Gerry Adams is a brilliant strategist who will be enormously difficult to replace

Posted By: September 08, 2017

Distributed by Irish National Caucus
“This is a significant article, given that Alex Kane describes himself as ‘an unashamed, unambiguous, unembarrassed Unionist.’ “— Fr. Sean Mc Manus 

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, September 8, 20117

In his just-published biography of Gerry Adams (Gerry Adams: An Unauthorized Life), Malachi O’Doherty notes:”Adams brought the IRA campaign to an end, entered protracted and faltering negotiations with the British government and other parties, and he conceded constitutional arrangements that he had dedicated his life to opposing. And from being a fanatical revolutionary street politician in perpetual danger of arrest and assassination, he became a political leader with access to the British and Irish prime ministers and the US president, as well as a writer and a millionaire. He had become a statesman admired around the world, though still reviled by many at home who believed that thousands might have been spared horrible deaths if he had come to these ideas earlier.”

That seems to me to be a reasonably accurate summing up of the man. But for Adams—who’ll be 70 next year—there’s something missing; something that means more to him than anything else. Ireland remains partitioned. The place in which he was born in October 1948—Belfast—remains in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, which he and most Sinn Féin supporters regard as ‘illegitimate,’ is still here and just four years away from its centenary. I don’t actually subscribe to the view that Adams is ‘dreadfully vain,’ but I’m pretty sure that the only thing he wants to be remembered for is the Republican who finally delivered Irish unity. History isn’t particularly generous to those who paved the way: history remembers martyrs and deliverers.

It takes a certain type of leader to hold onto office for 34 years and to have been a key player in their organization for almost 50. Adams is one of that rare breed. He is brilliant at strategy, options, adaptability, recognizing chances, seizing the political initiative and spotting those very occasional ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ moments. It doesn’t really matter if he was in the IRA—something he has always denied; a denial most Unionists don’t believe—all that matters is that they trusted him and have allowed him to be their voice since at least 1972.

In terms of the IRA,  I think his position was always strategy first, morality second. In other words, I don’t believe he encouraged an end to the ‘armed struggle’ because he believed that terrorism was wrong; I think he wanted it to end because he believed that it couldn’t deliver Irish unity. That’s why people like me—although I’ve heard many Nationalists express the same opinion—find it difficult to regard him as a credible peacemaker.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t count in this case. Adams has taken Sinn Féin to record levels of support, north, and south of the border. He was instrumental in depriving Unionists of an overall majority in the Assembly last March (the first time since 1921 that they haven’t had that majority), an outcome that sent shockwaves across Unionism. And no matter how much the SDLP attacks his record, the fact remains that Sinn Féin continues to land blow after blow on them. Tens of thousands of Nationalists—many of whom opposed both Sinn Féin and the IRA for years—are now content to vote for the party. Adams is entitled to claim most of the credit for that electoral turnaround.

In the early hours of June 24, 2016, he glimpsed the ‘promised land’. He spotted, long before most others, that Brexit provided an unexpected route to Irish unity; opening the possibility that soft Unionists and soft Nationalists (happy enough to remain in the UK had there been a Border poll against the usual background) could be attracted to unity as a way of preserving their European identity and protecting themselves from ‘little Englander’ governments in London. Since then, nothing else has mattered to him. He is prepared to let the Assembly fall; he is prepared to put up with direct rule; he is prepared to make one final stand on the defining issue of his lifetime. Critics have suggested that he’s even prepared to endorse political chaos if it hastens unity.

His comment on Tuesday—that he would be speaking about his own future in a speech in November—suggests that he has reached that point in his career in which he will take the equivalent of a back seat; albeit a comfortable and mobile one. Maybe he realizes that he, personally, remains a bridge too far for the crucial votes required to deliver an anti-Union majority in a Border poll. Maybe he reckons that unity isn’t deliverable in his lifetime and wants to hand over the reins. Maybe he’s just tired.

Whatever decision he makes, one thing is clear: he will be an enormously difficult act to replace. For better or worse republicanism hasn’t seen anyone like him in almost a century. He has taken Sinn Féin to within sniffing distance of reunification. Here’s the final conundrum, though: if he isn’t capable of taking the vote across the finishing line for unity (because he isn’t trusted by a key section of potential voters), has Sinn Féin anyone else who can complete the journey? One thing strikes me as certain, however: if the present circumstances—most of which were unexpected and therefore unplanned for—don’t deliver unity, then it will be another generation before another ‘moment’ comes along.