Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Is it time Gerry Adams stepped aside for good of Sinn Fein?

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald pictured with party leader Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald pictured with party leader Gerry Adams

Is it time to say goodbye to Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Fein? Can the party's chief strategist, who guided violent republicanism along the road to peaceful politics, take it one stage further by departing the leadership?

Is the day approaching when Sinn Fein might rely less on former IRA activists to get its message across to a new post-Troubles generation of voters, north and south?

Perhaps some of these questions are premature, but they are now being asked more openly than ever before. The more we learn more about the horrors of the past, the more we are entitled to question those who were directly involved – not least political representatives.

Granted, Sinn Fein's strategy of filling its front ranks with former IRA activists may have deterred defections to dissident republican groups.

However, images such as that of the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, defending his membership of the IRA at Stormont last week do nothing to build a trusting relationship with unionists and those who suffered so much at the hands of terrorism.

Just imagine if the DUP, or the Ulster Unionists, were led by as many ex-soldiers, or police officers, directly active in the Troubles as Sinn Fein has former members of the IRA sitting on Stormont's benches.

The more the awkward questions refuse to go away for Gerry Adams, the more the party he has led for 30 years must be concerned as to the impact on the electorate, north and south.

The long, dark shadow of the gunman is cast over the leadership. It prompts the wider question as to the relevance of so many IRA links within Sinn Fein so long after the ending of violence.

How can Sinn Fein inspire trust across the political divide in Northern Ireland if its leader is ducking and weaving, brazenly denying a past that even some of his closest associates in the republican movement confirm he had?

Can Sinn Fein aspire to a seat in government in Dublin – and capture the mainstream vote required to do so – with Gerry Adams at the helm? As a journalist who first interviewed Gerry Adams (below) in the early-1970s, I have no doubt that he is resilient. He has cultivated the knack of remaining unflustered – even in the face of the most provocative line of questioning.

I recall personally asking him on a BBC election programme in the 1990s about his role in the IRA.

He suggested that my comments were legally actionable, but like so many who have heard a similar response from him, I am still awaiting his solicitor's letter.

In the eyes of many, the attitude of the Sinn Fein leader beggars belief; whether he is under the spotlight of media attention over the Disappeared, or over what actions he took to inform the authorities about his brother, Liam, who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for the sexual abuse of his daughter.

How can Sinn Fein ever hope to secure mutual respect with unionists and achieve mainstream political support when it is perceived as covering up for its leader, accepting that he can continue to be economical with the truth about his past?

How can Sinn Fein attack the Catholic Church for its failure to declare and deal with sexual abuse when the leader of the party also has such similar questions to answer about whether he turned a blind eye to his brother's behaviour?

Criticism of Gerry Adams is confined no longer to the predictable voices of unionism. The broader electorate appears to be taking note, from west Belfast to west Cork.

The test for all the parties and their current leaders will come next spring, when the European elections are held across the island and the council elections take place in Northern Ireland on the same day in early-May 2014.

All the four main parties in Northern Ireland have had leadership crises in recent times, ranging from the personal problems of Peter Robinson in 2010, to the changes at the top of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

Now it is Sinn Fein's turn, but it is difficult to see Gerry Adams doing a Peter Robinson, bouncing back as the latter has done to regain his authority as First Minister.

The questions for Gerry Adams will not go away.

Indeed, if anything, they will intensify, as people pluck up the courage to say what they think and refuse to accept the triteness of his denials.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk