Sinn Fein on the cusp of new era in Irish politics
Published 08/02/2011 | 08:00
It's almost 40 years since I first met Gerry Adams at a time when he was seen as the mastermind of the Provisional IRA's Belfast brigade.
On one particularly memorable occasion, on a snowy February day in the mid-1970s, I sat warming myself before a two-bar electric fire while Adams produced tea and toast for us both in the tiny kitchen of a spartan ground-floor flat in Divis Towers.
Laid-back, pipe in mouth, bearded and wearing his baggy tweed jacket, he looked more like a university lecturer than a champion of the most ruthless terrorist group in Europe.
Four decades on, I find myself writing about Adams in his latest incarnation - as a likely TD and as leader of a party which in 2011 could hold the balance of political power in Belfast and Dublin.
Gerry Adams does not have the same sureness of foot about him in the Republic as he had in Northern Ireland.
Is he truly at home with the south's domestic political agenda, given his poor grasp of its economy which he showed when he led Sinn Fein into the last Dail election?
It remains to be seen if he can avoid a similar pitfall in this month's bitter pre-election campaign, but only another dubious performance from him looks capable of stopping the Sinn Fein bandwagon in its tracks.
The spectre of a Sinn Fein First Minister for Northern Ireland has long been the ultimate unionist nightmare. The slumber of Dublin's politicians and the southern media is disturbed by another bad dream - the prospect of Sinn Fein winning so many seats in the Dail that it might even hold the balance of power.
Who would have believed that events in Ireland, north and south, would turn so swiftly, if ever, in the party's favour?
But turn they have and come February 25 down south and May 5 up north, the world of politics on this island could well take on an extraordinary new order.
Its terrorist war long over, without victory or defeat, the republican movement is well on its way to winning the peace as the fastest-growing party on this island.
It has already made its mark in Northern Ireland. Now, the collapse of the Republic's economy has played into the hands of Sinn Fein, but the battle on votes shows the perplexing divergence of attitudes to the party north and south.
In Belfast, unionists and republicans share power and adjoining offices. In Dublin, nationalists and republicans profess little or nothing in common.
Once-sworn enemies in the north smile amicably at one another on a daily basis at Stormont, while blood brothers in the south can hardly bear to pass the time of day. How true is the old saying: the more one looks at Irish politics, the more complex it becomes.
What would the man from Mars make of it all? Owen Paterson, a Tory Secretary of State says a Sinn Fein First Minister would be another example of political progress in Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness behaves at times as if he already had the job.
We should anticipate that, if Sinn Fein do well down south, the other parties in the Dail will have no option but to change their attitude and do business with Gerry Adams - for all their opposition to his Marxist policies and violent past.
Sinn Fein is re-inventing itself in the Republic, just as it has done up north. It must know that success in the south is likely to make it even more attractive to northern nationalists and cause more problems for the SDLP.
The new generation of Sinn Fein candidates has none of the baggage of the old guard, such as Adams. They look well-placed to win support from a disgruntled and despairing youthful population with little option but to emigrate in their tens of thousands to find work abroad.
The Republic does not display the flames of Tunisia or Egypt, but it harbours the dangerously glowing embers of public distrust and unease with mainstream politics. We can sense from this distance that this could be a major turning-point. We will only know the extent when the votes are counted, but we should brace ourselves for a shock.
No tumult on the streets. No St Stephen's Green or O'Connell Street becoming like Cairo's Tahrir Square. More a quiet political revolution on our doorstep.
Not a shot fired in anger, but the face of politics on this island changed as it hasn't been since partition nearly a century ago.
What a long way we have all travelled since Gerry Adams made tea and toast on that February day nearly 40 years ago in bleak and bloodied Belfast.