Why putting Gerry Adams on a par with Michael Collins is just plain daft
Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30
A snazzy Sinn Féin ard fheis on the eve of the actual 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising is typical of Gerry Adams's sense of theatre and history. The party president has always harboured ambitious ideas of how future generations would view him.
When compared in September 1994 to Michael Collins, another republican who made a historic compromise with the British, Adams grandly retorted, "He didn't end partition".
Putting Adams on a par with Collins may have been excusable in those heady days immediately after the IRA ceasefire. Now, it's just plain daft. The 31-year-old soldier turned statesman was cut down in his prime, long before his potential was realised. The record of Sinn Féin's pensioner president - still stubbornly clinging onto his position after 33 years in office - is there for all to see.
Gerry Adams's achievements are in many ways remarkable. He pulled off the impossible. He persuaded the IRA to end its campaign without any movement towards a British withdrawal - to effectively accept partition; he took his party into government at Stormont; and he reached hero-like status in the North.
In the Republic, it has been a different tale. Although a success story in his own Louth constituency, away from Border areas he is more of a hindrance than a help to his party.
Despite the cards falling perfectly for Sinn Féin in February's election, it failed to make the big breakthrough expected. A 13.8pc vote represented steady, not spectacular, progress.
Sinn Féin didn't replace Fianna Fáil as the main opposition party, and it hasn't entered government either. It inhabits a political no- man's land. Fianna Fáil has proved a far more capable and ruthless rival than the SDLP ever was. Adams's limitations as a political leader were thoroughly exposed by Micheál Martin, who emerged the clear winner in their election debates.
The media in the North had for far too long indulged and pussy-footed around the Sinn Féin president. He has not got away with the same evasions and ambiguities in the Republic. And, when he is challenged by interviewers, we see that he is not the sharp, intelligent performer than he was once hailed as. He is exposed as distinctly mediocre.
Yet Adams undoubtedly has profited his party. Back in 1983, when he took the reins of power, Sinn Féin was run on a shoe-string and so it continued for a decade. Clad in denim and duffel coats, its leaders had scarlet pimpernel type existences. They had few friends beyond the ghetto.
Sinn Féin operated from dingy, wire-caged offices. Its small support circle stretched only to the British 'loony left' and die-hards in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Trips abroad consisted of attending solidarity conferences in far-flung places with equally marginalised foreign revolutionaries.
Today, it's all very different. Sinn Féin is the wealthiest party on this island. Its premises are plush and hi-tech. Film stars and billionaires line up to shake hands with Adams. Carly Simon even serenaded him at a birthday party in a Greenwich Village nightclub.
The Sinn Féin president enjoys a holiday home in Donegal and he was able to jet off to the US for medical treatment, with the tab being picked up by a rich American benefactor. He's come a long way for a guy who was pulling pints in the Duke of York pub in Belfast city centre at the start of the Troubles.
But unfortunately the rising tide that has improved the personal position of Adams and other prominent Sinn Féin figures hasn't lifted people in the communities from which they came. Despite all its radical rhetoric in the Republic, Sinn Féin's record is abysmal in securing social and economic justice for its constituents across the Border.
Almost 40pc of children in west Belfast live in poverty and the same proportion of adults have no qualifications.
The area has the lowest life expectancy rate in the North. Of all the jobs promoted by the government, less than 2pc end up in west Belfast. This can't be blamed on the Brits. Adams's history of improving the lot of those he speaks so sentimentally about - the "people of no property" - is atrocious.
Even in the North, where he once enjoyed the undying adulation of his community, the gloss is slowly wearing thin. Although still a minority, you will find more and more people in working-class republican areas speaking scathingly of Adams and co.
Sinn Féin is set to remain the largest nationalist party in the North for the foreseeable future, but it is facing new challenges. In last year's Westminster election, its vote fell by an unprecedented 17pc in west Belfast, where People Before Profit has been making waves with its young politician, Gerry Carroll, who is set to be elected to Stormont in next month's Assembly elections.
But when considering Adams's legacy, it's apt to return to his own retort in 1994 about Michael Collins - "He didn't end partition". Well, the Sinn Féin president certainly hasn't either and he's had a considerably longer time than Collins to try.
In the early days of the peace process, he repeatedly promised a united Ireland by 2016. How hollow those pledges sound now. Irish unity is not even on the agenda and, as former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre quipped, only someone with "a ballot box in one hand and a white stick in the other" would believe differently.
Adams has taken a dangerous, militant movement dedicated to smashing the state - which the IRA and Sinn Féin was - and transformed it into an outfit accepting the constitutional status quo on this island.
For doing that, all those who cherish peace must be eternally grateful. And while he will cast himself as a revolutionary republican this weekend, his own personal self-advancement is down to abandoning the most fundamental tenets of that tradition.