Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is safe thanks to a cult-like devotion

Gerry Adams poses for a selfie with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald (right), and two of the party's Euro candidates, Martina Anderson (left) and Lynn Boylan
Gerry Adams poses for a selfie with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald (right), and two of the party's Euro candidates, Martina Anderson (left) and Lynn Boylan
Liam Adams
Liam Adams
Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

Any politician accused of covering up his paedophile brother, let alone quizzed about a widow's murder, would be cut adrift by his party. Any politician, that is, except Gerry Adams.

They are all scrubbed up, well turned out, squeaky clean and, in the main, share one thing in common: they are mostly young, attractive women.

As the Republic's voters face a final week of campaigning for European and local government elections the lampposts of Dublin's main thoroughfares are festooned with images of photogenic female candidates, a large proportion of them standing for Sinn Fein.

Before the sensational arrest of Gerry Adams over the Jean McConville murder and the subsequent world media storm, a casual observer would have had a very different picture in mind from the one conjured up from all those grainy photographs and film footage from a grim, monochrome Belfast in the early-1970s.

The contrast between that infamous picture, for instance, of Adams's chief accuser Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes in his Sancho Panza moustache, his arms wrapped around a long-haired, bearded comrade inside Long Kesh, and the suited and booted fresh-faced neo-Shinners staring down from 2014 election posters is glaring. It is also a powerful symbol of how far the party has travelled over the last few decades.

This new slew of candidates, almost all of whom have no lineage or history with traditional republicanism, is part of Sinn Fein's ongoing strategy to detoxify its brand as it tries to attract middle-class voters fed up paying more taxes to pay for austerity policies.

Martin McGuinness wining and dining with the Queen during Michael D Higgins's presidential visit to Britain was also part of this strategic shift towards 'Middle Ireland', designed to tell that critical section of the electorate that the party was finally laying the ghosts of the past to rest. And then along came the spectre of Jean McConville.

Conventional political wisdom suggests that any party leader facing even a whiff of scandal like the accusations levelled at Adams would have to go in order to protect his colleagues.

On top of the scandal surrounding his paedophile brother Liam, and the fact that Adams knew about the allegations for years but did nothing about it, any other politician facing a double-whammy of scandal would step down from the leadership.

It is undoubtedly true that if the likes of Enda Kenny or Micheal Martin had to answer questions about child abusers in the family, or claims that they had some "corporate role" in the killing and cover-up of a murder, they would face rebellions from backbenchers terrified over the damage inflicted upon the party.

Yet not only is there no internal clamour for Adams to go (lest he dents Sinn Fein), the party's poll ratings (thus far at least) appear not to have been battered by the scandals engulfing its leader.

Cult-like in its devotion to Adams, there is not one strong character inside Sinn Fein who would dare face him in the eye and say it was time to leave the stage. The only person who can ultimately do that is the one who looks at himself in the mirror every morning.

As for the Sinn Fein surge, herein lies a paradox for a party that tries to convince its rank-and-file that this rise in support somehow starts the countdown to a united Ireland.

Because all the reasons for the party's success in the Republic are wholly domestic and related to the frustration and anger among voters fed up with mounting taxes, bankers avoiding justice and general austerity cuts.

Northern Ireland should be an issue this time around, given the answers Adams must give the electorate about Jean McConville and his wider alleged role in the IRA. It is not – due, in part, to a relatively supine southern media, particularly broadcasters whose attitude to northern questions and Sinn Fein ranges from indifference to barely concealed adoration.

However, the main reason why the McConville scandal and other questions about Adams remain far down the agenda is due to partition itself.

Most voters care little about Northern Ireland apart from a general, benign wish that power-sharing remains in place and peace pertains with no prospect of violence spilling over the border.

They are not voting for Sinn Fein due to its much vaunted but extremely vague "all-Ireland strategy"; rather because they are against water charges, property taxes, rising living costs and cuts.

All the hyperbole over 2016 and the prospect of Tanaiste Adams taking the salute for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising misses, as always, the point about Irish unity's prospects.

To secure that, ultimately it needs to be sending a message to a very different address: those within the unionist community, who its has to convince of the merits of a united Ireland.

Given the behaviour of the party's youthful activists north of the border last week at Queen's University and the outrage they caused by trying to organise a poppy sale ban in the Students' Union, it will have a far longer wait to realise its goal than the party's latest target date of two years' time.