Adams has good reason not to let go as the leader of Sinn Fein

Malachi O'Doherty holds a copy of his book '
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life' at its launch at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Thursday September 7. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Malachi O'Doherty holds a copy of his book ' Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life' at its launch at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Thursday September 7. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Gerry Adams has the stomach to continue with the Stormont deadlock – and no colleagues have the heart to challenge him, writes MALACHI O’DOHERTY, author of a new book on the SF leader:

This week the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, made the most predictable of events into a news story.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams helps carry the coffin of former senior IRA commander Brian Keenan in west Belfast in 2008. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams helps carry the coffin of former senior IRA commander Brian Keenan in west Belfast in 2008. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

He has been president of Sinn Fein for over thirty years. The Dublin journalist Fintan O’Toole has joked that comparisons between Sinn Fein and North Korea are unfair, given that North Korea has had three presidents in that time.

Yet there was some simmering expectation that this year’s Ard Fheis (conference) might see Gerry Adams standing down. He will be 69 when the conference is convened in November and that seems a reasonable age for a man to depart from politics.

He has secured his place in history as the one who merged the revolutionary and the constitutional expressions of Irish nationalism, which have been divided against each other since the 1850s.

He can’t be stuck for a bob since he has had two salaries for most of the last thirty five years, as a party president and an elected representative in three different parliaments - some of those spells overlapping.

And he has often said that he would like to devote more time to writing, gardening and even opera.

He is fit and healthy and has a chance to enjoy the remaining years. He has the scars of four old bullet wounds in his body but he still climbs Mount Errigal near his country retreat and enjoys long country walks.

So why stay on?

Well, probably because the tenacity which kept him active so long does not simply dissolve with age. You do have to really believe in yourself to face the kind of criticism and opprobrium that Adams has endured down the decades. Many people regard him with some justice as a warlord with responsibility for awful unwarranted carnage. But while that rattles him at times, he keeps going.

No other political figure, perhaps in any democratic country in the world, has braved searching interviews for so long and been accused of so much.

Just three years ago he was arrested on suspicion of ordering the murder of a mother of ten children, Jean McConville. The police got an extension of his custody to try to, at least, get a charge of IRA membership against him, undoubtedly keen to jail him.

They believe they got close; otherwise a judge would not have given them that extension.

Other party leaders, like Margaret Thatcher have had a similar doggedness and sense of their indispensability. The difference there was that they had party grey suits to face, who could tell them that their time was up.

Sinn Fein isn’t that kind of a party. It loves and obeys Gerry Adams. His nicknames within it have been The Boss and God.

Look at how he appointed the successor to Martin McGuinness, his lately deceased sidekick. He merely appointed Michelle O’Neill to the post of Northern Leader.

Currently she is God’s representative on earth, speaking his mind to the media, to explain the deadlock that keeps Sinn Fein out of forming a new executive with the DUP.

There must be others in the party who would have liked that job, who think that they would have stood a chance if there had been a vote within the assembly party. If so, none are complaining. None are challenging God.

If Adams signals his approval of terms through the talks, then O’Neill will go into partnership with DUP leader Arlene Foster to govern.

But he may prefer continuing deadlock to resolution. He has the stomach for it and none of the MLAs elected to Stormont, who may lose salaries if the stalemate drags on, has the heart to challenge him.

Indeed, a similar cloud hangs over Sinn Fein TDs in the Dublin parliament, the Dail. No party there will enter coalition with Sinn Fein, while Adams remains leader. But if they want him to go and free up their prospects of ministerial office they are not saying.

So, it seems very likely that Adams will be elected party president again. He says that in that case he will announce his plans for generational change in the party.

Conceivably he just wants the adulation of the party, a massive endorsement, and will then prepare for early departure. He is vain. A reading of his memoirs shows how much he loves to be loved.

And he is loved.

But he is also a political strategist and it is more likely that he is staying on to choose his successor and bind the party to his own vision for another decade.

Perhaps he needs to. The worst that could happen, for him, is that a successor might disown him and the IRA, as Khruschev revoked the legacy of Stalin. God has good reason not to let go.

• ‘Gerry Adams – An unauthorised life,’ is published by Faber & Faber, £14.99. Alex Kane will review the book in a coming edition of the News Letter

Standing room only at launch of new book on Gerry Adams