Adams now has more baggage than an A380 aircraft
Published 05/12/2013 | 02:30
As a Wexford TD, I came to know and like Bishop Brendan Comiskey, appointed Bishop of Ferns in April 1984. I was extremely friendly with two priests of the diocese. I enjoyed dinner parties at which Brendan was also a guest. All three men were strong advocates of ecumenism, pioneering new protocols for mixed marriages.
When allegations first emerged of clerical sex abuse, my instinct was one of sympathy and support for the bishop's handling of the matter. Eventually, Comiskey had to resign in 2002 for his stewardship of deviant priests such as Father Sean Fortune.
My judgment was proven mistaken as events unfolded. He tried to handle matters through internal church procedures, rather than as overt criminal activity requiring instant referral to the gardai and judicial processes.
The conviction and jailing of Liam Adams in Belfast for repeated rape and abuse of his daughter Aine last week reminded me of parallels between Gerry Adams and Brendan Comiskey. Much can be undone by a serious error of judgment. For a period of nine years (2000 to 2009), Adams did not tell the police what he knew from his brother about his guilt. He treated this information as a private family matter.
Northern Ireland's attorney general is currently reviewing whether the Public Prosecution Service should have pressed charges against him – he's unlikely to face any.
Behavioural standards applicable to political leaders represent a much higher threshold. It is unthinkable that if an identical set of circumstances applied to Enda Kenny, Micheal Martin or Eamon Gilmore that they could survive as party leader.
Adams enjoys an impregnable position as president of Sinn Fein. To the party faithful, he is their Nelson Mandela. His list of achievements is quite remarkable. He took over party leadership in 1983, when Sinn Fein enjoyed 13pc electoral support in the North. Today it secures the largest first preference vote, at 27pc. The party has seen off the SDLP as the main voice of the minority community. Through changing demographics, it is likely to move ahead of the DUP.
Down south, its growth has been equally impressive, from 1pc to securing the election of 14 TDs and three senators and 12pc of the vote. Current opinion polls tally the party further enhanced at around 15pc to 17pc support levels.
Adams's 30-year tenure as leader has seen remarkable change since the darkest days of the H-Block hunger strike: abandonment of abstentionist public representation; Hume/Adams dialogue; IRA ceasefires; Good Friday Agreement; participation in the Assembly and power-sharing executive with the DUP; repelling threats from dissident republicans.
Throughout this transformation he has asked us to suspend our rational critical faculties and believe that he could lead these changes without he himself having the authority and credibility of being a former Provisional IRA leader. His denials defy logic and lack corroboration from those who admit being on the IRA Army Council.
Irrespective of his critics, Adams is assured of his place in Irish history. The fullness of time may even be kind to him for his role in eliminating the Armalite from Irish politics.
Since 1969 a total of 3,661 people have lost their lives in the Troubles. Those participating on both sides of the conflict cannot escape their past. Inevitably, Adams has as much baggage as an A380 aircraft. The legacy issues from four decades of violence continue to cause bitterness, pain and emotional anguish for victims' families on both sides.
The recent call by Attorney General John Larkin for an amnesty for violations prior to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was all too conveniently dismissed by British and Irish political leaders. In reality, the prospect of 'cold case' convictions at this stage without forensic evidence from decommissioned arms or DNA evidence from the Disappeared is remote.
At some point a new future dispensation will be not only required, but broadly acceptable. Perhaps on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in 2018 we can follow the South African National Unity and Reconciliation Act, providing absolution from so-called political crimes.
A proposal from former Church of Ireland Primate Robin Eames in 2008, recommended a commission to probe the truth of unresolved atrocities, provide an amnesty and a scheme of statutory compensation.
It should apply equally to victims of PIRA, UVF, UFF, UDA and the British security forces. The current process through US diplomat Dr Richard Haass may trigger new thinking and risk-taking.
A key question for Sinn Fein strategists is how to overcome the glass ceiling of 13.6pc support achieved by Martin McGuinness in the presidential election of 2011. For as long as a paramilitary past attaches to the Sinn Fein leadership, many voters in the South will continue to consider them as the ultimate marmite option. Their progression from a party of protest to a party of government will be obstructed by the refusal of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to coalesce with them. We have therefore reached Adams's Madiba moment to consider stepping aside.
Through the republican movement's internal centralised pyramid power structure, he will not be toppled or ousted. He has to reflect (at 65) on the next phase of electoral progress for Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald will be the anointed successor in the South, but there may be a dual parallel leadership for both sides of the Border.
IN the lead-up to anniversary commemorations in 2016, new political thinking about both the past and a future united Ireland is demanded. There isn't a current credible case for a single island state, requiring an annual southern subvention of £5bn (€6bn) to sustain a public service economy with more than 30pc of the workforce on the public payroll. This is equivalent to 10 times the yield of the full Local Property Tax in 2014.
Partition, with separate currencies and potential divergences on EU membership, is more of a fundamental reality than for any previous generation. All our political leaders, including Adams, need to rise to the challenge of constructing a vision of a new Ireland.