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Reign of Gerry Adams nears end, but the new order won't tolerate the old ways

The election in the Republic may, some observers think, mark Gerry Adams' last hurrah as leader of Sinn Fein. What would the southern public say if they thought the IRA would have a hand in anointing his successor, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Published 01/03/2016

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams

The Sinn Fein TDs who were elected to the Dail in the general election last week owe a debt of gratitude to the IRA. They may not wish to express it publicly, but it is indisputable that it was the IRA that took the decision to allow them to stand - even before Sinn Fein itself debated the issue.

Go back to 1986 when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness urged the party to vote in favour of fighting elections to the Dail and taking seats.

Previously the party had reasoned that if partition was a crime against Ireland, then parliaments on both sides of an illegitimate border were equally to be shunned.

Therefore there was no more sense in Sinn Feiners taking seats in the Dail than there was in them trying to get into Stormont or Westminster.

This was one of the key issues on which the Provisionals had split from the Officials in 1970, so it was a radical change that was being proposed, and it was inevitable that the republican movement would split again on it.

But Adams had a card up his sleeve when he argued for the motion. He knew that some delegates would argue the decision to take seats in the Dail amounted to a betrayal of the IRA.

They would say that this would undermine the armed struggle that had, until then, persisted for 16 years.

So, Adams told them that the IRA had already made its own decision in favour of lifting the ban.

He addressed Sinn Fein as a party that had little option but to rubber-stamp decisions taken by the IRA, which had no room to manoeuvre otherwise.

He told members they were democrats and that their opinions mattered. Then he took all choice away from them.

He said: "Some of you may feel that a republican organisation making such a change can no longer call itself republican. I would remind you that another republican organisation has already done what you fear we are going to do tomorrow." He told delegates, in effect, that they were not bound by decisions of the IRA. Then he said they were.

"The logic which would dictate withdrawal of support from Sinn Fein, if decisions go against you, means that you have already decided to withdraw solidarity and support from the IRA and the armed struggle."

The implication of that was that you could hardly be presumed to be a good republican if you did not fully support the IRA, not just in its armed actions but in its political thinking.

Further, it demonstrated that the IRA took the big decisions and Sinn Fein's only job was to endorse them.

Now, it may not be like that any more. It is hard to imagine that people with the focus and principle of Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald would stay in Sinn Fein if they thought the IRA was dictating policy.

That may be put to the test soon if - as some republicans now believe - Adams is close to retirement as party leader.

He has achieved a great deal for Sinn Fein and enlarged its vote. Yet some think it could have done better without him; without a leader tainted by his IRA past; without a leader who defends the IRA's management of rape cases; without a leader who is always the lightning rod for popular contempt for the IRA and what it did.

Strangely, McGuinness doesn't get sneered at as much as Adams. That may be unfair and hard to account for given that McGuinness has acknowledged that he was an IRA member, at least in the early days of the Troubles. But it is a reality that the party has to live with. And, anyway, he's beginning to look like he is past it at 67.

His management of media interviews during the election campaign was cringe-making, so it may be that a new leader is to be chosen soon.

It is hard to imagine an ard fheis now at which Adams, or anyone else, would address the delegates as he did in 1986 and tell them that a decision before them had already been taken "by another republican organisation" and that they would be demonstrating their disloyalty to the IRA if they did not take the same decision themselves.

But what is to be done if the IRA - as security briefings suggest - still regards itself as the ultimate authority in the movement? When the security assessment of the status of the Provisional IRA was published during the Fresh Start talks last year there was much rumbling over the finding that members of the IRA believed that their army was in control of Sinn Fein.

The report itself did not conclude that the gunmen really were still in charge, but preferred to limit itself to suggesting that they might be deluded into imagining so.

McGuinness was emphatic that the party was under no one's control; it made its own decisions.

But it was not always so.

What if there are grumpy old boys who like the way things were in the Seventies and Eighties?

The relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein was made clear in a document captured from the then chief-of-staff Seamus Twomey in 1977.

This was the plan for the political project.

It said: "Sinn Fein should be radicalised (under army direction) and should agitate about social and economic issues which attack the welfare of the people."

There is no doubting there who is in charge.

Perhaps the transition is complete and Sinn Fein is now a fully independent party, albeit an odd one. Keeping the same leader in place for 30 years does not betoken healthy democratic instincts.

The party has no experience of choosing a leader and it appears to have adjusted itself reasonably comfortably to dictation from above, a top-down management style that declares itself once in a while by telling constituencies who to put forward as candidates.

Look how people in the second tier get shuffled around while the top boys stay in place. Count the ministers in the last Assembly who have simply faded into the background and watch now to see if Jennifer McCann and Caral Ni Chuilin keep their jobs in the next one.

John O'Dowd has already accepted that he won't. Michelle Gildernew has hardly been the mistress of her own fate.

Adams has bridged the old and the new ways of doing things in both the IRA and in Sinn Fein.

When he goes, he will have to take all trace of the old ways with him.

Or there will be ructions in Dublin.

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