Sinn Féin will discuss a 10-year ‘transition’ plan this autumn, with leader Gerry Adams’ future top of the agenda. He speaks to Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
“It’s my retirement present.”
Gerry Adams is crouching down beside a window to inspect a bag with a clicking metal object inside.
And, after an interview dominated by his own future and his party’s political transition alongside serious issues such as Brexit, the legacy of the provisional IRA and a flurry of recent internal bullying allegations, he can’t resist a dead-pan joke.
The item — a pre-digital era camera, the metal clip on which is not working properly — was a recent acquisition, Mr Adams explains, and he is looking for advice on how to fix it.
With the increasingly noticeable whispered rumours in the corridors of Leinster House, including from some of his own party colleagues about the 68-year-old’s impending departure from frontline politics, the light-hearted dig at the issue is an understandable, even funny, point to make.
However, given the author of the loaded double entendre, it is difficult to avoid the comment conjuring up a second, far less innocent, image.
And, in one quick mental photo, therein lies Sinn Féin’s current ballot box dilemma.
Sinn Féin is at a political crossroads, and much of it relates to not only the picture it wants to portray but how it is interpreted — an issue personified by its long-standing leader.
On the surface, the party is in rude health. It has 23 TDs in Leinster House, an unthinkable figure even a decade ago. It is achieving a consistent 20% rating in various political polls, as shown by yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown survey.
Whether Fianna Fáil wants to admit it or not, the confidence and supply deal with the Fine Gael-led minority government means Sinn Féin is effectively Ireland’s main opposition party.
It has star media performers such as Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin, and others who are far removed from the party’s questionable past.
And, while it won’t happen just yet, some Fianna Fáil back-benchers and Labour leader Brendan Howlin — the latter in an April interview with the Irish Examiner — are not definitively ruling out a coalition with Ireland’s previous political pariah.
However, while the above points are all valid, there is one issue which is still holding Sinn Féin back.
Regardless of the mess Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil’s ‘new politics’ has become, and Sinn Féin’s apparent ability to ride on the coat-tails of populist political demands while never quite taking responsibility for resolving the issues, any chance the party has of expanding its base into middle-class areas and traditional Fianna Fáil and Labour strongholds is limited by its unresolved past.
And while it is not solely about one individual, Mr Adams is the personification of that problem.
Although his colleagues continue to support the man who has led the party for four decades and who brought them their current success, it is accepted that the situation must soon be addressed.
Speaking with the Irish Examiner in his Leinster House office, surrounded by memories of the past and political plans for the future, Mr Adams accepts the issue of when he will be replaced is a “fair” question to raise.
He accepts change is coming, including in the leadership, with a 10-year-plan on the party’s “transition” due to be given to members this autumn.
However, despite widespread suggestions he will step down at this October’s ard fheis he insists that will not happen, with Mr Adams intent on leading Sinn Féin into the next election, whenever it comes.
“That’s my intention at this time,” Mr Adams explains when asked if he will remain as party leader for the next general election, which has been strongly predicted for next year.
“Within the next upcoming period you will see a change in the leadership, but it is not now. It is my intention to go forward in the next ard fheis [for party president again], it is my intention.
“We have not been behind the door in telling everyone that’s interested, but particularly our own membership, that we’re a party in transition and that means generational transition.
“We did a huge outreach across the entire island with our grassroots. It was about a 10-year plan and we’re going back in the autumn, back to our grass roots.
“That’s a wee bit behind time because in between time we fought two elections in the North. But we’re trying to grow the party, make it fit for purpose, see a united Ireland but when we get a united Ireland to have a vanguard party capable of convincing people to build a real republic.
“As part of all of that, there will be a change of leadership. That will include me. Within the next upcoming period, you will see a change in the leadership. It’s not now. It is my intention to go forward in the next ard fheis, it is my intention,”
Changing is coming, just not quite yet, in other words. But how it will be handled and what it will mean for Mr Adams himself has still been receiving an equal amount of attention in recent months.
It is impossible to avoid the talk of deputies McDonald, Doherty, Padraig Mac Lochlainn, or even Ó Broin being potential replacements when Mr Adams leaves and, furthermore, suggestions Mr Adams could then make a bid for the Irish presidency in 2019.
Asked about the two key steps, the Sinn Féin leader insists he does not have a “preference” on his successor and that all decisions will be made by the ard fheis, claiming “it isn’t by appointment” — an issue his party was accused of during the appointment of Michelle O’Neill as Stormont leader earlier this year — but dismissing suggestions Sinn Féin may seek a Fine Gael-style public leadership campaign.
The presidential bid claim, if confirmed, would give a clear two-year leadership departure schedule, allowing the party’s rivals to plan ahead and perhaps explaining why Mr Adams is so keen to rule out such a move, saying “there is no possibility, it’s one of these rumours that has no foundation whatsoever”.
However, he does acknowledge that both he and the late Martin McGuinness agreed to a resignation pact last year, with the former Northern Ireland first minister due to have resigned on May 8, the 10th anniversary of Sinn Féin and the DUP entering government together.
While his sudden death, described by Mr Adams as “an awful tragedy”, meant that plan had to be scrapped and has potentially delayed the leader’s own departure, the “staggered” resignations again underline the Sinn Féin leader’s departure is looming.
“Martin and I did have an arrangement, we were going to stand down in a staggered way,” says Mr Adams. “He was to stand down on May 8, which was the 10th anniversary of going into power with Ian Paisley.
“The awful tragedy is when life intrudes on the best-laid plans. But we’re working through, and I’m keeping faith with the arrangement we had.”
Throughout the interview, Mr Adams is understandably keen to keep the focus on the present, with the issues regularly given the spotlight in the Dáil all being trotted out;
New politics is “brain-numbing”, a “trick which has been laid bare”, and “really about maintaining the status quo” for two parties “play-acting” on their disagreements.
Leo Varadkar has “no mandate, he doesn’t even have a mandate in his own party [due to grassroots Fine Gael members backing Simon Coveney]”, and should call an election before Fianna Fáil “cuts the throat of Fine Gael” when there is a sign in the opinion polls it has taken the lead.
Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan must be removed immediately in “the national interest” instead of Government and Fianna Fáil “dithering” on what to do, while a Patten-style reform of the police service is needed.
While Brexit is becoming disastrous because the Conservatives have “no clue” on what they want, it could lead to a border poll within five years if the situation is handled carefully.
And the seemingly unsolvable housing and health crises facing the country and damaging countless lives nationwide are failing to be addressed.
But for someone who is so intrinsically linked to the party’s future, not to mention its past, it is inevitable that those issues will dominate the discussion compared to the usual debate that can be heard in the Dáil any given day.
With the timing of the next election on every politicians’ mind, whether they want to admit it or not, the coalition merry-go-round has begun to spin again in recent days.
At the MacGill summer school last Friday, Fine Gael’s 2016 director of elections and current MEP Brian Hayes openly called for his party to sign up to a full coalition with Fianna Fáil after the next election to ensure a centre government.
Similarly, in a weekend interview Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, again, outright rejected a coalition with Sinn Féin but demured when asked about a possibility confidence and supply deal with Mr Adams’ party, while Labour’s Mr Howlin also indicated, in the springtime, he was open to considering a deal with Sinn Féin.
The scenarios mean Sinn Féin may, for once, have to make some genuine decisions on what to do after the next national vote instead of simply reaching for the easy sound-bite, and a mid-20s seat return would mean it has a relatively strong hand to play.
Asked about the prospects, Mr Adams — like most other party leaders — reached for the standard response, saying it depends on the electorate, that his party will fight as a independent group and that it wants to lead instead of being led.
However, while stressing Sinn Féin’s “willingness and desire to be in government, if the terms are right”, his response to a broad left-wing opposition pact — involving the Social Democrats, Labour, and Solidarity-PBP with Sinn Féin leading the charge in the next Dáil — suggests a more realistic option.
“There might be a potential for that to be worked out,” he says. We have a very good relationship I like to think with those parties, and I’m one of the people who actually believes you have to form alliances and work with people.”
Before that happens, of course, Sinn Féin will still have to address certain matters that have not gone away, you know.
Days before Mr Adams spoke to this newspaper, a former Provisional IRA member called Michael Hayes spoke in depth to the BBC about the horrific 1974 Birmingham bombings and his alleged role in them.
The interview, just before new inquests into the case, is one of a number of recent controversies from the Troubles’ era to cause further problems for Sinn Féin, following on from the Brian Stack murder, and serious sexual abuse allegations.
Asked about the interview, and Mr Hayes’ failure to explain who ordered the bombings, Mr Adams said the Birmingham attack was “wrong” and an “injustice”, and that British police are likely to investigate the interview.
He said Mr Hayes’ decision to speak to the BBC again underlines what he says is a need for a “truth recovery” process “to deal with these legacy issues”.
“The aim of that is to try and bring truth to victims, I have a particular interest in victims of the IRA, but I also have an interest because my home was bombed, I was shot,” he says.
“I don’t see myself as a victim and I long ago forgave those who attacked me, but some victims are understandably bitter and we have to deal with all of these people so that society can move forward.”
Given such seemingly noble words, the obvious question is would Mr Adams provide any answers to those victims himself, given the long-denied claims surrounding his own past.
Was he ever approached to join the Provisional IRA, for example, and why did someone with such staunch republican views who spoke on behalf of the organisation for decades, not — officially — join?
As ever, the answer is evasive.
“Well, I don’t want to get into all of that,” he says. “I have no real interest, even though it’s a legitimate question, in going through the innards of all of that, it’s now a matter of history and people will have their views.”
Reaching for the future but dragged back by the still unresolved past, Sinn Féin and its leader are approaching a historic political crossroads.
How they manage that change, and whether it will really herald a new era for the organisation or just repeat the by now stale stance of questionable truths and avoidance, will be crucial to what the party ultimately becomes.
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