Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams walks offstage after delivering his closing speech at his party's annual conference in Dublin

Gerry Adams – the face of Irish nationalism – hands over at Sinn Fein

The following has not yet been verified. Please improve it by logging in and editing it. If you believe that is not sufficient to solve the problem, please discuss it with the community on the Talk Page. If you think that this article should be removed, please contact [email protected]
  1. Strong likelihood Sinn Féin will one day be in power
  2. Adams has always denied IRA membership
  3. New leader to be tested by resignations and 'cult' claims

Gerry Adams has been the face of Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party and political counterpart of the Irish Republican Army guerrilla movement, for decades. But as 2018 begins this man of “The Troubles” hands over to a middle-class college graduate from the suburbs of Dublin city, whose ascent has been through the political process rather than years of all-out conflict in Northern Ireland.

Adams and his colleague, the late Martin McGuinness, took Sinn Féin on its journey from “the Armalite to the ballot box,” to paraphrase another prominent member. McGuinness died, aged 66, in March 2017. Adams is 69, and will formally relinquish the presidency of the party next month. He leaves a party on the cusp of real power in Dublin, with significant political presence in London and Brussels as well.

Once the propaganda voice of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Féin has become a major player in mainstream politics in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. From being a fringe party, it is now significant in the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament in Dublin, with 23 out of 158 seats. It’s also the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly with 27 out of 90 members.

The party also has six senators in the Republic’s upper house, the Seanad; four members of the European Parliament; and seven MPs at Westminster. (Their policy is not to sit in the House of Commons because that would require an oath of loyalty to the British monarch.)

Armed struggle

Adams represents both the “armed struggle” and the bold move towards peace that began when he sat down with moderate republican leader John Hume to start talks in the early 1990s. Adams’ successor, it has been confirmed at Sinn Fein conference on January 21, will be Mary Lou McDonald, who has been Adams’ faithful lieutenant for the past decade, earning respect for her gritty management of the complex historical issues around Irish republicanism and the history of the party.

What they share, and is the core of the party’s platform, is a strong aspiration to a united Ireland – combining the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom. In a speech Adams gave on January 20, he stated: “A government in Dublin with Sinn Féin as part of it will place Irish unity at the top of its political agenda.”

He referred to “naysayers and begrudgers” in sections of the Irish media “who claim that a United Ireland is a pipe dream” (Irish Times report).

“It isn’t,” he said. “We can do it.”

Sinn Féin has indicated its willingness to enter a coalition government in the Republic as a minority partner with either of the two largest parties in the Dáil [Irish lower house], provided terms were approved by its members. For their part, leading parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both declared they will not sit at the cabinet table with Sinn Féin because of its historic connections to IRA extremism. However some speculate that this could change if the only alternative was a spell in opposition. It seems inevitable that, sooner or later, Sinn Féin will be in government in Dublin, especially now that a new generation, too young to be carrying “baggage” from the Northern Ireland troubles, is taking over.

Emotional farewell to Adams

Gerry Adams is one of the longest-serving party leaders in the world. He is one of few Irish political figures with an international profile, recognized from the US to Australia. In November 2017, amid an atmosphere of high emotion, described here by The Irish Times, he told the Sinn Féin ardfheis (pronounced “awrd-esh” – Irish for national conference) that he would be stepping down as party president and would not be running for the Dáil in the next general election.

Although Adams has always stoutly denied ever having been an IRA member, this is treated with widespread skepticism.

Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams (C) walks alongside the coffin of Martin McGuinness as it is carried through crowded streets during his funeral in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams (C) walks alongside the coffin of Martin McGuinness as it is carried through crowded streets during his funeral in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

He was first elected Sinn Féin president in November 1983, succeeding Ruairi Ó Brádaigh. Ó Brádaigh, who had been president of the party since 1970, was a traditional Irish republican who believed in physical force as the means of obtaining the goal of a United Ireland. This aim involves the abolition of the border between the six counties of Northern Ireland, which are currently part of the United Kingdom, and the 26 counties in the south which achieved self-rule under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and are now known as the Republic of Ireland.

At the time of the 1983 leadership transition, Sinn Féin was essentially the political advocate of the IRA, which had been waging an on-off guerrilla war to achieve its vision of Irish freedom since the second decade of the 20th century.

A native of Belfast, the Northern Irish capital, Adams represented a new generation of republicans. These emerged after the peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s was superseded by violent conflict. A protest campaign of marches and demonstrations to end the second-class status of the Catholic minority gave way to a bitter and at times horrific saga of bombings, shootings and assassinations which extended to towns and cities in Britain itself and even on occasion to continental Europe.

The Adams generation, despite its militancy, was more flexible and pragmatic in politics than Ó Brádaigh and his associates. A major turning-point took place in 1981 when Bobby Sands began a hunger-strike in the H-Blocks of the Maze Prison outside Belfast. Sands was protesting a ruling by the British government that all prisoners, whether they claimed to be politically-motivated or not, should wear prison uniform.

This was one of the most short-sighted and counterproductive decisions by any British government in the long and often-troubled relationship between the two islands. Sands began his fast on March 1, 1981. Four days later, Frank Maguire, an independent nationalist member of the British parliament for the Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died suddenly of a heart attack. Sands stood in the subsequent by-election on April 9 and won, defeating Harry West of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party by almost 1,500 votes.

Ballot box and Armalite

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher still refused to concede political status, holding to her view that “crime is crime is crime”. Sands died on May 5 aged 27 years; nine of his fellow-republicans perished in the same manner within three months, with an average age of 25. But the by-election victory had shown how political methods could be used alongside the “armed struggle”. A leading Sinn Féin member, Danny Morrison, encapsulated the new outlook when, invoking the name of a favorite IRA weapon, he asked delegates at the party’s ardfheis in October 1981: “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot-box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot-paper in one and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster on an abstentionist platform, Sinn Féin policy since the historic general election of 1918. That changed at the Sinn Féin annual conference in 1986, leading to a walk-out by Ó Brádaigh and his associates who set up their own, much smaller, party called Republican Sinn Féin.

It was one thing to drop abstentionism but quite another to actually get elected to the Dáil. Eleven years elapsed before Sinn Féin got its first TD (Irish equivalent of Member of Parliament) elected in 1997. At this stage, the IRA was on ceasefire and it was fairly clear that the ballot-paper had supplanted the Armalite (a brand of automatic rifle) at this stage. Ten years later, the party had four TDs and, at time of writing, there are 23, making it the third-largest party in the Dáil.

Meanwhile in the Northern Ireland Assembly, set up under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin has 27 out of a total 90 seats, just one less than the strongly “Loyalist” Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with 28. However, the power-sharing administration collapsed in January 2017, with Sinn Féin accusing the DUP of involvement in a scandal over state incentives for renewable heating. It has not met since.

Adams farewells Sinn Fein as his successors look on
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams delivers a speech at his party’s annual conference in Dublin, Ireland November 18, 2017. His successor Mary Lou McDonald is second from right behind him. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Three weeks after Adams announced his intention to step down, deputy president Mary Lou McDonald declared her candidacy. McDonald started her political career as a member of Fianna Fáil, and her middle-class background way attract a new category of voters to Sinn Fein. She is highly articulate and noted for her combative interventions in Dáil debates. The Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, ruled herself out, as did high-profile Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin spokesman on finance. Hence, without any opposition, McDonald was anointed and will take over in February.

‘Hostility and ostracisation’

Sometimes in Ireland it is hard to distinguish a genuine news story from anti-Sinn Féin propaganda. But there is compelling evidence that the party has significant internal problems. A comprehensive analysis by political correspondent, Hugh O’Connell, appeared in the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post, a publication which regularly publishes opinion-pieces by the party’s spokesman on housing, Eoin Ó Broin. Based on interviews with nearly 30 current and former party members, O’Connell reaches the conclusion that there is a culture in Sinn Féin “where, in some instances, dissent is met with hostility and ostracisation”.

The Irish Independent, a paper generally unfriendly to Sinn Fein, went further, with a comment in December 2017 that if new leader McDonald were to prosper “she has to deal with disciplinary issues and banish the traits of a ‘cult’ “. McDonald and others in the leadership deny there is a “culture of bullying” in Sinn Féin; a spate of resignations, they say, is due to the rapid growth of the party.

In policy terms, Sinn Féin would be generally categorized as center-left but it has shown an ability to shift positions in line with popular sentiment. Having taken a fairly skeptical stance over the years on Irish membership of the European Union, the party is now one of the most vociferous critics of Brexit, the forthcoming British exit from the EU.

Looking to the future, a rising star in the party, David Cullinane, set out in an interview Sinn Féin’s basic approach to participation in government in the southern part of Ireland: “Essentially we would rebuild our public services and orientate them more towards people’s rights and citizens’ rights, which is what should happen in a republic.”

Irish Times journalist Fiach Kelly said: “Other parties [in the Republic] will not allow [Adams’] successor away with the impression that a new generation has left the baggage of the northern troubles behind. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will still seek to tie McDonald to Adams’ past. Expect them to bring up her staunch defense of Adams on occasions such as when he was arrested and questioned for four days, before being released without charge, over the murder of Jean McConville, the Belfast mother of ten who was shot dead and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972.”

Gerry Adams will have a place in the history books for his role in leading the republican movement away from violence. The new generation will build on that. But there are huge challenges ahead, principally the need to persuade unionists that they would fare better, or at least no worse, in a united Ireland. It’s not going to be easy.

  • TODO tags

      Is there a problem with this article? [Join] today to let people know and help build the news.
      • Share
        Share

      Subscribe to our newsletter

      Be the first to collaborate on our developing articles

      WikiTribune Open menu Close Search Like Back Next Open menu Close menu Play video RSS Feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Reddit Follow us on Instagram Follow us on Youtube Connect with us on Linkedin Connect with us on Discord Email us