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After 33 years is it time for Gerry Adams to go away, you know?

Is the SF boss just hanging on to beat Ian Paisley's record, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 20/07/2016

Sinn Fein insists that Gerry Adams is still a very popular leader
Sinn Fein insists that Gerry Adams is still a very popular leader

Gerry Adams was elected leader of Sinn Fein on November 13, 1983, the very same day that cruise missiles started arriving in Greenham Common RAF base in Berkshire, where female peace campaigners had set up a camp to protest against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The missiles and the women are long gone. Gerry Adams still remains in place.

In that time there have been five US Presidents, six Prime Ministers, seven leaders of the Tory party, six elected Labour Party bosses, a whopping 14 Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, seven men have served as Taoiseach, five as leader of the Ulster Unionists and a further five of the SDLP. Colum Eastwood hadn't even celebrated his first birthday at the time Gerry took charge, and James Brokenshire was still at school, preparing to sit his O-levels.

Adams' supporters consider his longevity to be a cause for celebration. Which it might be, if it wasn't so deeply weird. Most normal political parties replace their leaders every now and again. That's not a sign of their dysfunctionality, but of Sinn Fein's in apparently believing what was right for 1983 is still right now.

The closest comparison to Adams' 33 years at the helm is the long rule of dictators such as Robert Mugabe, who's been either Prime Minister or President of Zimbabwe since 1980.

It's staggering that no one in all this time has either quietly suggested that the Belfast man step aside or else challenged him directly for the job. Instead, Adams has sailed on through one anniversary after another as his loyal fanbase rousingly cheers him on despite a string of controversies, including accusations of the cover-up of sexual abuse in republican ranks and of involvement in the death of Jean McConville.

Until now, that is.

Thomas Anthony McNulty, a former IRA member who's now chair of a Sinn Fein local chapter in Co Cavan, has openly called on Adams to stand aside and "give a young, more dynamic person a chance".

Even more remarkably, he hasn't yet been dragged off for a secret "briefing" before reappearing, pale-faced, to apologise to the media for speaking out of turn. On the contrary, Eoin O Broin, a TD for the party in Dublin, admitted at the McGill Summer School in Donegal in recent days that it was "quite possible" Sinn Fein could have a new leader.

True, he poured cold water on the suggestion that this would happen anytime soon; but even admitting Adams might be gone within the next five years - in time for the next election in the Republic - is revolutionary stuff in a movement that has tended to treat its leader as beyond criticism and any talk of a post-Adams era as treason. At the moment there's a definite rallying round the leader, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisting that Adams enjoys "incredible support" among the members. Then again, so does Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and it doesn't mean he's electable in the country, either.

It all has the unmistakeable air of the chairman of a struggling football club assuring the media that the manager's job is safe. It usually leads to a job vacancy sooner rather than later.

Methinks the Butcher Boy doth protest too much.

If McNulty is right that there's a growing "groundswell of opinion" in Sinn Fein for Adams to go despite McGuinness's smiling assurances that all is well, then it would be a belated admission that the election in the Republic in February wasn't the unqualified triumph Sinn Fein tried to pretend it was.

Rather, it's further proof that the continuing presence of the ghost of Adams is damaging the party electorally at a time when it should be attracting huge support from those hurt by the recession.

Nonetheless, Adams stubbornly refuses to consider his position and even mocks the current Taoiseach, who's also facing calls to set out a timetable for his departure after a mere 14 years as head of Fine Gael. "No, no," he insists. "I'm not as foolish as Enda (Kenny)."

That it might be even more foolish not to consider standing down after three decades in charge clearly never crosses his mind.

It's not as if his detractors are demanding that he disappear entirely. A ceremonial role such as honorary vice-president has been suggested, allowing Gerry to spend more time tweeting about teddy bears and spinning fairy tales about the Troubles for gullible Americans with more money than sense.

Adams and his dwindling band of supporters invariably take this, though, as a sign that his opponents must be scared of him, otherwise why are they so keen to get rid of him?

Similar levels of delusion have been observed among supporters of the aforementioned Corbyn, for whom loyalty to a beloved leader is more important than harsh electoral reality. In both cases opponents in rival parties are not trembling with fear, but with laughter.

For his admirers, Adams represents a link to a glorious past, when to most normal voters those memories are repugnant and shameful.

His utter cluelessness when it comes to basic economic facts and figures doesn't help either. This is no time for bumbling amateurs.

Standing down won't be without its risks. Sinn Fein in the Republic needs a southern leader if it's ever to make the breakthrough into government, rather than being a minority protest movement, but is the North ready to be led by an outsider?

Arguably not, but it may already be too late. Sinn Fein is no longer the personal fiefdom of a small cadre of veteran IRA hard men; it's evolving as younger members with only folk memories of the Troubles join the ranks and they can't be kept down forever.

The only reason that Adams can have for remaining, when it's clear he's no longer an asset to the cause, is either because he thinks the younger generation isn't up to scratch (which doesn't say much about them), or because pride won't let him relinquish a role that massages his ego (which doesn't say much about him).

There's one other possibility. The late Ian Paisley was DUP leader for nearly 37 years before standing down in 2008 in favour of Peter Robinson.

Perhaps the Sinn Fein leader is simply clinging on by his fingertips so that he can finally overtake the unionist stalwart.

Having to accept that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would remain unchanged until a majority of its people said otherwise was galling enough for republicans.

Conceding that Paisley beat them in the longevity stakes as well might be one defeat too many.

Belfast Telegraph

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