The Adams Legacy: A political party linked inextricably to dark past
Sinn Fein will never cut itself free from its ties to an illegal paramilitary organisation, writes Willie Kealy
Gerry Adams, who stepped down as Sinn Fein president yesterday after more than three decades, has often been compared unfavourably to the late Martin McGuinness. This had the effect of allowing for the possibility that there was a good IRA and a bad IRA. But there was not. There has always been just the bad.
Adams was the sinister bearded figure with a facial expression impossible to read, even when he was lying to your face and you knew it. And lying about his membership of the IRA was a constant feature of his public performance throughout his lengthy career, and especially lying about the senior role he played in that organisation and the consequent awesome responsibility for some unbelievable savagery.
McGuinness was seen to be completely different. He was the guy you could send in to play nice with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson; he was someone you could run in the Republic's presidential election without the fear of total embarrassment - though a return of just under 14pc on that outing was nothing to crow about. But mostly the difference was that the Derry man admitted he was in the IRA. Everybody knew that McGuinness and Adams were senior IRA figures. But that seemed to matter less than the fact that Adams was perceived to be a liar and McGuinness was thought to be honest on the subject. Except he wasn't. That's just one of many myths and misconceptions about Sinn Fein/IRA.
McGuinness's admission of IRA membership covered only the period up to 1973. And that was because when he appeared in the Special Criminal Court in that year, he said: "I am a member of Oglaigh na hEireann and very, very proud of it". By 1993 he seemed to have forgotten his speech from the dock - and Mark Twain's dictum that if you tell the truth, you don't need a good memory - when he was reported to have said: "I have never been in the IRA. I don't have any sway with the IRA". But by 2005, well after the Good Friday Agreement, he was back to stating he was "no longer" a member of the IRA, when the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, revealed that both Adams and McGuinness were still on the seven-member IRA Army Council.
This then is the legacy that Gerry Adams hands on to his successor, Mary Lou McDonald. A political party that has always been, and is still, inextricably linked with an illegal paramilitary organisation with no redeeming features and no good guys, that, in the words of Gerry Adams, "hasn't gone away," and will continue to insist from its Belfast base that the political party must prioritise the aims of the IRA while being allowed to play the role of an ordinary democratic party in the Republic.
The new Sinn Fein leader may wish to go into the next election as a potential junior partner in government for Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, with policies barely distinguishable from the rest. But that facade will not hide the ugly reality of intimidation that has seen up to 20 high-profile public representatives walk away from the party with most claiming they were bullied in a manner that suggests a cult more than a political movement. One departing public representative even claimed he was criticised by Adams for having the cheek to put his complaint in writing.
Nor can it conceal the fact Sinn Fein stayed silent when IRA members sexually assaulted and raped the children of their communities, who were then warned in kangaroo courts against talking to the police. Courageous people like Mairia Cahill and Paudie McGahon will not let that happen. Nor will the equally brave McCartney sisters, who have never given up the fight to get justice for their murdered brother, Robert. And it won't be forgotten that Gerry Adams knew his paedophile brother had access to children in Dundalk and Belfast, and did nothing about it.
And it cannot cover up the fact that, to this day, the party has turned a blind eye to its comrades in arms making millions in ill-gotten gains from one form of criminality or another. When you hear about wholesale smuggling of illicit fuel, that's the IRA still at work. When you hear about large-scale pollution of scenic areas with poisonous chemicals, that's "the boys" coining it. And just as Gerry Adams spent a good part of his public life having to make bare-faced denials about all manner of criminality within the "republican movement" - like the robbery of the Northern Bank - so now it is Mary Lou's turn.
Now she will have the opportunity to see first-hand where the real power lies in the party and what are its constituent parts. She has been so close to the outgoing leader that she undoubtedly thinks she knows all that is necessary for the job. But does she yet know how to deal with those godfathers in Belfast who still believe they must be listened to, and from whose illegitimate and unrepresentative military actions Sinn Fein has never disassociated itself?
Is she ready to lead a party that is so tied up in its own myths of the past (and the future) that it insisted it must hold its own separate 1916 commemoration ceremonies on the anniversary two years ago? And while she has TDs and MLAs and MEPs and councillors commensurate with the aspiration to be a junior government party, she must realise that it is not the chaotic policies of the party that have given it this measure of electoral success, but rather the efforts of a small number of fanatical community activists.
The other parties, who have given Sinn Fein more or less free rein with what used to be called the working class vote, could learn lessons from these activists. This political form of ground hurling has helped Sinn Fein overcome the confused and confusing politics of the Adams era where Sinn Fein proclaimed itself a party of protest, but it was only a temporary phase when it feared the likes of People Before Profit.
And in its new guise as a potential junior party of government, Sinn Fein has moved so far from its original radical left-leaning policies as to be almost irrelevant other than to make up the numbers. It could hardly be otherwise when the hard-faced men who still wield such influence in "the movement" see the bread and butter issues of everyday folk, like housing and education and fair taxation and social welfare, as very far down the priority list, compared to their single cure-all objective - a united Ireland.
Those who have looked back at the life and work of Gerry Adams over the last 40 years - and there have been many in recent weeks - have invariably come to the conclusion that while he was a bad man at first, when he was exclusively an IRA member, he more than made up for it in his later years by his work on the "peace process." This, they say, is something for which we should be grateful to Mr Adams. Vincent Browne, who presented a two-part series on TV3 last week on the life of Adams, reflected the broad view of the commentariat when he said it is unfair "not to take into account the crucial, indeed central, part Gerry Adams played in bringing peace to Northern Ireland".For a start, let it be said that nobody fails to recognise that life in Northern Ireland today is immeasurably better than when Mr Adams and his comrades were waging their "war". And it is common cause that Northern Ireland has a history as a sectarian state in which the Catholic population was treated as second-class. The beginnings of a change came through the work of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association but, after Bloody Sunday, the IRA took the opportunity to elbow aside those who believed in reforming change through peaceful protest, and replace them with a paramilitary movement.
However, the decision by Gerry Adams to work to end the "war" and begin the "peace process" did not come about as a result of seeing the light. It was not a Pauline conversion inspired by a realisation of the awfulness of the carnage they were causing. Nor was it something that could not have been done just as easily a year or two years previously, thus saving many, many lives. But then Mr Adams and his comrades were always - to appropriate Seamus Mallon's expression - "slow learners". So it took Gerry Adams some time to realise there was never going to be a conclusive military victory for the IRA and, as long as the IRA campaign continued, there would be no electoral success for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland or in the Republic.
The Armalite and the ballot box policy was doomed to failure. That is why we should not be so quick to praise Mr Adams for bowing to the inevitable. After all, if somebody is hitting you over the head repeatedly and then they stop, you are not expected to be grateful to them. If there is gratitude, it should probably go to the likes of Seamus Mallon and John Hume and David Trimble and Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Some of these players have been generous about Mr Adams when they have spoken in the years that have followed the Good Friday Agreement.
His ego has been indulged to the point where nobody seems to even challenge the ludicrous view of Adams as the Irish Mandela, for example. He would not be so happy to see himself thought of as the Irish version of one of the IRA's biggest benefactors, Muammar Gaddafi, though his long reign, unopposed, (as was Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill for the leadership and deputy leadership respectively) would seem to make it a more apt comparison. But you cannot help suspecting that, for the most part, the praise of his fellow Good Friday actors was flattery aimed at keeping Adams and the IRA on the road to peace. Because the "peace process" in the view of Mr Adams seems to be a never-ending thing, in which the word "peace" will never be allowed to stand alone. And being in the "peace process" permanently means every attack or criticism of Sinn Fein can be repulsed with the old line about not hitting a man (or woman) with the "peace process" baby in their arms.
Sinn Fein today presents as a party that is really little different from most of the others in Leinster House, and certainly no less respectable. Its spokepersons are almost all bright and articulate and relatively young, certainly young enough to be able to say they are not tainted by the past - the IRA past, the past of Gerry Adams and others.
Which leads us to another myth - the one about the party patiently allowing time to pass in the fervent belief that eventually there will be nobody around to recall the past, and the IRA and its evil deeds can be forgotten. All of those who remember the indiscriminate carnage of car bombs, or the scandal of the Disappeared like the innocent mother Jean McConville will be gone. Sinn Fein will wait for the happy day when all the relatives of the more than 1,500 people killed by the IRA have themselves passed on, and with them their life-long grief. People like Alan Black, the only survivor of the Kingsmill massacre, or the Stack brothers, who won't let Mr Adams forget his role in frustrating their efforts to find out who murdered their prison officer father. Sinn Fein can wait, too, for the demise of the maimed who have had to bear the physical agony of their wounds for all the years they survived. But this too is a myth. For it would suggest Sinn Fein is now a party that would like to put the IRA and the likes of Gerry Adams behind it and assimilate into the era of modern politics. But that is not what is happening.
Sinn Fein will never cut itself free from the legacy of the IRA. Because Sinn Fein does not want to. Only last week we saw the visceral link with the IRA when SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had the temerity to suggest that "it took the Civil Rights Association here to ensure that all people got full access to voting rights". That was too much for long-standing Sinn Fein MLA and former Belfast mayor Alex Maskey who, in a rush of blood to the head, tweeted: "Unfortunately it took more than the CRA to secure rights in the putrid little statelet NI".
Ultimately that is why Sinn Fein wants your vote to help it get its hands on the levers of power in the Irish Republic. Sinn Fein fully believes what Gerry Adams said in his farewell speech: "This is our time. We will grow even stronger in the future".
Then it can at last retrospectively legitimise and validate and airbrush the entire campaign of murder that stretched over more than 30 years, and promote instead a new story about a glorious fight for freedom with a pantheon of heroes, like those who planted 10,000 bombs or sent in hapless proxy bombers to kill and maim so many throughout the campaign; or those who killed Garda Jerry McCabe. There, too, you'll find the likes of Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and Tom McFeely. And head and shoulders above them all will be Gerry Adams, like a latter-day de Valera. That's the dream. A vote for Sinn Fein will help to make it a reality.