MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Gerry Adams a barrier to Sinn Féin normalisation

These days Adams looks like a man out of time, ghosts snapping at his heels, writes Michael Clifford

A FEW weeks back, I strayed across a copy of Ten Men Dead, the definitive book about the 1981 IRA hunger strikes. It’s a searing, harrowing read, well-written and researched by David Beresford, who was a reporter for The Guardian in the North at the time.

Apart from the 10 men who died in prison, 61 people were killed in the North during the seven months of the strike. Among these were 34 civilians, who had no role in the conflict, but had their lives snuffed out because the IRA and Margaret Thatcher refused to compromise with each other on how to run the prisons in the North.

One of the main Republican figures at the time was Gerry Adams, whose codename in the communications smuggled out of the H blocks in Long Kesh was ‘Brownie’. This was a long time before Mr Adams had “never been in the IRA”.

Mr Adams and those around him were accused by some at the time of sacrificing the hunger strikers to further the political agenda. Years later, Richard O’Rawe, who was the PR man for the prisoners within Long Kesh during the strike, also alleged this to be the case. Adams and the other Republican leaders have always denied that their main focus was what could be achieved politically from the deaths of their comrades.

The strikes did give birth to Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy. Bobby Sands was elected an MP on his deathbed, and two of the hunger strikers were elected to the Dáil. Two years later, Mr Adams was first elected to the British parliament. This was the time of “the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other”, as coined by Danny Morrison.

Three and a half decades on, Mr Adams is still the main man in the Republican movement. He has achieved legendary status in Republican circles. The IRA, as it was, has gone away. Many of the senior personnel involved in it are now working for Sinn Féin. Some of them are Mr Adams closest confidantes.

As Sinn Féin has risen in the polls in the Republic in recent years, Mr Adams has been entangled in a number of controversies. His knowledge of his brother’s sexual abuse of his brother’s daughter was an issue. He was arrested in connection with the murder of Jean McConville.

Jean McConville

The Máiría Cahill affair left him woefully exposed as somebody who failed to help her when she approached him. There has also been the controversies over associates of his being questioned about the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast last year and his referencing tax dodger Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy as a “good Republican”.

Any other leader of a political party in the western world would have been sunk by such a record. And it’s not as if Mr Adams excels at the day-to-day business of politics. There are times when his grasp of detail can make Enda Kenny sound like Steve Jobs. In the last week alone, in the heat of an election campaign, he has given two car-crash interviews on RTÉ Radio, which exposed him as largely clueless on policy.

Yet his position in the party is unassailable. He leads a political party, but in terms of the democratic world, he is not susceptible to the vagaries that determine the support or fate of a leader. It might well be said Mr Adams has achieved cult status. Then there are the followers. Sinn Féin these days has a large cohort of young activists and politicians. Many of these are highly capable, highly motivated and interested in serious social change. The flow of such people into the party has increased at a time of economic hardship and widespread disillusion with mainstream politics.

They joined up long after the right-to-kill policy was abandoned by the party. Their hands are clean, but they also have a capacity to stomach anything that emerges about links to the past.

None of them expressed concern about anybody in Sinn Féin who might have been a senior figure in the IRA when it was moving favoured paedophiles down south. There is no record of anybody asking the Belfast leadership when exactly the party ceased to receive income from criminality. (That is making the reasonable assumption that such income was received back in the day of the Armalite and the ballot box). Practically no independent thought is ever expressed among the young guns.

Máiría Cahill

They profess to believe some facts that everybody outside the organisation finds fantastical. For instance, they claim Mr Adams as something of a messianic figure, who got the IRA to stop killing despite never having been a senior figure in the organisation himself. They also apparently believe that the Northern Bank robbery in 2004 was not carried out by the IRA. This is contrary to all the informed opinion of the robbery, not to mind copious circumstantial evidence heard in criminal trials related to the proceeds of the robbery.

Much of the above are features one might associate with a cult, but the real zinger is the manner in which Shinners project themselves as the Most Oppressed Party Ever.

This sentiment is expressed through viewing everybody outside the organisation with suspicion. The media, in particular, is a font of “bias”. Any awkward questions about Mr Adams or the strange features of the party, are regarded as examples of “bias” — a favoured phrase among followers. Those who display such “bias” are then subjected to a torrent of abuse online.

While some of this is strategic, much of the seamier stuff must be emanating from people who actually do believe their organisation is being victimised, as if the members are some lost, oppressed tribe, trying to find a righteous way back home.

While Sinn Féin is not a cult, there is still something of the night about the party. And in today’s disillusioned environment, there are understandably many, particularly younger, voters who are willing to turn a blind eye to the unpalatable stuff.

On Friday, Sinn Féin will make a great leap forward in electoral politics. Some of the advancement can be attributed to the assiduous constituency work that is a long-standing feature of the party. There will also be a chunk of support drifting towards them in a belief that the party is the only viable alternative to the mainstream.

One can only hope that, after the election, the slow train to normalisation will pick up speed. Acceleration is difficult to envisage while Mr Adams is still at the helm, and West Belfast calling the shots.

Mr Adams was a totemic figure for the Republican movement during the hunger strikes and through the subsequent years of violence, all the way to making peace. But the past is a different country.

These days he looks like a man out of time, ghosts snapping at his heels, while he pats the heads of children on the election trail, and spouts his single transferable speech about fairness.

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