He will leave a vacuum at the top of the Republican movement, writes Daniel McConnell
Bathed in the adoration of almost 3,000 Sinn Féin delegates on Saturday night, Gerry Adams, 69, called time on his time in frontline politics.
He will not stand for election to the Dáil again, nor will he be president this time next year.
A special ard fheis will be called to elect his successor, most likely to be Mary Lou McDonald, some time in the spring, with the aim of securing power on both sides of the border.
Adams, it seems, realises that, for all his success as a political leader, he was and is the greatest impediment to Sinn Féin entering Government in the Republic.
He remains a visceral reminder of the worst of the Troubles. An apologist for terror, murder, and punishment beatings, Adams speaks the language of equality and tolerance.
For all his denials that he was in the IRA, the vast majority of people here simply do not believe him, reflected by opinion polls. One poll in 2014 showed that almost 70% believed he was not only in the IRA but a leader of it.
Adams remains a deeply divisive figure, attracting fanatical loyalty from supporters and extreme hatred from his enemies.
Along with the late Martin McGuinness, Adams has been the quintessential hate figures for members of the loyalist movement and of many unionists.
Those who praise him will remind us of his path to peace, his friendships with world leaders, and that he was part of the guard of honour at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
We are also reminded of the facts of his long-standing position of being an apologist for IRA terrorism acts and that he carried the coffin of Thomas Begley, the Shankill bomber, in October 1993. The bomb killed 10 people and risked ending peace talks with British officials.
Adams’ carrying of the coffin was controversial but it was also an illustration of the tightrope he and McGuinness walked in order to end the war.
“I told John Major, if he didn’t carry that coffin, he was no good to you in terms of being able to deliver,” said the then taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who, along with the then prime minister, signed the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.
There is no doubt Adams has travelled a long road since he pulled pints in the Duke of York in Belfast.
The Sinn Féin party he will hand over in 2018, after 35 years at its helm, is worlds apart from the one he inherited from Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in 1983.
The double act he formed with McGuinness meant the two dominated the political and armed struggle for more than three decades.
Under Adams and McGuinness, Sinn Féin relinquished its policy of abstentionism towards the Oireachtas, leading to the party’s return to the Dáil in 1997 when Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin became the party’s sole TD.
The party since took seats in Stormont and, in 2005, the IRA announced its war was over.
But despite that progress, people are right to be sceptical of his IRA denials, given how disciplined the Sinn Féin message has been under his tenure.
Added to this are Adams’ former allies who have said he not only played a part in the armed struggle, but was supreme leader of it.
In recent times, he has come in for repeated criticism over his handling of various events.
Some 2,500 Sinn Féin delegates sing ‘Oró sé do bheatha bhaile’ at #SFAF17 as Gerry Adams announces he will be stepping down as leader of Sinn Féin in the coming months - a seminal moment in the history of Irish republicanism #SlanAChara pic.twitter.com/eR4F7gyah9 — Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) November 18, 2017
In 2014, Adams came in for severe criticism over the case of Máiria Cahill, who said she was raped by an IRA member when she was a teenager. She also claimed she was subsequently “interrogated” by the IRA.
The Cahill case led to revelations about abusers being moved around by the republican movement, a rare insight into the cruel and unforgiving way the IRA took care of internal business.
The late Brendan Hughes said Adams ordered the 1972 murder of Jean McConville.
The claim led to Adams being arrested in May 2014 and spending several nights in the hospitality of the PSNI in Antrim, where he was questioned about McConville’s murder.
Adams’ denials were restated and no charges were ever brought.
But, from the days when his voice was dubbed over on radio and TV news broadcasts during the Troubles to becoming the leader of the third-largest party in Dáil Eireann, Adams has also seen Sinn Féin eviscerate the SDLP and forced unionism to lose its majority status for the first time.
“Now we have 23 TDs, seven seanadóirí, four MEPs representing all parts of this island, 27 MLAs, seven MPs, and over 250 councillors. Today, over half a million people vote for Sinn Féin,” he boasted on Saturday night at the RDS.
Now he has started the clock on his time in office, Adams will no doubt move to try and secure his legacy.
Reviled at home while revered abroad, particularly in North America, Adams is undeniably an important figure in modern Irish political life.
Symbolic of the dark place this country found itself in for much of the past 50 years, Adams’ time is in the past.
He will, however, leave a vacuum at the top of the Republican movement; there is no certainty that Sinn Féin will remain the united, disciplined force it has been to date.
The recent incidents of bullying from across the country are another stain on his legacy and clear signs of the growing pains within Sinn Féin.
Ultimately, like McGuinness, Adams retires without his dream of a united Ireland being fulfilled during his tenure.
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