Belfast Telegraph

Former Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams finally bows out of politics

Gerry Adams outside Sinn Fein headquarters in 1984
Gerry Adams outside Sinn Fein headquarters in 1984
With Bill Clinton
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Nobody could ever have predicted that it would end this way.

Back in the early 1970s when Gerry Adams first emerged on the streets of Belfast as a young Provisional IRA leader, he seemed on course for a very different future.

The fiercely intelligent, serious young militant, who dressed like a sociology lecturer, may have appeared destined for the traditional republican path - a lengthy prison sentence or the grave.

A career that would see him elected to both the British and Irish parliaments did not look on the cards.

Nor did the journey that he would take the republican movement on. With the invaluable assistance of Martin McGuinness, he brought the Provisional IRA to not only lay down its arms, but to decommission them, without ending partition.

As Leo Varadkar dissolved the Dail yesterday, an emotional Adams was telling a party meeting in Dundalk he would not be seeking re-election as the Louth TD.

He can take pride in utterly transforming Sinn Fein, bringing it from the far-flung margins to the centre-stage of Irish politics. He made it into a formidable electoral machine - although as he bows out, the party's fortunes do not look as bright as they did not so long ago.

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Adams has said he was never "caught up in the notions of leadership" but you don't remain at the top of the republican movement for four decades without ruthless ambition.

He first saw the electoral potential for Sinn Fein during the 1981 hunger strike when Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It is sometimes presented as a case of John Hume and Dublin convincing him of the merits of constitutionalism or half-dragging him along. But former senior IRA colleagues insist that he had long been set on that destination.

As a former Army Council member, he may have sanctioned some of the worst atrocities of the conflict - yet without him the current peace would not be in place.

Yet while McGuinness won the grudging respect even of those who despised his paramilitary past, Adams is universally disliked outside the nationalist community.

As he stepped down from frontline politics, he celebrated the return of power-sharing here last week. In the corridors of Stormont, where he served as an MLA for 12 years, there is little warmth for him beyond the Sinn Fein team.

He lacked McGuinness' easy charm. He always came across as too aloof and calculating. It is Adams' strategising that saw him not only survive so long, but prosper. He played the long game while those around him were caught up in the day-to-day realities of the conflict.

His two closest comrades back in the 1970s had very different experiences. Ivor Bell was cleared two months ago of soliciting the murder of mother-of-10 Jean McConville. It was the end of a five-year legal battle for the 82-year-old who is in ill health.

Former Belfast Brigade commander, the late Brendan Hughes, knew Gerry Adams intimately. A photo on his living-room wall showed two tanned, smiling young men in Long Kesh with their arms wrapped around each other - Adams and Hughes.

In 2006, two years before he died, Hughes told me: "Gerry wasn't trusted by (IRA) grassroots and I was. He used me to 'up' his own status. I had 100% faith in him. I defended him so many times when I shouldn't have.

"I never saw his agenda. He was far too shrewd, which is why he is where he is today. He was charismatic like Mick Collins but at least Mick Collins didn't just give orders, he fired shots himself. Gerry never did, not even at training camps in the South.

Hughes said: "I thought the struggle was about improving life for the community, not about certain people climbing up the ladder. It was never about glory for me. There is no glory in war, there is no glory in killing people. But for Gerry it was about using people to get glory and power. I never met anybody more false."

The IRA ceasefire, which has saved so many lives, is the former Sinn Fein president's greatest achievement.

But it is heart-breaking that what we have now - a power-sharing Executive at Stormont - was on offer in the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, yet Adams and other IRA leaders rejected it.

In the intervening years, 2,000 people died. Brendan Hughes would lie awake at night tormented by the thought that it was all for nothing. Gerry Adams, by comparison, appears to be a man entirely at ease with his conscience.

Belfast Telegraph


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