Under this autocracy, doubters keep quiet or just quit
Whenever Gerry Adams steps aside from Sinn Fein, he will leave a charisma gap - as well as a ruthless legacy of opposition to any dissent within the party, writes Brendan Morley
Sinn Fein, according to Bertie Ahern, carries out its internal business in a manner that is "certainly more military than a normal political party".
Asked if it has a deeply rooted ethos of obeying orders, Ahern - who, as Taoiseach, dealt with Sinn Fein for more than a decade of the peace process - replied: "Totally. No doubt about it. You can see it all the time, on the ground and all around the country."
His view of how the Sinn Fein leadership deals with its own rank and file will, no doubt, strike a chord with the flood of councillors who have left the party in recent years, many alleging that it has a culture of bullying and intimidation. This haemorrhage of talent is remarkable not only for the sheer number of cases (now in double figures), but for their geographical spread.
Over recent months, I have interviewed current and former senior members of both Sinn Fein and the IRA - as well as others, such as Ahern, who have dealt with and observed the party at close quarters over many years - in an effort to understand how the leadership of the Republican Movement manages its membership and internal business.
The image that Sinn Fein wishes to convey to the outside world was on display at the Ard Fheis this weekend. It is that of an organisation seemingly carrying out its internal business in a manner not qualitatively different from those parties that Sinn Fein derides as the "southern establishment".
If anything, the party seeks to present itself as more internally democratic than the likes of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, with the leadership making great play of its efforts to 'consult' the membership. The reality, however, in terms of the ability of the rank and file to influence the party's direction, is very different.
Far more than any other party in Irish politics, on either side of the Border, Sinn Fein is dominated by its leadership, notably Gerry Adams, to whom the membership, as we saw at the RDS, is utterly in thrall.
While Adams was, at the time of writing, due to indicate a timetable for relinquishing the party presidency - at the age of 69 - the fact remains that in the 34 years that he has held that position, not once has anybody ever stood against him or opposed his re-election.
Ironically, when Adams took over the party presidency at the 1983 Ard Fheis, he reflected on his predecessor Ruairi O Bradaigh's 14 years in the role and told delegates: "I trust you will spare me such a life sentence."
In the three-and-a-half decades since those words, Adams has cultivated a charismatic leadership style, bordering on a cult of personality, and used this to maintain an iron grip on policy.
It includes an intolerance of any manifestation of dissent within both Sinn Fein and the IRA that has ultimately left doubters with the choice of either remaining silent or leaving.
The period of the Adams leadership, while being one of electoral growth for Sinn Fein, has also witnessed a series of substantial breakaways from the movement - four at the last count - with opponents being salami-sliced away, split by split, until no significant internal dissension now remains.
While Adams is the public face of the leadership and does indeed wield huge personal power, he has gathered around him a small group of trusted operators who constitute the elite collective leadership. Bertie Ahern referred to this as "the group of 15" who took the key decisions in the peace process.
Predominantly northern, the group consists mainly, but not exclusively, of people with known IRA records, such as Maze escapers Gerry Kelly and Bobby Storey. Some, such as deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, have no IRA track record, while others, who were longstanding members of the IRA's 'senior management', were never convicted and their names would not be widely known outside the movement.
Former longstanding IRA members interviewed by this writer all identified this as the group in charge of the Republican Movement and which refers to itself as "the core group". They explained how it has maintained its iron grip over the direction of the movement, including manipulating or 'fixing' both Sinn Fein Ard Fheiseanna and IRA 'army conventions'.
Matt Treacy, a former member of the IRA in Dublin who served a jail term in Portlaoise, went on to work for Sinn Fein in Leinster House, but later left the movement. His first experience of the leadership's modus operandi came in 1986, when he and other IRA members were ordered to take part in the 'fixing' of the vote that permitted Sinn Fein to take seats in the Dail by 'packing' the Ard Fheis with IRA members under orders to vote for the dropping of abstentionism.
He explained: "I was in the IRA. They [the leadership] set up loads of new cumainn, all IRA members, purely so the leadership would win the Ard Fheis vote. Those cumainn ceased to operate soon afterwards."
Treacy described how the "core group" ran Sinn Fein. "It is a very Leninist structure. You were told things. Ostensibly, you were allowed to discuss them, but the core group had already made their decisions. Things were fixed. They also controlled IRA army conventions."
In terms of the attitude towards dissent, Treacy said: "I worked in Leinster House for 14 years. There were huge rows within Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, but they did not go around threatening each other. They [the republican leadership] were involved for 30 years in a military campaign that involved high levels of secrecy and internal discipline, but they have brought that into politics now."
Treacy claims to have been the victim of a Sinn Fein 'whispering campaign' against him since he broke from the party in 2016. The use of orchestrated social ostracism - a particularly powerful weapon within tightly knit northern republican communities - against those who fall foul of the leadership was cited by all of the IRA interviewees.
Former hunger striker Tommy McKearney, from Tyrone, did not claim to have been subjected to such treatment himself, but said: "Often, the response is to isolate or ostracise, to use the power of the party to promote the party line, pointing out that the person with the dissenting voice is misguided, that what they are saying is wrong, possibly dangerous."
Anthony McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for the murder of a UVF member, left the movement and later fled south with his family following such a campaign. He characterised the Adams leadership style as "autocracy disguised as charismatic leadership".
"You were briefed after decisions had been made but you were never allowed any input into the decision-making process. At times, they made you think you had an input - but it was all army-controlled.
"The party was ruled with the ethos of the army (IRA). We still had the structures of a wartime movement during the peace. This was a conscious decision by Adams to make sure he could control everything as far as possible.
"Even after I had left the movement, I spoke to people who had been told, 'The army want you to support policing' (in the North). Adams would say, 'The army supports this initiative' and they would mobilise the IRA to make sure it was passed resoundingly at the Ard Fheis."
A former member of the Sinn Fein ard comhairle, Gerry McGeough, who served a jail term for the IRA's attempted murder of a soldier in Tyrone but has since left the movement, described Sinn Fein Ard Fheiseanna as "complete and utter rubber-stamp jobs".
He witnessed at first hand the process whereby members of the Ard comhairle sifted through motions submitted by cumainn for inclusion on the clar of the Ard Fheis, and explained: "Any motions that did not suit the leadership's agenda got as far as the bin. The party is tightly controlled from the centre, with a strong tendency towards authoritarianism."
That tight control and intolerance of dissent have held firm for 34 years and been made possible by the charismatic leadership of Adams.
Charisma has a source. Paradoxically, despite Adams's repeated denials that he was ever a member of the IRA - which are widely disbelieved, even by his own supporters - the charisma that surrounds him is of a military hue.
Over the past 34 years, whenever Adams has had to sell difficult decisions already made - such as decommissioning and support for the PSNI - his acolytes, often IRA ex-prisoners, have been rolled out to remind the rank and file of Gerry's history in "the struggle" and ask them to "trust the leadership".
At the 1986 Ard Fheis where Matt Treacy helped to fix the vote to drop abstentionism, Adams himself told delegates: "This leadership has been actively involved in the longest phase of resistance to the British presence. Our record speaks for itself." Readers may judge for themselves what delegates would interpret such a statement as referring to at that time.
When Adams steps aside, he will take that charisma with him as the last republican leader from the northern war generation. His successor - almost certainly a southerner, probably McDonald - will have no 'record of resistance' to call on when seeking to persuade the rank and file to "trust the leadership" and no IRA to enforce decisions or fix Ard Fheiseanna.
In the absence of charisma, what will hold Sinn Fein together?