Fionnan Sheehan: If Adams wants a united Ireland, he will first have to be decommissioned
Published 19/01/2013 | 05:00
WHEN Martin Ferris is congratulating customs officials for seizing illegal shipments coming into Kerry, you've pretty much heard it all.
In fairness to the affable, reformed gun smuggler, the Sinn Fein TD was talking about a cocaine seizure, so everyone will agree with his sentiments.
But when Gerry Adams talks about a "therapeutic" debate on a united Ireland, well, that's a different matter.
The Sinn Fein president is kick-starting a long-term campaign by the party to hold a referendum – on the creation of a united Ireland – in Northern Ireland by 2020.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum would have to be called by the British government to allow the people of the North to vote on such a proposal. The party would, preferably, also like to see such a border poll held in the Republic.
Sinn Fein is holding a special conference today in relation to its call for a border poll some time during the lifetime of the next Dail and next northern assembly – some time between about 2015 and 2021.
(By the way, there isn't a hope of the British and Irish governments going along with its scheme in such a timeline, but let's play along anyway.)
Mr Adams says he isn't taking it for granted that a majority of people on this side of the Border would be in favour of a united Ireland within that timeframe. But he obviously feels the Protestant community in the North would be the hardest sell.
"The test of this would be to persuade Unionists (that) their best future is in a united Ireland," he says.
Given the continuing protests over the restrictions on the Union flag, just imagine the reaction to the notion of the Tricolour flying on the flagpole above Belfast City Hall.
Although the party insists it is a long-term project, the timing of Sinn Fein tabling a formal way to bring about a united Ireland is still curious, to say the least. At a sensitive time when elements of the Unionist community feel their identity is being eroded, talk of a united Ireland is hardly helpful. Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process isn't actually over.
But, bringing about the goal of a united Ireland is the party's raison d'etre and Mr Adams admits the majority of young people who join Sinn Fein say they do so because they want to see it achieved.
Whatever about Sinn Fein pursuing the policy, Mr Adams is not the person to be leading a "conversation about a new Ireland, a new Republic".
To put it mildly, he has baggage.
His association with the Troubles and his past – as an IRA leader – make him too divisive a figure to be capable of convincing people on both sides of the Border of signing up to his beliefs.
He does deserve credit for bringing the so-called republican movement into fully democratic politics – although he also has to take responsibility for the death and destruction wrought by the Provisional IRA's campaign.
Within republicanism, he is an iconic figure. Outside it, he is reviled.
Part of any "therapeutic" debate involves the healing of past wounds. Mr Adams's continued failure to admit his full role in the IRA leadership means he can't be taken seriously in this regard.
As Sinn Fein seeks to enter a new phase in its political evolution, surely an opportune time for Mr Adams to stand down presents itself.
However, he still sees himself as the man to lead the debate and shows no sign of quitting. Despite being in the job for three decades, he plans to hang on to the leadership for at least another three years and possibly beyond that.
Mr Adams's leadership style has already been exposed as ill-suited to a parliamentary system. Since becoming a TD in 2011, his leadership has come under ever greater scrutiny and his grasp of policy has come in for criticism.
Yet he simply doesn't accept he should pass the leadership to a member of the younger generation. He says he will step down "when the time comes".
He says the party has an ard fheis every year, where his leadership has been endorsed, including in 2012. "It remains my intention to lead the party into the next election," he says. The next election is due in 2016.
The reality is nobody in Sinn Fein is going to publicly challenge such a dominant figure. The party's 'military' discipline remains, as seen by the gagging of Peadar Toibin, one of their brightest TDs, for having the temerity to challenge the party's policy on abortion.
But Mr Adams can't go on forever. The necessity for two hospital procedures in the past six months shows age is catching up with him.
The embarrassing emergence of his use of private US medical treatment – hypocritically at odds with his continued opposition to the two-tier private-public system – has led to suggestions of enemies within leaking information to do him damage.
Mr Adams is a wartime leader. For Sinn Fein to have any hope of bringing a majority with them – north and south – on a united Ireland, which may take generations, requires his decommissioning.