Wednesday 28 September 2016

Adams must stay on as leader to keep Sinn Fein out of power

The naked trampolinist is doing a quite magnificent service to democracy in dragging his party down, writes Mairia Cahill

Mairia Cahill

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Gerry Adams voting during this year’s general election
Gerry Adams voting during this year’s general election

Years ago, in the early 2000s, a former senior Sinn Fein election strategist told me he had suggested that Gerry Adams move from his west Belfast constituency to the South, in order to advance electorally. According to him, the idea was shot down - no pun intended - and Adams was keen to remain where he was.

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In 2010, after the Aine Adams case and my own had initially hit the public domain, Adams suddenly indicated he was moving south.

The two events may well have been entirely unconnected. In any event, due to Adams's move and his involvement in both cases, it was a futile exercise, if they were linked. Sinn Fein was catapulted into the centre of a child-abuse storm in 2014 on both sides of the island and in both parliaments.

People who had never had any connection to the IRA - the new faces of Sinn Fein - found themselves defending a past that wasn't theirs and some did so, disgustingly, at all costs, both online and on the airwaves. It damaged them.

In October 2014, Newstalk carried an interview which reported that some members of Sinn Fein were quietly grumbling about their party president for the first time and voicing their general unhappiness at how the party was badly handling the republican cover-up of child sexual abuse.

Because of the ever-present groupthink mentality, few broke rank and there were no notable exceptions. Still, the party was rattled.

Gerry Adams during the peace process with Martin McGuinness. Photo: PA
Gerry Adams during the peace process with Martin McGuinness. Photo: PA

A fortnight after I had gone public, Sinn Fein was sitting at 26pc in the Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll and was the most popular party in the Republic.

At the time, Mary Lou McDonald gave the poll credence by stating it showed a "very strongly established trend across all opinion polls".

What wasn't acknowledged by Sinn Fein, at least publicly, was that dissatisfaction with Adams's leadership was at an all-time high at 56pc. He had been the most popular party leader just six months before.

The Dail debate on the republican movement's handling of abuse allegations had not yet taken place and that, combined with a flip-flop on the payment of water charges and a series of calamitous gaffes by the party president over the next 18 months meant that Sinn Fein dropped steadily in the polls, until it secured just 13.8pc of the vote share at the General Election.

Gerry Adams at the graveside of hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981
Gerry Adams at the graveside of hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981

The masters of spin immediately crafted the line that the election had been an excellent one for them, but the reality was that the party was inwardly disappointed.

Despite what they may say publicly, a growing number of pragmatic Shinners realised that had Adams gone before the election date, the party would arguably have fared much better.

And so the internal "whispering campaign", referred to this week by Thomas McNulty, a cumann chair in Cavan, who, unusually, has broken ranks to call on his party's leader to step down, resumed post-election.

McNulty, speaking to the Irish News on Monday, claimed: "There is a groundswell… from the grassroots to the middle rankings of Sinn Fein… that the next election should be a different election and that there should be a different leadership."

The intervention was seen by some as a hugely important one, not least because finding a Sinn Fein member to break ranks on anything is as rare as hen's teeth, but it was hardly earth-shattering and it certainly won't topple Adams. Sinn Fein did what it always does and closed ranks, with Martin McGuinness dutifully saying Adams will "stay as long as he wants".

It was a telling intervention, not least because it contradicts completely the oft-spun and farcical line that members democratically elect their leader. It's hard for them to do anything else, considering that no one has ever challenged him for the position. Sinn Fein does not do coups.

More insightful from McNulty was the line: "I'm disappointed that this man hasn't been able to see that other people can do a better job that him." Ergo, Gerry's ego is keeping him there.

The Teflon-coated Don Corleone-come-Castro figure of provisional republicanism isn't going anywhere soon.

What we are witnessing, though, is the beginning of the end of the Adams era.

Like others, Eoin O Broin, the smartest politician in Sinn Fein, sees the writing on the wall. He is too much of a gentleman to nudge Adams publicly, but he also knows it's ludicrous to think that he can lead the party eternally.

So he did something at the MacGill Summer School that Sinn Fein rarely does.

He gave a straight answer, perhaps to prepare the membership, stating that it was "quite possible" that a change of leadership would happen in the next five years.

"He must know something I don't," was Adams's churlish response.

El Presidente will hang around like a bad smell for the next year or two, before he agrees to go out to pasture with a sugar-coated offer of 'Honorary Life President' or some other nonsense title.

Sinn Fein, in the meantime, has already clamped down on his Twitter account, after the 'N word' controversy, and will showcase him in the media less, while capitalising on building the profiles of some of its other spokespeople.

Adams has one good strength - he's great at waffle and deflection, but his appalling grasp of detail and demonstrably poor judgement is an own goal for Sinn Fein.

He is quick to claim victimisation by the press, but there is no doubt that his intervention on Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and the Special Criminal Court, his car-crash economic interviews and his ill-judged "Who's Senator Cahill?" remark during the leaders' debate, overshadowed the party's work on the fiscal space, for example. Adams is the gift that keeps on giving to those who oppose him.

His once-controlled affable exterior has increasingly morphed into a snidey, aggressive and angry caricature of himself and his childishness, which does nothing for a 67-year-old man, is at times pathetic. He demonstrated this during the week when he chided the Taoiseach for indicating when he might step down, claiming that he "wasn't as foolish as Enda Kenny, he did put a time frame then had to crawl back on it" - despite the fact that in May of this year, when Adams himself was asked if he would lead Sinn Fein into the next election, replied: "It depends when the election is", before humiliatingly rowing back a day later, claiming that he had "made a mistake".

Note to Adams: those who publicly claim that they trampoline naked with their dog, hug trees and take baths with their rubber ducks might want to stay away from lobbing accusations of foolishness at anyone else in future.

The one big headache for Sinn Fein as it goes forward is who will take over the reins.

The danger of having invested the party hugely in one person for 30 years is that whoever replaces him needs to command the respect of both northern and southern Shinners and it's hard to see anyone other than Mary Lou McDonald stepping into the breach - as interim leader at least. She has managed to win over hardliners with her interventions on recent controversies and is articulate.

Pearse Doherty, once tipped as a future contender, does not have the likeability factor he once had and it's doubtful that he would beat McDonald in a contest.

There will always be those who defend Adams, no matter what he does, and there is a genuine affection among the grassroots for the folksed-up enigma that he has become.

Those who behave like sheep will wrap their president's cloak around them ever tighter and cover their ears when the question of a new Shinner leader arises periodically.

While Adams may command a huge personal vote, he and his Belfast kitchen cabinet are responsible for the ebbing away of potential votes for the rest of their candidates to other parties.

Gerry Adams is just as likely to repel support for Sinn Fein as attract it.

Thomas McNulty claims voters told canvassers: "You'll get a vote from us, but not while that man is leader."

Long may the Sinn Fein president continue.

Sunday Independent

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