Adams can't stay in character as a statesman for long
The Sinn Fein leader can only keep up the act for a short time before letting the mask slip
Published 11/05/2014 | 02:30
If there was ever any appetite in Sinn Fein south of the border for trading in its leader for a younger model with less baggage, it's gone now.
Since his arrest for questioning over the abduction, murder and disappearance of Jean McConville 40 years ago, the position of Gerry Adams has become unassailable. In the eyes of many of the party's fanboys and girls, he's almost become Nelson Mandela, unjustly jailed by a brutal regime, albeit for four nights rather than 27 years. Adams emerged to a hero's welcome as if he had escaped from Robben Island, nowhere nearer to being the "father to the nation" Mandela became, but certainly a more powerful patriarch of his party.
Fittingly so, because Adams is a microcosm of the republican movement, in both its best and worst aspects. The best was shown in his initial response after being released by police in Northern Ireland pending a later decision on prosecution. Adams made all the right noises. At first. He bore no bitterness. He supported the new policing regime in the North. The IRA, he even said, was finished. He was channelling his inner Mandela; and, it has to be said, after the previous few days when the republican movement slipped back into old habits, it was a welcome relief.
Cynics might even think the rabble-rousing which went on at the weekend rally in West Belfast – where Bobby Storey, former Maze escapee, sent a crude message to the joint governments that "we haven't gone away, you know" – was deliberately designed to provide a contrast to Adams when he emerged from questioning. To produce a collective sigh of relief that reason was once more taking the place of threats.
Then he had to go and ruin it, with a series of ill-judged remarks which proved once again that Adams can only keep up the act for so long before carelessly letting the mask slip again. That included the implicit endorsement of a message from former Provo propaganda chief Danny Morrison, which Adams retweeted on his Twitter feed, scornfully referring to the oral history programme set up by journalist Ed Moloney and writer and former IRA member Anthony McIntyre as the "Boston College Touting Project".
Tout is a disgusting word which should never be tolerated by any politician who wants to be taken seriously as a servant of democracy or law. There is no such thing as a tout. Secrets do not have rights, people do, and people have an absolute right to speak their own truth. What they say, when talking either to legally constituted authorities or academics, might cause others difficulties, but they don't have to justify themselves to those who would rather silence reigned.
Adams's endorsement of such sentiments certainly calls into question his public support for whistleblowers in the public services south of the border. Some venal forces consider those people to be touts too. Using the word against decent men like McIntyre, who not only conducted many of the Boston College interviews but also put his own, possibly self-incriminating testimony into the same archive, is playing with the personal safety of a man and his family for cheap political advantage. It's hard to take from public figures who constantly demand others temper their language so as not to damage the peace process.
Adams quickly reverted to type in the coming days by repeating conspiracies about the dark forces allegedly out to get him. It summed up the one step forward/one step back aspect of his personality; his inability to stay in character as a statesman and not slip back into his role as tribal leader. That needn't necessarily be fatal. Politicians have the same multiplicity of flaws as everyone else. Adams's problem is that, when he speaks harshly, it sounds more authentic than when he speaks softly.
At a Sinn Fein election rally in Dublin's Alexander Hotel, for example, he spoke of the republican movement's culpability for the murder of Jean McConville in the following words: "We cannot rail against British injustice unless we face up to injustices like this." It was an excellent soundbite, but it also felt meaningless because there was no serious intent at reconciliation behind it. The republican movement has no intention of facing up to the injustices it has perpetrated – Storey's fury that the police "would dare touch our party leader" was chilling evidence of the righteous sense of entitlement which still permeates the movement – but it does still rail hypocritically against British perfidy. Whatboutery reigns, and Adams is steeped in it.
The mistake is to expect anything else. Adams is continually being asked to be something that he isn't. Poli-
ticians are generally not very deep thinkers. The brightest people in their circle are those around them, in the background, formulating ideas. Adams is no different. His books published during the Troubles show the thinking of a man incapable of moving far beyond the standard republican narrative of victimhood. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. His facility with a pen was enough for Adams to be crowned philosopher king of his people, which appealed to his vanity, because why wouldn't it? Like most public figures, the SF leader has no shortage of ego. That's why he trades on the fairy story about himself as the republican leader who led the IRA away from the gun and towards the ballot box, rather than the leader of a movement which had exhausted the possibility of armed struggle with no visible gains, and which was so infiltrated and compromised by British intelligence at the end that it had no choice but to give up the ghost.
Tactically, Adams is adept at identifying areas of potential support for SF, but it's hard to think of a single example where he has reached out beyond the party's natural base and convinced anyone who was not already minded to be convinced that he has a credible vision for the country. He literally has no idea how to appeal to Unionists, or even talk to them.
South Africa came through a much more bitter and intractable conflict, but Mandela earned the respect and even affection of former foes through the sheer force of his personality. Adams remains a tribal hero, not a uniting one, and his apparent belief that there is an inevitability about unification once SF gets its feet under the table of power is a matter of pure faith rather than reason. It confirms his profound lack of seriousness as a thinker which no murals will ever cover up entirely.
When Adams first set up his Twitter account, many people wondered if it was a brilliant satire, as the one-time war leader waffled on about his teddy bear and bathtime with the rubber duckies. The deeper and more disturbing truth may be that it is the most accurate reflection of the real Adams, one who is essentially unknowable, a mystery even to those closest to him, who erects a wall of whimsy almost as a defensive mechanism, deflecting with throwaway quips rather than exposing himself through any deep engagement.
Young Irish people, weirdly beguiled by his Twitter persona, are faced with the same dilemma as the British when first encountering Adams in the early Seventies. One put it: "I expected – putting it frankly – an aggressive streetwise young tough. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when instead a very personable, likeable, intelligent, articulate and persuasive young man appeared."
That didn't stop Adams being a very dangerous character indeed, and the British recognised him as such. His worldview was black and white, and his preferred solutions were alarmingly simplistic. Such people should always be treated warily. He's now matured into a man of 65 who can still be extremely personable and persuasive, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be equally wary of what lies behind the whimsy.
Adams was born in a dark place in dark times, and he's ruled that roost now for decades. That leaves its mark. He may stoutly declare his innocence of the specific allegations around the murder of Jean McConville, but the indisputable fact remains that her brutal death happened at a time when he was accepted by the British, who flew him to London for talks on that understanding, as leader of a movement which was responsible for some of the grimmest deeds of this country's history.
It might seem like a whole other country to outsiders, but West Belfast is a very small place. Nothing happens there without republicans knowing about it. Nothing. When Adams was in situ as republican chief, the IRA disappeared those who were inconvenient. There's no getting away from that. Disappearing is the international mark of the war criminal and the tyrant, as indeed are vainglorious monuments celebrating raw power; but this didn't happen in South America, it happened a hundred miles up the road from Dublin, in living memory. It leaves a stain which no amount of polished denials can ever truly wash away.