Abandon hope: Ballymurphy republicans never really retire
It was wishful thinking of the highest order to think Gerry Adams would ever voluntarily disappear, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Why did anyone think that Gerry Adams was heading off into the sunset to his Donegal retreat, his dog Snowy prancing by his side and his long-time faithful Man Friday Richard McAuley a few steps behind carrying the bags containing Adams's closest companions - his teddy bears (Ted and Tom, named after his uncuddly long-time associates Ted Howell and Tom Hartley) and his convoy of rubber ducks?
What on earth did they think he would do? Write yet another turgid instalment of autobiography denying that he was ever in the IRA? Or examine his conscience and take to religion?
Well, they've got their answer now. Adams has explained in a blog entitled 'Ballymurphy republicans don't retire', that: "In their rush to write my political obituary, some in the media have concluded that I'm now to retire. Well they're wrong. I will continue to serve the republican struggle and Sinn Fein if and when I can."
Quite. Adams is a man of exceptional stamina and single-mindedness who also craves adulation. And he also believes he is the chosen one. People like that hang on until they die or are overthrown. Occasionally, as in his case, they're smart enough to realise the wisdom of doing what the French call reculer pour mieux sauter - withdrawing to improve one's chances of subsequent progress.
Philip Collins, Tony Blair's speechwriter and now a Times columnist, was reflecting last Friday about what unites people like Slobodan Milosevic (the president of Serbia, who died in a prison cell in The Hague in 2006 before the conclusion to his trial for war crimes) and Robert Mugabe (the only party leader in the world known to have clung on longer than Adams), whom the army has replaced as president of Zimbabwe. Tyrants like them, said Collins, "are always a prisoner of a single, all-encompassing missionary idea and they always end up making their people prisoner of it too". But, while both were nationalist populists, "the crucial component they shared" was "the certain conviction" that they could not be wrong. Remind you of anyone?
Such self-delusion, said Collins, "is how dictators such as Mugabe, Castro and Mao before him, are able to preside over widespread corruption, racial discrimination, the suppression of critics, unemployment at 80pc... and still convince themselves that they are the best the country can do". It also, of course, is why they require individuals to be subordinated to the needs of the revolutionary organisation and the party, take harsh measures to prevent any dissent or criticism and dehumanise their opponents in order to make them legitimate targets for their followers' loathing and contempt.
Much to his regret, I'm sure, the victory of the security forces in Northern Ireland and the refusal of most ordinary people to be drawn into a civil war prevented the emergence of an IRA dictatorship, but look at the terrible conditions in Gerry Adams's long-time fiefdom of West Belfast. During the decades of terrorist mayhem - which Adams calls "conflict" - murders, punishment beatings, sectarian brainwashing, the destruction of industry and the encouragement of a dependency culture left a community with a shockingly high rate of deprivation, mental illness and high suicide rates to remind us of what an IRA victory could have done to the population at large.
But back to the future. What now for Gerry Adams?
Let's assume that he really does give up the party leadership in the Dail. He doesn't enjoy it, he's poor in interviews, he's too closely associated for comfort with a violent past and a bullying culture that is causing a haemorrhage of councillors and he won't want to preside over a possible grassroots revolt.
Long-time Adams-watcher Dr Anthony McIntyre - who spent many years as an IRA prisoner - who since his release has been a trenchant commentator on the IRA/Sinn Fein leadership and has paid for thought-crime by being run out of Northern Ireland, put it neatly: "Do expect a period of reinvention where the image of elder statesman will be cultivated, away from the cut and thrust and mire of daily political life."
But Adams is not going to let go of more status and power than he has to, so I'd expect that when he hands over the presidency of Sinn Fein to the person he has groomed for the job, by popular acclaim he'll be given a title like that held by the late Joe Cahill - Honorary Sinn Fein Vice-President for Life. That will justify him going on fundraising jaunts to America and anywhere else that wants him, ordering party leaders around and sticking his nose publicly and privately into political negotiations. From behind the scenes, he can continue running the republican movement with the help of shadowy IRA veterans like Sean 'The Surgeon' Hughes, Sean 'Spike' Murray, Bobby Storey and Seanna Walsh, the ablest of them all. None is likely to have much respect for either a middle-class, south-Dubliner like Mary Lou McDonald or the inarticulate Michelle O'Neill, anointed leader by Adams for her gender and malleability.
Adams will continue to encourage his followers to be angry grievance-mongers, while seeking to market himself domestically and internationally as a peace-loving, human rights-seeking, loveable old beardie. He will labour to hold a partitioned party together and continue the revising of recent history to cast the IRA as victims, not perpetrators, who fought not for a united Ireland but for equality. And on Twitter and Snapchat he'll go on courting the young with his whimsical shtick. "Ducky ar la" was a recent caption to a photo on Snapchat of his novelty socks.
Though he denies it, his eye is still on the presidency. He has brand recognition and a folksy yet idealistic image like that of Jeremy Corbyn, who shares his penchant for totalitarianism. If the franchise for the presidential election is extended to Northern Ireland and the diaspora in general, he's in with a chance.
God save Ireland!