's different in Sinn Fein, where last March Adams was, for the 32nd time, elected president unopposed. And McGuinness, who is technically his subordinate, has made it utterly clear that he intends to keep his job if re-elected to Stormont.

In a recent interview on RTE's The Week in Politics, Mary Lou McDonald, Adams' 46-year-old deputy, was asked by Aine Lawlor if Adams and McGuinness weren't looking like "the grandfathers on the block". Wasn't it time, she was asked, that Sinn Fein elected a newer, younger leader in Northern Ireland?

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP is 58, David Ford of the Alliance Party is 64 and Jim Allister of the TUV is 62.

So, once Mr Robinson goes, Mr McGuinness will be older than the leaders of every party in Northern Ireland - except his own.

No, said Ms McDonald. "I think they're very youthful and vigorous grandfather figures."

Among the cruel posts responding to this was: "Of course, Gerry is youthful. He still plays with his teddy bear."

I'm not alone in wondering if Mr Adams is indeed entering his second childhood. A few days ago, he confided to his 92,000 Twitter followers: "In bed. Nothing on but my onesey, 2 blankets, 1 duvet, bed socks & my favourite quilt. Cosy. Xoxozzzzzzz."

Talk about Too Much Information.

Still, he wants to be Taoiseach, and Mr McGuinness to be Irish president.

So, not only are they not intending to resign soon: they're hoping to stay on for years.

And fear is on their side. As another post said: "Truth is, the Shinners are afraid to get rid of Gerry. All hell will break out between the nordies and the southerners. Bloodbath."

It is certainly true that Mary Lou McDonald will not cut the mustard with the hardmen of South Armagh. And ex-convict and MLA Conor Murphy of south Armagh will not play well in the Dublin suburbs.

Yet, the age of the Sinn Fein leadership can only become more embarrassing. Look across the Irish Sea and the age-gaps are even more striking.

Prime Minister David Cameron is 49, Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats 45, Nigel Farage of Ukip 51, Nicola Sturgeon, SNP Scottish First Minister, 45, and Carwyn Jones, Labour Welsh First Minister, 48.

Oh, but let's not forget Jeremy Corbyn, who is 66. Sinn Fein were delighted when their old mate was elected leader of the Labour Party. They were ecstatic when their even closer friend, John McDonnell, became Shadow Chancellor.

Yet, despite the deluded young followers too ignorant to know that Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell are spouting the politics of the 1970s, so far their sudden rise to power has been an unmitigated disaster for their party.

They would love to be able to emulate Sinn Fein by running it along the Leninist lines of parties from the former Soviet bloc, which insisted on "democratic centralism". This had nothing to do with democracy: in practice, it meant individuals were subordinated to the party and criticism and dissent stamped on hard.

Not having the advantage of a paramilitary wing, the new Labour leaders will not be able to impose their will. And Sinn Fein members are less biddable than they used to be. These may be becoming no countries for old agitators.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards