Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Adams has led Sinn Fein for half his lifetime, and there's still no sign of him letting go

By Anthony McIntyre

When Richard Blevins of Sky News tweeted Tuesday morning that Gerry Adams was due to make a significant statement at a party gathering in Meath, my terse tweet of a response was "he will not lead Sinn Fein into the 2050 general election". It was a flippant but candid remark forged by decades of having observed both the political and military odyssey of Adams.

Despite his dexterous yoking of the two Provisional horses, he has never shirked from cracking the whip in ruthless furtherance of his own longevity, coupled with a relentless drive to the top of the greasy pole. It would have been truly stunning had yesterday's statement been of authentic significance, the occasion used by the corrosive old caudillo to usher in a creative young leader. Instead he primed the media with the announcement of something significant to come and then leapt onto the podium eagerly provided from where he stamped the party presidential imprimatur on an extension of his political career.

Yesterday's speech was never about heralding any change at the top. It was simply spun that way with language like "planned process of generational change."

The thing about Adams and processes is that they can take quite a long time coming to fruition and they are always conducive to his political career.

There has been no Sinn Fein policy shift in 34 years that was not at the same time advantageous to his political fortunes.

His leadership skill rests in persuading his followers that his career interests are indistinguishable from the party's.

Somewhere in there lies Karl Kraus's secret of the demagogue, which is "to make himself as stupid as his audience, so they believe they are as clever as he".

Moreover, an iron grip on power is concomitant with the pleasure of command.

People do not build up the type of political stamina that Gerry Adams has just for someone else to steal the thunder. In 13 months' time, when he shall be 70, he will have led Sinn Fein for half his lifetime.

Democratic parties where power is routinely transferred do not accommodate such uninhibited ambition. A plurality of thinking and interests, egos and sleights, invariably give rise to leadership challenges. The last leadership bid was made three and half decades ago by Adams. Since then, zippo.

A party is in a state of torpor if it believes it is so talentless that only one person can lead it for almost 40 years. Adams, facilitated by such deference, will see no advantage in standing aside. He has never yet addressed the underachievement of the IRA armed struggle, feigning in one newspaper interview that the Provisional IRA's was the only campaign not to have ended in failure.

His strategising has resulted in republicanism, rather than the Northern state, achieving the status of "failed political entity."

To manipulate the historical record, tart up the republican failure as a success, and have his career placed on a victory plinth, no matter how poxy, Adams needs to showcase Sinn Fein in government North and South. In that way, he can spin it as some form of united Ireland, just not the one traditionally envisioned.

Such chicanery is best served if Adams, the clandestine revolutionary, is Tanaiste rather than some former Fianna Fail member, like Mary Lou McDonald.

A gamble, but not an unwise one. The likely calculation is that come the next election, given Sinn Fein's willingness to play prop-up, Micheal Martin will come under intense internal pressure within Fianna Fail to row back on his no-coalition-with-Sinn-Fein stance.

Presented with the tantalizing prospect of leading the government opposition to Sinn Fein will be much weaker than opposition to the Opposition benches.

At such a juncture, Adams would be foolish not to chance another spin on the merry-go-round. Sinn Fein might do better under another leader, but Adams does not need Sinn Fein to do very well, just well enough to get into coalition with him at its head.

Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner, journalist and co-founder of The Blanket, an online magazine that critically analysed the peace process. He blogs at

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