Great irony of peace process is how Gerry Adams’s violent past haunted him
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It was supposed to end with Gerry Adams in Aras an Uachtarain, the name Ireland gives these days to the one-time British vice-regal lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, which now houses Ireland’s mostly ceremonial, powerless president. It is the nearest thing Ireland has to Buckingham Palace.
Adams ending his political life as president of Ireland was the secret bit in the peace process strategy; it was supposed to crown a series of political triumphs that would flow from the IRA ending its war against Britain, the centrepiece of which would be the sight of Sinn Fein rear ends seated around cabinet tables on both sides of the border. Not Irish unity but a pretty good facsimile.
The current resident gives a clue about the qualities Ireland normally seeks in its presidents. Michael D Higgins is an all-round good guy about whom nobody has a bad word to say. Gerry Adams’ qualification for the office was to be of a very different sort. His claim lay in the leadership role he played in ending the killing in Northern Ireland and winding up the Provisional IRA, lock, stock and all its decommissioned gun barrels. A grateful Irish electorate would reward him with the highest office in its gift.
That is now unlikely to happen. Adams has not only served notice that he has no intention of standing for his Dail seat at the next election but he has already ruled out a run for the presidency, recognising that his race has almost been run.
As the Sinn Fein faithful gathered in Dublin this weekend to bid farewell to Adams, one of the first motions they debated and approved allowed the party to enter a coalition government as a minor partner, junior to one of the other major parties, Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.
This was actually another acknowledgement of failure, every bit as eloquent as Adams’ retirement.
When, in the early 2000’s, Sinn Fein first seriously sought elected office in the Republic of Ireland, the plan was simple and promising. On the back of delivering the peace process in the north, Sinn Fein would present itself as the new, bright, hopeful future for Ireland, a breath of fresh air in a political system that seemed moribund and essentially unchanged or challenged in decades. If it went to plan, Sinn Fein would sweep all before them and enter government as the dominant party. Since the late 1970’s all governments in Dublin have been coalitions and politics have largely been about which party emerges as the boss.
Sinn Fein’s promise to its voters and grassroots activists was that it would not enter coalition playing second fiddle, and would not compromise on enacting its programme. Others could join it in government, but Sinn Fein would call the shots.
Now, along with those lofty hopes for Adams’ elevation to the presidency, that promise has been cast to the wind. The irony in all of this is that the person who made all this possible in the first place is most responsible for the disappointment and failure that now faces Sinn Fein. There can be no doubt that there would have been no peace process, no decommissioning, no standing down of the IRA without Gerry Adams. In the early 1970s when he rose to become Belfast IRA commander, Adams was widely recognised, not least by his opponents, as a master military strategist who had, while commander of the second Belfast battalion, forced the British to introduce internment, an act that destabilised Northern Ireland almost entirely.
Internment boosted recruitment to the IRA, the British responded with Bloody Sunday and as Ireland rose as one in anger to protest, were then forced to impose direct rule. All had changed utterly.
When the IRA faced defeat in the mid-1970s Adams charted a way out. The IRA was re-organised and by the late 1970s was once again a military force to be reckoned with, as the deaths on the same day of Lord Mountbatten in Co Sligo and 18 paratroopers in Warrenpoint bore bloody witness. It was Adams who secretly nursed an ambition to run Sinn Fein in elections and grasped the chance to realise it during the H-Block hunger strikes of 1981, by running Bobby Sands in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and other prisoners in seats south of the border. He made electoral politics respectable in the Provos by associating it with military sacrifice.
Sinn Fein’s subsequent success in the Assembly election of 1982 terrified establishment politicians in Ireland but also created an unresolvable tension between the IRA and Sinn Fein: if one prospered the other had to languish. You couldn’t bomb factories one day and ask for votes the next from those who had lost their jobs.
That tension, that contradiction, intensified with every election that followed. It was at the end of the day a contradiction that defied resolution; one or the other had to prevail and the only question we cannot yet answer is whether Adams knew this at the time, or was just lucky. The roots of the peace process, the rise of Sinn Fein and the fall of the IRA, lay in that conflict and while the full story of what happened has yet to be told, we know enough to recognise that without Adams’ caution and skill, not to mention deviousness in handling the IRA, it could all have ended in a very different way.
During this lengthy, tortuous and often dangerous journey Adams made one serious error. He denied what everyone knew, that he had been a member of the IRA.
Now traditionally, Irish republicans never admit to being in the IRA (not least because that would bring a jail term), but neither have they believed it was acceptable to deny it, for to do so would be disown their comrades and their life’s meaning. Instead, their response would be along the lines of ‘mind your own business’, although not always put so politely.
Adams’ decision to deny his past was at first regarded internally as a clever ploy which confused the IRA’s enemies. But as the peace process gathered speed and as Adams rubbed the shoulders of establishment politicians, more of his comrades came to regard his denial as a ploy to distance himself from some of the IRA’s worst excesses, to blame others for things he had ordered them to do.
It was this, I firmly believe, which persuaded one-time close comrades like Brendan Hughes to go public on Adams’ alleged involvement in episodes like the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, the widowed mother of seven, killed because of her alleged role as a British Army informer. Adams’ denial of IRA involvement thus focused attention on his record during the years of the worst IRA violence in a way which might not have happened had he been less mendacious about his past.
To Sinn Fein’s political enemies in the Dail this was a gift from the Gods. Hardly a year has passed since Adams took his seat in Leinster House that has not seen one or more extended scandals centred on claims about Adams’ alleged involvement in this or that murder or outrage.
He became politically radioactive and when Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein’s natural partner in coalition made it clear that he would never enter government alongside a Sinn Fein party that had Adams as its leader, the script for his retirement from politics was virtually written.
Adams and Sinn Fein had hoped that they would enter Dail politics and ultimately Government Buildings by putting the IRA behind them. Instead the IRA has haunted them, keeping Adams’ alleged role in violence to the fore of the public’s consciousness and preventing Sinn Fein from making the breakthrough into government and Adams from ever laying his head on a pillow in the master bedroom of Aras. That is perhaps the greatest irony of the peace process.
- Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist who now lives and works in New York City. His books include A Secret History of the IRA and Voices from the Grave