Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Adams a champion of freedom of speech? You're having a laugh

Of course the Republic's blasphemy law is an anachronism, but the Sinn Fein president's posturing as a supporter of free expression is stomach-turning, says Eilis O'Hanlon.

Gerry Adams is Northern Ireland's answer to Donald Trump. Both men have a chronic inability to keep their mouths shut, or their fingers still, and can regularly be found, late at night on Twitter, issuing a stream of borderline inappropriate - and sometimes downright weird - remarks to their legions of followers.

When challenged, both react defiantly, angrily accusing the mainstream media of misrepresenting them.

This week, the Sinn Fein president even took to social media to have a pop at the Irish state broadcaster, tweeting: "By the way RTE ignored my Leaders' Q(uestions) today. Again! Why?"

It's pure Trump. He's a whisker away from declaring: "Stories about me and the IRA once being in a relationship are #FakeNews. Sad."

For the record, RTE's Nine O' Clock News didn't report questions that day from Michael Martin of main opposition party Fianna Fail, either, but you don't see him tweeting away to complain when he's not on the telly.

Paranoia is a terrible curse. An over-sized ego is even worse.

Proof that there's no subject on which Gerry Adams does not feel the need to spout off came on Tuesday, when, speaking in the Dail, he also piped up to say that "blasphemy should have no place in the constitution".

This followed reports that the Irish police were forced to open a file against comedian Stephen Fry for comments he made on Irish TV about God being an "utter maniac".

The investigation was quickly dropped, though not before news of it had spread around the world, to the embarrassment of all.

There's not a serious politician in Ireland who doesn't consider the blasphemy law an anomaly that should be dealt with at the earliest opportunity - though there hasn't been a prosecution since 1855, so it's not the most urgent issue facing the country by a long shot.

Adams, though, saw a chance for some quick and easy publicity, tossing in a reference to the sitcom Father Ted to show he has the popular touch, as he asked the Taoiseach: "Will you give citizens the opportunity to say clearly, 'Down with that sort of thing', and allow Stephen Fry or anyone else to express an opinion without threat of criminal proceedings?"

As ever, the irony of his words was entirely lost on him.

It's certainly hard not to do a double-take when Gerry Adams waxes lyrical about freedom of speech. The republican movement and freedom of expression have rarely been comfortable bedfellows.

Men have been murdered for speaking their minds, not least Eamon Collins, stabbed and beaten to death on a lonely country road near Newry for exposing the pathological heart of his former IRA comrades in a book, Killing Rage.

Others, the lucky ones, have simply been driven out of their communities for the sin of not agreeing with Sinn Fein's worldview.

Adams's own personal commitment to free speech is exposed every time he threatens legal action against anyone pointing out that he didn't spend the 70s and 80s threading daisy chains on the Black Mountain.

As for blasphemy, where was Sinn Fein when the Irish parliament recently changed the rules to demand that members of the Dail now stand during the morning prayer at the start of business each day? When it came to a vote to scrap the prayer, these brave warriors for free expression abstained.

The rule came into operation this week. Six left-wing and independent TDs refused to stand, but Sinn Fein turned down a chance to join the protest.

It's easy to demand other people mount a staunch defence of free expression.

It's meaningless unless the one making a fuss is prepared to do the same thing.

It's not even that Adams's comments on blasphemy were particularly objectionable. He's made many crazy comments in the past, but this wasn't one of them.

But it's impossible these days to listen to the Sinn Fein leader without being reminded of the personal and historical baggage that he lugs around with him wherever he goes and which prevents him from being taken seriously when he tries to take the moral high ground on any subject.

There is literally nothing that Adams can say now which does not invite this incredulous response.

That's partly why there was talk over the weekend that he will step down in the autumn and hand the reins of power to his deputy, Mary Lou McDonald. (Note: not to have a free and open election at which members get to choose their own leader, but to hand the leadership over, like the crown of an ancient High King, as the late Martin McGuinness did with Michelle O'Neill. That alone speaks volumes about democracy in Sinn Fein).

Tactically, it makes a lot of sense.

The old guard is getting, well, old. In the upcoming Westminster election, veteran republicans such as Gerry Kelly in North Belfast and Pat Doherty in West Tyrone have already stepped aside to let candidates from the generation below have a go.

The replacement of Gerry Adams in a similar fashion is only a matter of time. Whether it will happen in the timescale currently being suggested is another matter altogether. If Sinn Fein had any sense, it should.

Intellectually speaking, Adams was never as sharp as his giddy supporters liked to pretend; in the Provos's land of the blind, the one-eyed man definitely was king.

He's also become increasingly poor on detail, not least when recently calculating that the Renewable Heating Initiative debacle would end up costing Northern Ireland "billions".

Life for his colleagues has become a matter of running round after the old war horse, scooping up the mess he leaves behind.

And for what? To keep in place a man whose every utterance is so devalued that few would believe the time of day if it came from his lips and whose legacy is so toxic that swathes of the electorate south of the border would rather boil their own heads in aspic before considering giving any party led by him a vote.

Put it this way: if a party leader cannot even make some innocuous remarks about removing the law on blasphemy without most listeners rolling their eyes suspiciously, then it's time to consider putting him out to pasture, because he'll always be one small step away from another gaffe.

In retirement, Gerry can happily tweet his thoughts on everything under the sun to his thousands of followers on Twitter and there'll be no damage done.

Except, of course, to the brain cells of those who still - against all the evidence - take him seriously.

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