Even after he’s gone, shadow cast by Adams could mean problems for SF

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Will Gerry Adams’ departure make much of a difference to the peace/political process in Northern Ireland?

Since Michelle O’Neill replaced Martin McGuinness, unionists have tended to regard her as Adams’ puppet – unable to do anything or cut any compromise or deal without his nod of approval.

So, will he allow her a bit more slack in the next few months (I’m presuming his exit isn’t going to drag beyond the spring) and let her take the lead from now on?

I doubt it. There was no hint of any softening in his personal approach to a deal here; nor any hint that he would be leaving it to his successor (probably Mary Lou McDonald) to do what she thought was right. It’s worth bearing in mind that his successor would have the authority to replace O’Neill with someone else (although I don’t think that’s likely).

Between 2005 and January 2017 McGuinness served as a buffer between unionism and Adams. Unionists detest Adams. For many, especially those who met or worked with him, there was a grudging respect for McGuinness; a sense that for all of his background in the IRA he had come to realise that unionism had to be embraced rather than relentlessly bullied or threatened.

Adams, on the other hand, they still regard as a thoroughgoing rogue. He’s seen as cold, insincere, manipulative, dishonest, dangerous and uncompromising. They don’t believe him when he talks about a united Ireland that will have a place for unionists. They don’t believe him when he talks about respect for everyone. They don’t believe him, full stop.

The other thing about Adams which really bugs unionism is the fact that he has, in political/electoral/strategy/propaganda terms, been so successful. Detesting Adams is one thing; yet it’s impossible to deny the reality that he has, to all intents and purposes, remoulded Sinn Fein in his own image and rebuilt it as the one, genuine, all-Ireland political vehicle.

He brought Sinn Fein in from the cold; he brought the IRA into politics rather than watch it worn down into irrelevance by the security forces and intelligence services; he gained the ear of key figures in Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels; he played John Hume for a sucker. He was, I think, the first modern republican to grasp the fact that Westminster – irrespective of which party was in government – was keen to support the sort of political/institutional arrangements which would provide options for Sinn Fein and the IRA and allow them to prioritise politics rather than terror.

Adams is the last of the old order. In his time as a political activist (and you can decide for yourself if he was in the IRA) he has seen every other key player shuffle off the stage. Even Mugabe has been toppled! But he is now a very obvious relic of the conflict era. He has morphed into one of the ‘dreary steeples’. He has reached the point at which he’s had, reluctantly, to recognise the probability that Sinn Fein’s continuing growth will require another voice and focal point.

Sinn Fein believes that it is now on the cusp of delivering Irish unity. For all of their constant mantras, graveside oratories, conference speeches and shifts of direction and strategy since 1970, I’m not persuaded that there really was a moment when they truly believed that ‘A Nation Once Again’ was anything more than a fireside song. But everything changed after Brexit; and it changed because the Irish political establishment, along with just about every key player in every sector of Irish everyday life, began to talk about unity. After decades of keeping Northern Ireland at arm’s length, they began to take seriously the merits of a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein does not want to see their agenda taken over by others. They are not going to sit back and allow Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to stomp all over their territory. If that means changing policy and entering an Irish coalition as a ‘junior partner’, then so be it. If it means allowing the NI Executive to swing in the wind, then so be it. If it means changing tack and cutting cloth in some other areas, then so be it. If it means Gerry Adams standing down, then so be it.

The biggest challenge for him, of course, is the shadow he will continue to cast over his successor and Sinn Fein itself. There is no one in the party who matches him – or even comes close to matching him – in terms of profile, influence, strategic thinking and internal popularity. Which means that it will be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to step out of his shadow; particularly if he is given some sort of honorary lifetime role. And if it is the case, which I think it is, that there is an electoral demographic that Sinn Fein hasn’t been able to tap into because of their perception of Adams’ past, then his continuing shadow and backroom influence could still be a problem.

Personally, I’ve never warmed to Adams. But my job as an observer and commentator is to call a career as I see it. Like him or not, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been hugely successful in delivering for Sinn Fein and standing out as the most important republican of his generation.

What he wants to be remembered for, of course, is being the republican who made unity inevitable. That’s not the case.