Belfast Telegraph

Cold and calculating Gerry Adams is never a twit

Many commentators view Gerry Adams' increasingly bizarre tweets as evidence that he has finally lost the plot. But that is to fatally underestimate the ultimate Machiavelli of Irish politics, says Henry McDonald

He has been hugging trees in Havana, speaking to his rubber duck in the bath and chatting to a teddy bear named after one of his closest advisers. And now, it seems, he trampolines naked with his pet dog. Welcome to the strange, twee world of Gerry Adams on Twitter.

From Daily Mail Online to the Irish satirical website Waterfordwhispersnews.com, Adams' tweets - including this latest one - have fuelled speculation about his mental health and general wellbeing.

The Waterfordwhispers people managed to exploit the Sinn Fein president's nude trampolining by reporting that the pet dog - Countess Markiebitch (their hilarious made-up name for the hound) - has reported Adams to an animal welfare charity for forcing it to leap up and down with the Big Lad in the buff, an image many will feel equally weird and disturbing.

Others in the mainstream media, meanwhile, have been wondering if the Louth TD has simply "lost the plot" by tweeting a series of increasingly bizarre messages - even provoking one interviewer in Dublin to ask Adams if he is, in fact, an old hippy. To which the wise words of Sex Pistols guru and pop impressario Malcom McLaren comes to mind: "Never trust a hippy."

However, the only people losing the plot are those who think that, after four decades holding the centre of power within the Provisionals, Adams' tweets are signals that his grip on reality is somehow slipping.

The truth, in fact, is that, like every other move Adams has made both inside and outside the republican movement, these tweets are carefully considered and released at strategic times.

Is it the height of cynicism to suggest that the headline-grabbing nude-man-and-dog bouncing act was tweeted at a time when his party was under fire for supporting a UK Treasury-imposed cost-cutting agenda in Northern Ireland?

So, when the media should have been posing questions on the dichotomy between Sinn Fein opposing spending cuts in the Republic, while simultaneously, alongside their partners in the DUP, imposing them in Northern Ireland, instead the Press and broadcasters were fixated on one nude man and his dog.

You might think that this alleged manipulation of Twitter is far too Machiavellian, but that is to misunderstood the ultimate Machiavelli of modern times.

Because, since coming to power within Sinn Fein following the hunger strikes and the entry of the party into electoral politics, Adams has been the master of manipulating news agendas, as well as steering the movement in directions no one ever expected it to go.

Aside from specific events and policies that might cause embarrassment for the party, the use of Twitter by Adams is a useful ongoing exercise in repackaging the Sinn Fein president.

In his tweets, he can portray himself as cuddly, mildly eccentric and that most cliched, over-played, exaggerated virtue of all in Irish life, good craic.

The tweets about rubber ducks, teddy bears and bouncing about in the nip with your grandchildren's dog creates a soft focus and takes the edge of someone who, in the past, has had a truculent, wolfish public image.

The recalibration of Adams' image is specifically designed to make the Sinn Fein president less threatening and more huggable to that critical segment of the southern Irish electorate known as "Middle Ireland".

Although no one in the party would dare publicly say it, some insiders within Sinn Fein admit they have a "Gerry problem" regarding his appeal in the Republic. While he tops the poll in his Louth constituency and his party is the biggest in the State (according to last weekend's Sunday Independent opinion poll) some strategists feel Sinn Fein could do even better with a new leader, untainted by the whiff of cordite and the legacy of the Troubles past.

There have even been rumblings of late in Northern Ireland about how Adams as leader is a block on the party's further progress, particularly the inroads it needs to make into the southern Irish middle class ahead of next year's general election.

Of course, Adams is standing again for the post of party president at the Sinn Fein ard fheis and it is likely (barring illness, or something earth-shattering) that he will run unopposed for the position at the top.

Which means he will lead the party into the election campaign in the hope that he could be Taoiseach and take the salute when the official Irish State parade passes down O'Connell Street next Easter to mark the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

For many in the Republic, that prospect is a repellent one and has even led younger voices within Fine Gael to suggest they would rather go into a new coalition with their old rivals in Fianna Fail just to deny Taoiseach Adams standing on the podium on Easter 2016.

In essence, this marriage of convenience would bring an end to another historical landmark in the history of Ireland - the civil war - out of which the two old parties were born, in blood and lasting bitterness.

In times of adversity, facing hard questions about the likes of his brother Liam Adams, or the Mairia Cahill scandal, or the legacy of the Jean McConville murder, the Sinn Fein president will go to extraordinary lengths to deflect criticism and survive opprobrium.

Think of how he reacted to the Liam Adams' scandal by revealing that his own father (until then a republican icon given an IRA funeral) had abused members of his family. That particular harrowing and personal testimony is in sharp contrast to the jokey, self-deprecating, often surreal tweets he releases. Yet the Twitter feed plays a similar role in terms of setting an agenda and switching media focus.

The tweets are designed to soften up the image of a man who has been seen - yes - as a brilliant political operator, but also someone who is also perceived by many as cold, calculating and with a past that includes the legacy of the IRA's Disappeared - the policy of kidnapping, killing and burying in secret victims accused of being informers, which the late Brendan Hughes alleges from the grave that Adams minted back in the early-1970s (Adams denies being involved in the Jean McConville disappearance, or ever being a member of the IRA).

As the election in the south gets closer, the one thing you can be sure of is that Adams' Twitter output will increase and could become more surreal over the months ahead.

Expect more tweets about pets, both plastic and furry. Let's just hope and pray that he doesn't have a pet hamster in any of his homes.

Belfast Telegraph

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