Gerry's got a captive audience down on Fenian Street
IT may be less than 170km from Belfast to Dublin, but Gerry Adams was a long distance from the inhospitable interior of Antrim police station last night when he declared to supporters: "Sinn Fein's commitment is to build the peace."
A few days ago he was inside its solid walls, undergoing 33 successive taped interviews relating to the abduction and murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville; while, outside the building, the story of his arrest whirled worldwide amid fevered speculation about his future as Sinn Fein president.
But there were no doubts, not a scintilla of speculation in the stuffed room in the hotel on what Mary Lou McDonald called the "appropriately" named Fenian Street.
"It's full of unrepentant Fenians, all determined to return the strongest possible result for our party and country," she declared to loud applause.
The mood – even before the party leader arrived – was ebullient. Tails are up in Sinn Fein. A series of opinion polls are indicating that they are set to have a record number of their 350 candidates elected to local councils and also to the European Parliament.
Euro candidates such as Matt Carty and Lynn Boylan are seriously in the hunt, poised to snaffle seats from the mainstream parties.
And to add icing to the political cake, Gerry Adams is back on the campaign trail.
After four days of helping the police with their inquiries, he walked out without being charged – although the possibility of future charges still hang over him.
But such a prospect wasn't casting any gloom over the estimated 700 supporters crammed into the room in the Alexander Hotel. This was a celebration of their leader's release and the happier prospect of a rich harvest of seats at the end of May.
There were a few tunes from Dublin musician Don Baker to warm up the crowd. There was a ringing endorsement from Lynn Boylan. "Gerry Adams is the best republican leader this island has ever seen," she declared to cheers.
Then there was an introduction from Mary Lou. "The man who walks tall and we walk tall beside," she said, as the room erupted with roars and a prolonged ovation as the party's president walked to the podium. He wasted little time in returning to the core of the contention over his arrest, when Sinn Fein loudly proclaimed it had been politically motivated.
"When Martin McGuinness spoke about the danger to the process coming from the 'dark side' within the PSNI, the Taoiseach's response was to suggest he should make a complaint to the Ombudsman. Can you imagine him saying that to Peter Robinson and David Cameron? What about his responsibility?" he asked.
"There was a serious attempt last week to charge me, if there was a charge against me, I would have been charged," he said, then added, "But Sinn Fein is for policing."
This was a carefully calibrated speech, aimed not to frighten any of the new horses who may have trotted into their paddock.
So he addressed the tragic spectre at this Sinn Fein feast. "I'm very very mindful what happened to Jean McConville and her 10 children was dreadful and unjust, especially because it was republicans who said 'it was in the middle of the war,' and so forth but we cannot rail against injustice by British forces until we face up to these matters ourselves," he said to more approving applause.
Having walked through the fire of a PSNI grilling and emerged seemingly unscathed, the sense of invincibility surrounding the 65-year-old party president has only strengthened.
While everyone awaited his arrival into the room, one smartly dressed security chap was heard muttering into his radio: "Let me know when Eagle is coming down the stairs."
The 'Eagle' may have soared free of Antrim police station, but still he will never break free of the restless ghost of Jean McConville which will continue to haunt him along every byway of the campaign trail.
Before he arrived onstage, Mary Lou told an old joke about how an Orangeman arrived at the Pearly Gates, only to be refused admission. "But I can see Gerry Adams inside," he protested. "That's Jesus – he just thinks he's Gerry Adams," wisecracked the deputy party leader to appreciative laughter.
That's always going to be the way with this most enigmatic of men. It's the Life of Gerry. Some think he's the Messiah. Others think he's a very naughty boy.
See the election rally video on www.independent.ie