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Sunday 25 September 2016


Adams: Should he stay or should he go?

Should Gerry Adams be clinging on for dear life or preparing a gracious resignation speech, asks Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There's no point in applying normal criteria either to the politician Gerry Adams or the quasi political party he's been leading for 33 years. I'm as guilty as anyone of regularly getting steamed up about what he gets away with and lamenting that while normal politicians are often professionally destroyed because of being caught out in minor indiscretions, brazenness, omerta and fear have protected Adams and many of his colleagues from getting their comeuppance.

Of course we should investigate, scrutinise, interrogate and judge militant Irish republicans by the same standards as anyone else, but we should be realistic. For complex reasons to do with the brainwashing of generations with a pernicious ideology of victimhood, a large number of us suffer from moral blindness about the brutality of physical force nationalism, so widespread public indifference to new revelations and allegations about past sins of the IRA are a fact of life.

In the BBC Spotlight programme that caused a furore last week, it was alleged that Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Fein official and British double agent, had been murdered in 2006 on the insistence of former IRA chief-of-staff Thomas "Slab" Murphy "to maintain army discipline". The media honed in on the more exciting suggestion by an anonymous source that Gerry Adams would have had to consent. Cue for Sinn Fein to pour bucket loads of effluent over everyone else or, as Micheal Martin put it, follow the familiar pattern of "pounce on the messenger, attack and deny, attack and deny".

Raymond White, the one-time head of RUC Special Branch, said ruefully on Spotlight what most students of the Troubles recognise, that in Northern Ireland the security forces won on intelligence and the IRA on propaganda. Riddled with spies and facing at best a prolonged stalemate, IRA strategists realised in the "late 1970s or early 1980s" they had to scale down the fighting and ramp up the political activism.

Claiming that they had won, Republicans would settle in 1998 for a deal less favourable to nationalism than the one they had helped to kill off in 1973. But they had honed their propaganda skills and increasingly focused them on their often frustrating pursuit of power in both parts of Ireland and their determination to rewrite the blood-stained, cruel and pointless Provisional campaign as a heroic struggle. Grotesquely, under his direction, they painted their clever, ruthless, narcissistic, mean-spirited front man, Gerry Adams, as some kind of Irish Nelson Mandela.

I've been immersed in matters Northern Irish for so long that it's rare I learn something new from a documentary, but very often, as here, a clip from the past can still shock. For anyone in search of an insight into the man behind the present-day apparently avuncular Gerry Adams, clock his demeanour 4.54 minutes into the Spotlight programme. Commenting in 1987 on the murder of alleged informer Charlie McIlmurray, a chilling Adams explains: "I think that Mr McIlmurray like anyone else living in west Belfast, knows that the consequence for informing is death."

Fr Tom Toner, a Maze chaplain and one of those brave priests who publicly condemned all wrongdoing, pointed out at his funeral that had Charlie McIlmurray "been abducted by the security forces, left dead with a hood over his head and his hands bound, there would have been demands for intervention by the cardinal and howls for dramatic action by Bishop Daly". But this 32-year-old was written off as a traitor for helping the authorities to save lives, while the names of killers continued to be added to Republican rolls of honour.

However, we are where we are, Gerry Adams is where he is and - as his party's greatest asset and greatest liability - he has a dilemma. If he left, Sinn Fein could try to relaunch as a respectable clean-skin party, but the international recognition and glamorous whiff of the cordite would go with him.
More to the point though, could Sinn Fein survive intact if Adams stepped down? A thoroughly partitioned party, it simply can't come up with a successor who could simultaneously command the respect of South Armagh hard men while appealing to a young, middle-of-the-road southern electorate. Skilful though the leadership has been in encouraging young, articulate spokespeople, there is a dearth of talent, for self-respecting, thoughtful people don't want to be part of a cult run by an oligarchy composed of old men who like it their way. Yet when dictators fall, splits follow. Enda Kenny's choices seem simple by comparison.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards