go to the home page
see what Ruth is up to links to all Ruth's non-fiction publications links to all Ruth's crime fictions titles links to most of Ruth's journalist over the last four years
Prospect logo
30 March 2017

Gerry Adams never wastes a crisis

Northern Ireland has reached a political impasse, but now one man is calling the shots

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein ©Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA Images
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein ©Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA Images

“We can’t be arsed with another election,” was a headline on the satirical website Ulster Fry after the talks on restoring the Northern Ireland executive broke down. “Now sort it out you ballbags, everyone tells MLAs [members of the legislative assembly].”

Or, as Secretary of State James Brokenshire put it rather more sedately, there is “no appetite for another election.”

That is probably an accurate reflection of how most people feel in Northern Ireland, even if they don’t agree on why there’s a political impasse. Is it republican aggression, unionist arrogance, British neglect or all three? The proximate cause, though, was Martin McGuinness leaving the building.

If any non-IRA supporter is feeling as sentimental about McGuinness as was Bill Clinton when he spoke at his funeral, they should remember that from 1970 until 1997 he was a serial killer: apart from the murders he committed personally, he authorised the shooting and blowing up of many many hundreds.

However, having for pragmatic reasons decided to make power-sharing work, from 2007 McGuinness as deputy first minister employed his intelligence and social skills to keep the show on the road. When he became too ill to go on, he and Adams decided he should pull down the executive so as to force an ethnic drum-beating election: this revitalised disgruntled republican grassroots, narrowed the electoral gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein and brought about a stalemate in talks about reinstating the executive.

In essence, Sinn Fein want concessions on several fronts, including the stepping down of Arlene Foster during the inquiry into the expensive farce of the mismanaged Renewable Heat Initiative, an Irish language act, and what are described euphemistically as legacy issues, while the DUP want the status quo and the British and Irish governments want them all to stop arguing, agree a programme for government and get on with implementing it, while the grown-ups seek to persuade the EU to cooperate in making Brexit work to the advantage of the whole island of Ireland.

Ninety MLAs were elected, but with 28 and 27 seats respectively, only the DUP and Sinn Fein mattered and all other parties were essentially excluded from the shambolic and doomed discussions. Under the rules of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, if after an election negotiations are not concluded successfully in three weeks, the Secretary of State should call another election, and if that produces a further stalemate, impose direct rule.

Sinn Fein says it wants another election and will not tolerate direct rule, but the DUP think they secretly want it. They hope to be in coalition in the Republic after the next election, which could be any time between now and 2021, Gerry Adams leads the party in the Dail, and as President (since 1983) of Sinn Fein island-wide, it was he who chose to appoint Michelle O’Neill, a mediocrity, as McGuinness’s successor as party leader in Northern Ireland, where he’s been leading the negotiations.

In the Republic the party is left-wing and has been embarrassed by compromises made in government in Northern Ireland, so leaving future tough decisions to a British minister has many attractions, not least because Sinn Fein is intent on using Brexit (which the DUP backed) to stir up Anglophobia.

“Never waste a crisis,” is one of Adams’s mantras and he has certainly been skilfully exploiting this one, much to the irritation of anyone who remembers that until very recently Sinn Fein were anti-EU. By loud demands for a border poll, he’s also managed to get a united Ireland back into serious discussion, although Northern Ireland doesn’t want it and polls in the Republic show fewer than a third would support it if it would require higher taxes.

Sinn Fein can’t be seen to be utterly intransigent, but are past masters at blaming the Brits, and Brokenshire is in their sights because of his unease over intractable legacy issues. Broadly, Sinn Fein policy is to demand limitless funds for thorough investigation of all killings by the security forces or by loyalists, while in practice giving no help whatsoever to any investigation of those committed by republicans. Yet the Provisional IRA murdered almost 1800 people, while the security forces killed fewer than 400.

So far a disproportionate number of what are known as legacy inquests concern deaths caused by the security forces. The DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has told parliament that if extra money is made available for such inquests while none is allocated to the police’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which investigates all killings, then the DUP will “withdraw our support for that process.”

Brokenshire has given the talks a few more weeks. Once more, in Northern Ireland, Gerry Adams is calling the shots.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards