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 formally relinquished the presidency of Sinn Féin on February 10, 2018. He leaves a party on the cusp of real power in Dublin, with a significant political presence in Belfast, 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 third-largest 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.)
Adams represents both the “armed struggle” and the bold moves towards peace that began when he sat down with moderate republican leader John Hume to start talks in the late 1980s. Adams’ successor is Mary Lou McDonald, who has been his faithful lieutenant for the past decade, earning respect as an articulate and combative parliamentary debater although critics would say her loyalty in defending Adams on issues related to his past record went too far.
What Adams and McDonald 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” .
“It isn’t,” he said. “We can do it.”(Irish Times)
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, provided terms are approved by its members. However, leading parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both declared they will not sit at the cabinet table with Sinn Féin. Some speculate that this could change if the only alternative is 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.
He was first elected Sinn Féin president in November 1983, succeeding Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, who had been president of the party since 1970. Ó Brádaigh was a traditional Irish republican who believed in physical force as the means of reaching 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 still 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 occurred in 1981 when IRA activist 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, must 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. The party also had the same approach towards the Irish parliament in Dublin and the latter policy was changed by a vote of delegates 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 out of a Dáil total of 158.
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 pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with 28. However, the power-sharing administration consisting of the two parties collapsed in January 2017, with Sinn Féin accusing the DUP of involvement in a scandal over state incentives for renewable heating. It has not functioned since.
Three weeks after Adams announced his intention to step down, deputy president Mary Lou McDonald declared her candidacy. McDonald had started her political career as a member of Fianna Fáil, and her middle-class social background may attract a new category of voters to Sinn Féin. The Sinn Féin 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 took over in February, with O’Neill as deputy president of the party.
‘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 and member of the Dáil for Waterford, 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 bulk of 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.
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