Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Gerry Adams sold defeat as victory in a career based on illusion... he’s no nearer to achieving a united Ireland than he was at the start of his journey

By Suzanne Breen

In the hard, brutal world of Irish republicanism, careers are often short-lived. Of the six senior IRA figures who met Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw for secret talks in London in 1972, four are dead.

While Martin McGuinness is a household name to this generation of young nationalists, the others are not.

In the years after the Cheyne Walk negotiations, Daithi O Conaill, Sean MacStiofain and Seamus Twomey lost their leadership positions and are today largely forgotten.

Gerry Adams and Ivor Bell are the only two republicans involved in that clandestine meeting who are still alive.

And what different experiences the intervening years have brought for them.

Bell clashed with Adams and was expelled from the IRA.

The 81-year-old, who is in ill-health, is currently facing charges in relation to the murder of Jean McConville, which he denies.

During his four-year legal battle, Bell's lawyers have argued that he is suffering from vascular dementia and is unfit to stand trial.

Life has been far kinder to Gerry Adams.

He is the great survivor.

Although arrested and questioned by detectives about the McConville murder, he has never been charged.

Tomorrow, he will bow out as Sinn Fein president against a backdrop of adulation from several thousand party activists in Dublin's RDS.

"I am not caught up in the notions of leadership. I do it through a sense of duty," he has said.

But you don't hang around as head honcho of the Provisional movement for 35 years if you don't enjoy the power.

Adams' iron grip never manifested itself by dominating proceedings through table thumping and hectoring.

Rather, he secured absolute control by isolating opponents and moving the right people into place. That took him decades.

His political ambitions go right the way back to the 1981 hunger strike at least, when he saw what was possible in electoral politics with Bobby Sands' victory in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Unionists see Adams as a destructive force in Northern Ireland politics, but they are wrong. While on the IRA Army Council, he sanctioned some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, yet without him the current peace would not be in place.

It wasn't that John Hume somehow convinced him of the merits of constitutionalism or half-dragged him along.

Former senior IRA colleagues reveal that Adams had long been set on that destination.

"It was obvious where he wanted to go and what he was up to. It was written all over him. Now McGuinness, he was the surprise," one says.

Together the Adams and McGuinness partnership delivered what many people thought was impossible. They brought the IRA to do what it said it never would - ending its campaign without a British withdrawal.

And they kept the movement largely united and intact.

That is Gerry Adams' greatest achievement.

The only threat to his power within republicanism came in 1997 when IRA hardliners led by quartermaster general Mickey McKevitt, who had already lost the internal battle against the Adams' faction, left the Provisionals to form the Real IRA.

With a high-profile series of bombings, the organisation looked set to attract Provisional recruits and disrupt Adams' plans.

But the security services were soon well on top of it. McKevitt was charged with directing terrorism on the evidence of FBI informant Dave Rupert. He was jailed for 15 years.

Today, physical force republicanism is barely existent, with none of the several groups continuing capable of waging a sustained campaign or securing any significant level of support in their own community.

By contrast, Gerry Adams leaves the stage with Sinn Fein as the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland on 29% of the vote in June's Westminster election and with 23 Dail seats.

But while Adams has built a powerful electoral machine, he is no nearer achieving what he professes is the foundation stone of his politics than he was at the start of his career.

A united Ireland by 2016 has now become a border poll by 2022. All he can do is to keep postponing the day of the promised land to his followers.

Sinn Fein may well go into office as a junior coalition partner with Fine Gael but it is as unlikely to deliver substantial social change and progress towards Irish unity in Leinster House as it was in a decade of government with the DUP in Stormont.

Adams' genius has been in selling defeat as victory. The politics of illusion has served him well.

He inspires immense loyalty among his lieutenants - many of whom would lay down their life for him in a heartbeat - and among Sinn Fein grassroots. The bonds of affection for Mary Lou McDonald will never even begin to go that deep.

Yet Adams is universally disliked by those outside the nationalist community. It's nothing to do with his politics. Not a single unionist politician would have a bad word to say about Martin McGuinness personally from their dealings with him, even though they initially loathed him.

In Stormont, he won over everybody he met, from canteen to security staff, with his easy charm and down-to-earth approach. The same is not the case for Adams who is seen as arrogant and insincere.

Ironically, that is a view shared by ex-IRA comrades like Brendan Hughes, who parted company with the Sinn Fein president along the way. Like Ivor Bell's, the former Belfast Brigade commander's life worked out very differently to Gerry Adams'.

He spent his last days in a tiny, threadbare flat in Divis. He was haunted by the faces of the dead whom he believed had lost their lives for nothing. The Good Friday Agreement stood for "Got F*** All" he said.

'The Dark', as he was known, survived on disability allowance. The month before he died, he was left without heating until another ex-prisoner lent him an electric fire.

He carried the physical and mental scars from life at the coal-face of the IRA's campaign and 13 years in jail and 53 days on hunger-strike.

Prison had left him with arthritis. He was prone to chest infections and he had started to go blind.

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 he eventually saw "the man behind the mask" when it was too late.

"I thought the struggle was about improving life for the community, not about certain people climbing up the ladder," he said.

"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."

Gerry Adams has been on a remarkable political journey. Many people died on his watch, yet many lives have undoubtedly been saved by his success in bringing the IRA to call a ceasefire.

He has come a long way from the gangly 23-year-old militant released from prison for those London truce talks. Even he couldn't have believed back then just what was possible for him.

Belfast Telegraph

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