Proximity to murder is part of the Adams fixtures and fittings
We hardly bat an eyelid at grotesque accusations, yet the Sinn Fein leader is damaging his party, writes Eoin O'Malley
Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30
Imagine a candidate who rails against globalisation and powerful international institutions. One who thinks American multinationals should stop avoiding tax through dubious accounting practices. He is anti-elite, yet has spent decades rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers. He uses Twitter to say outrageous things but this never seems to have an impact on his polling numbers. He has a dark past that no one seems to care about. He is someone about whom few are ambivalent - people either love or loathe him.
This could be either Gerry Adams or Donald Trump.
Imagine now that he leads a party that has spent the last eight years campaigning against austerity; against policies all the main parties supported; against policies the public has opposed and that have caused real hardship in many people's lives.
Imagine then that this party only achieved 14pc support in the last election - an election that was as good as set up for the party to knock it out of the park. Imagine he frequently got confused in media interviews and was deeply unpopular among a majority of voters. In a normal party, he'd be out.
Here the similarities between Trump and Adams fade.
When it comes to control of the party, their similarities disappear. Trump has little control of his party, which hates him, but hates Hillary Clinton more. The Republican convention gave the impression of a circus, but not one that any ringmaster controls.
By contrast, Adams's control of his republican party, one he has led since 1983, appears to be complete. The party is a ring of steel. Except, of course, we know that British intelligence services managed to get inside that ring. That didn't please Adams.
The allegation this week that Adams sanctioned the murder of one of the party's officials, as grotesque and bizarre as it is, is even more unbelievable for the reaction to it. Most of us shrugged our shoulders. It's not that we don't believe it to be true, it's that we aren't surprised. Gerry Adams strongly denied the allegations. A statement said he had no involvement and no knowledge whatsover of the killing.
When this behaviour is depicted in the fictional TV show House of Cards, it breaks our credulity. But this is real life.
And this wasn't something that happened in the mists of time during the Troubles, a time when all sides did unfortunate things best left in the past. This was 2006, at a time when Gerry Adams was negotiating to re-establish the executive in Northern Ireland.
At the time, Adams was routinely condemning embarrassing IRA activities, such as the murder of Robert McCartney. He handed over the names of seven Sinn Fein members to the PSNI and expelled the members from Sinn Fein. Three were also expelled from the IRA. It was a time when Adams was urging co-operation on the euphemistically named 'Disappeared'.
But like the allegations that he covered up sexual abuse and protected the abusers, and the outrageous but less significant demonstrations of a lack of judgement, such as his 'Ballymurphy Ni**er' tweet, it never seems to matter to his party or hurt its support. With Gerry Adams - Trump might observe - we've priced this behaviour into the deal.
Of course, Adams is damaging Sinn Fein. These issues don't detract from the support the party has but they do place a ceiling on the support. Work I've done with Stephen Quinlan of the University of Mannheim, using the 2016 Irish National Election Study data, shows negative perceptions of Adams are higher than any of the party leaders, even Enda Kenny. And they are getting worse over time. Fewer people like him now and more dislike him, than in 2007 or 2011.
It is even worse among women. Almost three-quarters of women dislike him. And only 64pc of Sinn Fein voters like Adams, compared to 76pc of Fianna Fail voters who like Micheal Martin. Poor Enda Kenny is only liked by 59pc of Fine Gael voters.
If Kenny was to announce that his departure would be part of a 10-year strategy, the party's TDs would be apoplectic. Adams announced this last week and no one uttered a concern. This might be because the party has a problem in moving to the next phase. When the leader of the party is Gerry Adams, we can be confident that he, with advice from Martin McGuinness and, we are told, the IRA's army council, will choose the leader.
If the army council does have this power, then will it want to hand it over to someone from the South? And if closeness to the Provisional IRA is a consideration, they may pick someone who is not electorally optimal.
Pearse Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald and Conor Murphy are the names most suggest as likely. Murphy has the advantage of being from the North and having been in the IRA.
The army council will see him as one of its own. He will have the disadvantage that almost no one in the South has heard of him and there's no way RTE would feel obliged to let a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland on a leaders' debate. Sinn Fein would have to be a partitionist party - have a de facto separate leader in the South. That might be McDonald, who is seen by many as a favourite to succeed Adams because she is a woman, middle-class and from Dublin. However, those electoral advantages might count against her.
Doherty is a top performer, good in debates. He has a better grasp of detail than others and straddles the Border.
Another name is that of Eoin O Broin. He has spent time in the North and South, like McDonald, he is Dublin-based and middle-class, like Doherty is articulate, and more importantly, effective.
In a normal party, we would have some idea about what might happen. But with Sinn Fein, who knows? Whoever it chooses, it might not matter because there will be - for some time - the suspicion that with Sinn Fein you don't just get Sinn Fein. "They haven't gone away, you know."