Adams sees the words but just doesn't get the picture
The Sinn Fein leader's problem is that his body may live in Co Louth but his mind has never left the North, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
PLENTY has been said about Gerry Adams's response to the Smithwick tribunal report, but the "Adams problem", as we should probably now start calling the parade of stumbling idiocies that make up the Sinn Fein leader's contribution to public life, was probably best summed up by Talleyrand more than 200 years ago, when he declared that Napoleon's execution of a young duke was "worse than a crime, it was a blunder".
Adams commits no crime when he repeatedly makes crass and offensive comments about some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, but if politics is the art of avoiding blunders, then it's a skill which appears to have deserted him. What last week showed is that Gerry Adams may have read the Smithwick report, but he didn't understand it; or to put it another way, he understood what all the words said, but he didn't understand what they meant. In short, Adams's problem is that he thought the Smithwick report was about the North. It wasn't. It was about the Garda Siochana.
That may seem like an obvious thing to say, but Adams simply does not seem to grasp the fondness and respect in which the Garda Siochana is held in the country in which he's now an elected representative. People in what he calls the 26 counties not only feel that the Garda has been an honourable force for good, it's important to their national sense of self that it be seen as such. So when the Smithwick report concluded there had been collusion, on however isolated a scale, with the IRA, and that it had led in this instance to two brutal murders, it struck a chord. Two men had come unarmed to a neighbour's house – and they had to be unarmed because of the provisions of the Anglo Irish Agreement which had been negotiated on behalf of the people – and they'd been struck down by evil. You only have to go back to the Icelandic sagas to see what a violation of hospitality is represented by killing men who come in good faith to your hearth.
That was the civilised human context in which everyone from the Taoiseach to the Garda Commissioner to ordinary people responded to the report. So did the PSNI, who pointedly said of the Garda Siochana: "We value their friendship, we value their co-operation and we value their professionalism and they have saved many lives alongside my own colleagues." This is what peace making looks like.
That's what Gerry Adams just didn't and couldn't get. The Smithwick report wasn't about the North. It wasn't about the Troubles. He didn't understand that because, whilst his physical body might live in a house in Co Louth, his mind has never left the North, and it never will. When he read the report, Adams saw only the word "collusion", and it transfixed him, rabbit-like in the headlights, because he instantly started thinking of collusion by the RUC and the British army. The people served by the Garda Siochana weren't drawing up profit and loss tables to decide who was "worse" in this way. They were instead measuring the force against the highest standards which they expected of it, finding it wanting, and seeking to say and do the right thing in response. That's why Adams's crass remarks about the dead men's "laissez faire" attitude to their own security were so shocking.
Like some obsessed trainspotter, Adams feigned innocence, pointing to the paragraphs in the report which prompted his remarks – and spectacularly missing the point in the process. The real question is: why did he pick up on those paragraphs? To most of us, they were a small part of the background narrative to the tragedy, certainly not its meaning. Why did that bit matter so much to Adams? It sounded as if he was trawling the report for ifs and buts, identifying the individual notes but not hearing the tune.
Having been sent down the wrong alley, everyone then started echoing Adams's terms. When asked on Six One News about the fact that the Sinn Fein leader's comments had "gone down like a lead balloon", for example, even David Davin Power started talking about the murder of Pat Finucane and other incidents of collusion identified by Mr Justice Cory in his report a while back. Any relevance to the matter at hand was incidental at best. Finucane was a victim of collusion by the British. So, most likely, was loyalist leader Billy Wright. What did any of that have to do with how a decent, thinking human being should respond to Smithwick?
By the time of TV3's Tonight With Vincent Browne on Wednesday evening, the mood had soured into a full blown bout of whataboutery, with Sinn Fein's Padraig McLochlain shouting about British infamy as if he was at a hunger strike rally in West Belfast in the early Eighties.
The Shinners would need cloth ears not to appreciate how this was going down around the country. On a selfish party political level alone, it could only damage their electoral chances. And for what? To show loyalty to Adams, however many problems he causes by his failure to grasp the nuances of his new role? To thumb their noses at the media? That's not serious politics. Politics is about realising when you have a problem and fixing it.
The tribal love-in for the Provos which broke out last week could only ever serve to bolster a base of support for the armed struggle which was solidly behind SF anyway. In the process, it alienated the very people the party needs in order to make a breakthrough at the national level. It's crazy. The right words could work for SF, but Adams either will not, or cannot, say them. Worse than that, he seems intent on repeatedly saying the wrong ones.
It's possible that Sinn Fein, having reflected on the week's events, may have come to this conclusion themselves, but of course fate intervened with the death of Nelson Mandela, which sent the Shinners off down memory lane, where they once more missed the point that what made Mandela great was the grace and magnanimity that he showed after ending armed struggle, both of which qualities are noticeably lacking in Gerry Adams. Making peace is not a single act. It's a state of mind. It's an aspect of character.
A full realisation of that will now have to wait. The Gerry Adams Appreciation Society is having a rare auld time of it this weekend, giddy as junior infants on a school trip to the panto; but it's like former president Mary Robinson said on Friday's Morning Ireland, when she recalled how, as UN high commissioner, she was faced with a dilemma over speaking up about human rights in the new South Africa. She decided that "friends tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear."
Is there anyone in SF telling Gerry Adams what he needs to hear about his approach to building a post-conflict consensus? Or are they just going to stay silent as he wanders round like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, delusionally believing he's still bigger and more important than the world around him?