Gerry Adams is the glue around which the republican movement adheres, and also its glass ceiling, writes Fergus Finlay
HERE are, and I suppose there always will be, two conflicting views about Gerry Adams.
You admire him or distrust him.
You see him as a peace-maker or a hypocrite. You think his place in history is secure, or you think he’s a barrier to progress.
When he does stand down as leader of his party, as I suppose he must some day, or when he dies (and I’m not wishing that on him!) there will be an outpouring of polarisation the like of which we haven’t seen for years.
It will be a bit like the media reaction to Michael D Higgins’ statement on the death of Fidel Castro, only much more so. Those who praise Adams at the time will be vilified in their turn; those who attack him will be seen as anti-Irish revisionists.
There are people I know and respect who hold Gerry Adams personally and politically responsible for crimes against humanity.
Others see him as someone who has used amazing skills of leadership to bring peace about, and who has paid a large personal price.
In the current controversy, as in so many others, the same holds true.
A man of no credibility, says one.
If he tells all he knows, he’ll be marked for death himself, says another.
I fall somewhere in between these positions.
I’ve never voted for Sinn Féin and I can’t see myself ever doing so.
I have a deep ingrained distrust of their democratic instinct, and I’ve never been truly satisfied about whether the party is controlled by dark and secret forces that are accountable to no one but themselves.
On the other hand, I’ve seen at first hand the work and commitment of some of their public representatives, and I can fully understand the loyalty they inspire.
As for Adams himself, I have no doubt whatsoever that he served in the IRA, and in its leadership.
I have no doubt that there are things in his past that he could never justify in any normal terms.
I have no doubt that he has experienced, essentially, a double life — elected democratic politician on the one hand, and leader of a clandestine and secret society on the other.
I have no doubt that he played a major role in a conflict that involved hundreds of murders. But I have equally no doubt that without him, peace would never have happened.
I got into trouble years ago for saying that a peace process that didn’t include Sinn Féin wasn’t worth a penny candle — David Trimble, of all people, described me in the House of Commons as representing a “profoundly depressing and anti-democratic state of mind”.
But it was true then, and it remains true to this day.
It’s the central fact of Gerry Adams’ life and career.
A man who made war, who allowed people to die, who carried the coffins of murderers, without apology or seeming regret, then decided to make peace.
And he succeeded in building a peace that seems logical and almost commonplace now, but was quite unique and remarkable in its time.
What seems strangest about Adams is that he still doesn’t seem to trust the peace he built.
He still cannot allow himself to ever seem hurt or pained by the things he did or that others did. He still cannot allow the whole truth to emerge.
But it is the case, nevertheless, that those of us who were there find it hard to deny the enormity of his achievement.
I can remember still my feelings of revulsion on the day that Gerry Adams carried the coffin of Thomas Begley to his grave, after Begley had been blown up, along with seven adults and two children, by a bomb he had carried into a chipper on the Shankill Road.
But I can also remember recognising at the time the logic of Adam’s action.
Unknown to many people, he was by then deeply and intimately involved in the process that was to lead to the Downing Street declaration and the first IRA ceasefire.
When Adams carried Begley’s coffin, John Major told the House of Commons (in November 1993) that “to sit down and talk with Mr Adams and the Provisional IRA would turn my stomach”.
A month later, he and Albert Reynolds issued the Downing Street Declaration, which accepted the right of the people of Ireland, North and South, to self-determination.
When Adams carried Begley’s coffin, he was declaring his allegiance to the objectives of the IRA, and his support for a violent conflict aimed at securing the unity of Ireland.
But that same Downing Street Declaration, sought and supported by Adams, insisted that self-determination could only happen by consent.
I know it to be the case that every word in the Downing Street Declaration — including especially the enshrining of the principle of consent — was seen by Adams before the document was published.
In a real sense he and John Hume owned the Downing Street declaration, although they hadn’t drafted a word of it.
In a real sense too it really doesn’t matter what we think or say about Gerry Adams.
He doesn’t talk to us, and he doesn’t listen to us. He talks only to his own, and he takes instruction (if he does take instruction) only from his own.
Nothing else has ever mattered to him.
He led his own people into conflict, through conflict, and out of conflict. He has always been able to justify the terrorism of his own side, even if he can easily condemn the non-terrorist political activity of others.
I think the other thing that’s true about Gerry Adams is that he knows himself to be central to his project.
That project is ultimately the positioning of Sinn Féin in a position of power and influence in both jurisdictions on this island.
That’s the alternative to unity, in his eyes, although he will never admit that.
These two characteristics — his unwavering loyalty to his own side (who else could lead a party called “Ourselves Alone”?) and his absolute conviction that nothing can ultimately be achieved unless he holds it together — are the key to understanding Adams.
He is the glue around which the republican movement adheres, and he is also its glass ceiling.
It was said of other leaders that their popularity might be a mile wide, but only an inch deep. Adams’ popularity among his own is a mile deep.
But it will never be wide enough, especially in this part of the island. He is, in essence, the thing that limits the political project he has built.
That’s because he has never really been one of us.
The years of conflict and terror, and his role in that, have never been forgotten by a generation that still votes in Ireland.
For younger people, he is essentially a man of the past.
They find it hard to understand why he has to be so obdurate about his version of the truth, and why it seems impossible for him to move beyond controversies that are rooted in the past.
But it is.
That’s why his strength will always be his weakness.
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