WHAT if Gerry Adams had stuck it out with the Stickies? How different would history have been? Would he have ended up a tribune of austerity in a coalition government? Or would he have died violently long before now?
As Mr Adams today steps back to the shadows from the leadership of Sinn Féin, it’s worth pondering on a big What If. When the split came in Sinn Féin/IRA in late 1969, many saw Mr Adams as throwing his lot in with the Officials, rather than the Provisionals.
The left-wing politics he espoused were considered more suited to the Officials, or the Stickies, as they came to be known. The Provisionals were primarily concerned with bombing the Brits out of the North and shooting the Unionists into accepting a united Ireland.
But for whatever reason, he opted for the Provos and marched directly down through the centre of this island’s history over the following 38 years.
What if he’d gone with the Officials? Would the Provisional IRA’s campaign have been as murderously ruthless without a figure like Adams? (He has always denied being a member of the organisation).
Would the so-called republican movement ever have produced a leader who had the skill, cunning, and endurance to eventually move from killing and bombing to campaigning and debating?
His personal journey would also have been very different if he’d been a Stickie.
There is a relatively high possibility that he would have ended up a victim of one of the myriad of internecine feuds through the 1970s and 1980s that spilled out from that side of the original split.
A figure with his personal attributes of intelligence, vanity, and charisma would have made a heightened target for gunmen in one of the feuds.
Mr Adams may well have, like so many others, had his life cut short through pointless violence.
On the other hand, the Official Mr Adams may have strode down a more conventional path. He might have gone on to join or lead Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party, and from there The Workers’ Party, and onward ho to Democratic Left, eventually striding into a merger with the Labour party, and all the way into government.
If he’d gone Official, could Mr Adams have ended up as leader of the Labour party and tánaiste?
Instead, he opted for the Provisionals early in adulthood, and came to personify that organisation and polarise opinion accordingly. For supporters he has been a revolutionary figure, evolving from a strict proponent of the “armed struggle” into a strategic and pragmatic democrat.
This myopic incarnation sanitises the “armed struggle”. It ignores the sheer depravity of the Provos’ campaign, the ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombing, gangsterism, killing of the innocents, acquisition of wealth by favoured soldiers, replanting in the south of favoured paedophiles, and on it goes. That’s not to mention the moral sump in which informers infiltrated every layer of the organisation.
All of that forms part of the glorious struggle, but is excluded from the revised version of history peddled by the party.
Mr Adams did lead the republican movement away from violence. However, the long arc of his career suggests this was a move based entirely on strategy, rather than guided by any moral compass.
Just look at how his party has evolved in the decades since the ground began to shift beneath the campaign of violence.
The first IRA ceasefire arrived in 1994. Twenty four years later — and 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement — has Mr Adams’ party evolved into a fully democratic entity?
These things take time. Some of Éamon de Valera’s colleagues in Fianna Fáil were equipped with revolvers when they first entered Dáil Éireann in 1927. Yet it is indisputable that by the time Fianna Fáil took the reins of power in 1932, Dev and his party were fully wedded to democratic politics and the sovereignty of the people. Further evidence of that was forthcoming in 1940, when as taoiseach he oversaw the execution of former colleagues in the IRA who were convicted of murder.
Mr Adams’ journey out of the night has been nowhere near as direct. Under his rule — and he has ruled over the party for 35 years — Sinn Féin has yet to fully grow into a democratic entity.
When did the party cease to have recourse to funds raised through its armed wing? We don’t know. What influence is exercised over the party by those unelected figures who ran the Republican movement? We don’t know.
The vigilantism and petty crime that was prevalent in some quarters of the party in the early to mid-2000s has dissipated, but what of the bullying? As Elaine Loughlin reported in these pages this week, 15 elected representatives have left in recent years as a result of bullying.
Significantly, none of the departed was from the old guard. All were drawn from the young, idealistic cadre of new Shinners, drawn to politics for the same reasons that young people everywhere are. Did they not realise that the way things are done in Sinn Féin is at odds with what some might expect from a democratic party?
There are also differences up the chain. Michelle O’Neill was apparently appointed as head of the party in the North without any obvious recourse to the elected representatives she is leading. Is that democracy in action?
Mary Lou McDonald is a talented public and media performer, but is her unchallenged ascension today entirely attributable to her talents, or is she simply the chosen one?
Mr Adams’ own unrivalled status within the party is unmatched anywhere in the democratic world. Certainly, he is a strategist without peer, but his popularity among Shinners is not down to a capacity to reach out to the masses.
There was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to realign the forces of politics here after the economic collapse of 2008, but despite an ideal launching pad, the Shinners couldn’t do it. Would a successor have managed to ensure that the party today was a genuine counterweight to the politics of the two main parties?
So went the career of Mr Adams, shaped largely by his experience in a Republican movement which owed ultimate allegiance to its own goals.
Would he have made such an impact if he’d gone with the Stickies? Hardly.
He would have either ended up dead or been reduced to the status of a fully democratic politician, the kind of figure whose power is limited by the constraints of long-established checks and balances.
Instead, he has been soaked in myths and elevated among the faithful to the highest perch of veneration. The acclaim will ring out among his own today as he steps back into the shadows.
But when the praise has died down, the whispers of reassurance will emanate from all the old haunts in West Belfast. He hasn’t gone away, you know.