Gerry Adams’ legacy - A figurehead for violent nationalism

In a film about John Hume’s pivotal role in ending terrorism on this island, launched last week, Bill Clinton describes Hume as “Northern Ireland’s Martin Luther King”. 

Hume, aged 80 and retired from public life, knew, like many others before him, that violence can only beget violence.

He never wavered from his belief that the only way to save a bitterly divided, deeply unequal and sectarian statelet from itself was through negotiation and compromise.

And so it transpired. It’s almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement — still fairly described as Sunningdale for slow learners — was signed. The peace, comparatively at least, has held since.

Politics delivered what physical force republicanism could not and never can, an achievement recognised when Hume and David Trimble were awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.

That great achievement was recognised too by former president Mary McAleese when, in In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, she described him as the “greatest political problem-solver of our time”.

This weekend Gerry Adams, as anticipated, announced he will step down as Sinn Féin’s leader, ending his 34-year presidency.

It is tempting to compare his career with Zimbabwe’s despot Robert Mugabe whose almost four-decades of autocracy came to an inglorious end this weekend but that would be unfair and wrong — even if the fact that at this weekend’s SF ard fheis where you could buy “IRA: Undefeated Army” T-shirts suggests more similarities between the men than are comfortable.

So too does the length of their leaderships, neither of which seem in sync with open democracy.

No, far better — and honest — to compare Adams with Hume. Both were confronted with the same state-sponsored brutalities, both faced the same visceral bigotry that denied generations of NI nationalists housing, education, basic opportunities and the civil rights we take for granted.

One man believed in democracy and understood that non-violence was the most effective and only moral response to the tyranny of unfettered unionism and the B Specials’ ethnic cleansing.

The other, though he has persistently insisted he was never a member of the Provisional IRA, allied himself to a very different response and has been a figurehead of Armalite-and-ballot-box nationalism for nearly half a century.

It is undeniable that Adams, and Martin McGuinness, played courageous roles in ending violence but only when terrorism had lost the community support it relies on.

However, it is equally undeniable that they are linked to perpetuating the culture behind that violence — violence that contributed to more than 3,000 needless deaths.

Hume faces only one of those charges and that is the defining value of his gift to democracy and all of the people of these islands.

Sinn Féin now moves to the next stage of its “project” but regular allegations of party bullying suggests it relies on its paramilitary legacy to maintain discipline.

The party’s myth makers — every party has them — will offer a view of Adams’ that will not discomfort their followers.

To achieve that, they cannot compare the life work of Adams and Hume — one was significant but the other was heroically all-defining.

And right.



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