GERARD HOWLIN: Adams successors likely scapegoats for his success in outpacing the past

THE fever of expectation that erupted on news of Gerry Adam’s arrest last Wednesday night among the southern political class will likely be disappointed for now.

I was at the opening of the Abbey’s Theatre’s Twelfth Night when news arrived at the interval. Senior civil servants were seen scanning their smart phones for breaking news. Word spread more efficiently among the audience, than even the innuendo in the script, delivered brilliantly on-stage. Adams was behind bars and the Shinners apparently cornered.

In apt words from Twelfth Night “journeys end in lovers meeting”. Meeting that news was for many, true love indeed. But the arousal of anticipation is unlikely to result in satisfaction on polling day, two weeks from next Friday.

Sinn Féin’s baring of teeth when cornered was ugly and insightful. Their conspiracy theories about the timing of Adams’ arrest are hypocrisy. None exploited the peace process, longer, better or with more mercenary political intent than them. For decades every twist and turn was used as a platform for political self-promotion, and it worked. Their repeated use of the word “malicious” on cue and in chorus after the arrest, and their impugning of the PSNI, which if followed through politically would have collapsed the power sharing government in Northern Ireland, was an uncharacteristic loss of political composure by a party usually meticulously prepared and rigorously disciplined.

They were unprepared, and momentarily relapsed into the atavistic formation of The Men Behind the Wire. Martydom is the best antidote to the accusation of murder. But of course in relation to Jean McConville the word used is never “murder” it is always “killing”. Even on the back foot, words used to better manage our memory, were instinctual for Sinn Féin.

What is ultimately at stake is the management of our memory and the utility and timing, as distinct from the justice, of righting past wrongs. The immediate management process is likely to be successful for Sinn Féin. A file has been sent to Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, months will elapse and in relation to the murder of the late Jean McConville it is unlikely a case against Gerry Adams can be mounted, let alone successfully prosecuted. A successful prosecution would require living testimony. For now only accounts from people deceased, on the Boston College tapes, apparently implicate him. And there is another point. Anyone with a genuine care for the late Mrs McConville should respect Adams’ presumption of innocence. Her murder was summary justice from a kangaroo court. A conviction for that crime, to deliver justice, must be proven in a court of law, and not founded in any court of public opinion.

Sinn Féin is now successfully engaged in a massive conversion of political currency. Its old currency, the peace process, while astutely invested, is largely spent. The conversion of that capital is creating a new currency, as the preferred party of protest. The coincidence of economic crisis and the electoral decline of Labour especially, is ensuring an astonishingly favourable conversion rate.

Harvesting events with strategic ability and some talented people Sinn Féin has created a new utility for itself. That utility will likely be availed of by the electorate in significant numbers on May 23.

But if as I think, success is set to continue for Sinn Féin, it also contains the seeds of a definitive reckoning. The great hurdle in the programme it is embarked on, post peace-process, is the ultimate transitioning on from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; from the past to the future. They are effectively a joint leadership, the longest serving on the island and historic figures who enjoy, however it is interpreted, an iconic status and some celebrity.

Every transition onward from a formative political leadership is fraught. The next generation in Sinn Féin are careerists, not crusaders. They are multiplying in numbers in circumstances where they are untried by real responsibility. And on the air-waves last weekend Mary Lou McDonald, faced for the first time with giving leadership in a crisis, discovered that an ability to deliver learnt lines from the past, is no substitute for dealing with a changed future. The future reality she and this growing generation of Sinn Féin politicians will inherit will be radically different from the highly managed past so successfully scripted for them.

Sinn Féin has been astonishingly effective in governing the image, the history, and the shared nationalist memory of the past 40 years. The arrest of Adams, was followed immediately by the unveiling of his image on murals in Belfast. That image of Adams inscripted as peacemaker and an accompanying declaration that the IRA no longer exists, shapes image, history and memory all at once. It is a political coup de theatre. Adams and the disciplined political volunteer brigade he commands understand ‘script’ superbly.

On walls in Belfast, he was enlarged both to the city and the world, Urbi et Orbi, as the peacemaker, the man of compassion, the one who imagined and determined the founding events of modern republicanism. Scripts must be mobile and so from indignation one day, to support and calm the next Sinn Féin rapidly regained its fleetingly lost composure and reasserted its overarching narrative.

In classical Irish republican tradition, his cell in a police station, was transformed into a stage for all the world to see.

The problem ahead after Adams, is that this narrative is as much a suppression of memory as the expression of it. In time it will come to be reread as double talk. In a scenario where success eventually leads Sinn Féin into government, its grim responsibilities will devalue its currency as a party of protest, at the very moment its iconic peacemakers are passing from the stage.

If that time is not in Adams political life, it will be in his successors. They are not the makers of history but the profiteers of it. Their fault will be first, unless they are lucky enough to reinvent one, a loss of credible currency. Then when it comes as it always comes eventually, the loss of a popular purpose — the utility which is essential for all politics — will coincide with a past that never went away and can no longer be successfully scripted. The next generation, unable to claim for themselves Adams’ status, will be charged with the sins of their political fathers. It will be a political charge, adjudicated in the court of public opinion. Their apologia’s now will be replayed again then, and being heard differently, will be damning.

We forget nearly everything, but traumatic events remain indelible. The story of child sexual abuse which reputationally ruined the Catholic Church was one of masterful manipulation, followed by mass retribution, because time and tide ran out. The past, for now so successfully managed by Sinn Féin, has not gone away. It is an anger yet to be assuaged. Adams successors are the likely scapegoats for his success in outpacing the past.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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