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What Gerry Adams Leaves Behind

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at the party’s annual conference in Dublin, Ireland, November 18, 2017. (Reuters photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne)
A terrorist-turned-politician retires with an ambiguous legacy.

It comes to an end this weekend. Gerry Adams has traveled a long and unpredictable political road, from his internment without trial in Cage 11 of Long Kesh in 1972 to shaking hands and sharing jokes with Prince Charles in 2017. Along the way Adams has been shot three times, he’s had the sound of his voice censored on the BBC, he’s been credibly accused of ordering the murder of a mother of ten children, he’s been hailed as the man essential to making peace in Northern Ireland, he’s been despised as a sellout by many of his comrades, and he’s enjoyed a long career in elective politics north and south of the Irish border. He also curates one of the more oddball Twitter accounts. This weekend he is retiring from the presidency of Sinn Fein, making way for a younger generation of political leaders who cannot be accused of murder.

What was it all for?

In the end, was Adams’s career just about creating a new political vehicle? While Sinn Fein is seen as the political party that extends Catholic sectarianism into public life, its modern history is a series of triumphs over the political sectarianism within Irish Republicanism. Sinn Feiners overcame the criticism of the “Officials,” harder-line socialists and Communists who often disdained the “xenophobia” of traditional nationalists. They overcame the 1986 split with the more conservative factions of Ruairí O Bradaigh. After the Good Friday Agreement, they overcame the various “Real IRAs,” which wanted to extend the struggle until a socialist Republic emerged from the smoke and fire. Under the leadership of Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein eventually supplanted the SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, which had disdained the violence of the Provisional IRA. Adams helped overcome the suspicion of many Northern Irish nationalists about the government of the Republic of Ireland, and he has grown the party into a serious electoral force of its own. It is the only party with a serious following across the entire island of Ireland. Its success is undeniable.

What was it all for?

I ask in all seriousness, because 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the political situation of Northern Ireland is so ambiguous as to defy description. The life of its people is obviously better than ever. It is more integrated into the economy of “the Isles” than at any time since the partition of Ireland in 1922. And yet socially, Northern Ireland is in many ways more foreign to the two countries to which its citizens give their respective allegiances.

Dublin and London seem much closer to each other socially and politically than either is to Belfast. Perhaps that is the role that Gerry Adams really played, helping to lock Northern Ireland into its own history, turning Belfast into a kind of living museum of the 20th-century antagonisms of the Isles. The only thing that Northern Ireland does with its peace is talk about the importance of the Peace Process. Experiments in building “cross-community” housing still fail. Recently Catholic families had to be evacuated from one such project when police couldn’t guarantee their safety. The paramilitary flag of the Ulster Volunteer Force was raised over that housing estate when they left.

What was it all for?

That Gerry Adams was active in the Provisional IRA is the worst-kept secret in Ireland. And even if his contention were believable – that, in some legalistic way, he was never a “member” — he certainly spoke for the Republican movement of which the Provos were a part. After the IRA bombed the little lobster boat carrying Lord Mountbatten, Adams gave a chilling statement, referring to the death of Prince Phillip’s uncle as an “execution.” Adams even presumed to channel the dead man’s feelings, saying that, given his distinguished war record, Mountbatten could not have “objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation.” Only the Provisional IRA could see a little lobster boat as “clearly a war situation.” Adams said he still stands by his statement today. Quite unlike the Irish revolutionaries of 1916, whom they so admired, the modern Provisional IRA was not content to surrender after a week of mayhem and face the penalties imposed by Britain. They kept fighting and killing for nearly three decades.

That Gerry Adams was active in the Provisional IRA is the worst-kept secret in Ireland.

What was it all for?

Twenty years later, a few things are striking about the Good Friday Agreement. The first is that it has lasted: “The Orange state,” which persecuted, and tolerated the harassment of, Catholics is gone. The second is that it has lasted despite the dysfunction of the political institution it left behind at Stormont. But perhaps most of all, what strikes me is that everyone lost their most precious political objectives in the Troubles.

The Unionists lost. Even though they had successfully fought the IRA into a corner and studded its organization with spies and informers, the result of the Good Friday Agreement was that the Union Jack came down. The Royal Ulster Constabulary tore it off their uniforms, along with all references to the Crown, and became the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The surveillance systems were torn down. Most of the Provisional IRA was released from prison. The peace is undergirded by a promise to cede the six counties of Northern Ireland peacefully, once plebiscites in Northern Ireland and in the Republic show majority support for unification. But most striking of all, the United Kingdom that Ulster Protestants venerate has disappeared. Who in modern Britain venerates the memory of the Somme or the Boyne, outside of the Six Counties? Try using the banknotes printed in Northern Ireland on the mainland. Northern Ireland is treated like a foreign country in mainland news reports, but an obscure and pitiable one.

The Nationalists lost. While all of the above makes the GFA seem like a slow-motion surrender by the British, the nationalists also lost. Their entire political project was based on the doctrine that the British had no right to rule in any part of Ireland, that the people of the entire island had the right to choose their government as one national political unit. In turn this was based on the myth that the political and religious divisions that forestalled unity and political development in Ireland were entirely products of foreign government. Under the spell of these ideas, men waited outside doorways to put 9mm bullets in the heads of other men. For these doctrines, men addressed mail bombs to the wives of H-block prison guards. For these, men starved themselves to death in hunger strikes.

The Good Friday Agreement admits that the people of Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland alone, will choose their own government, that this division — whatever its source in history — is now rooted and grows naturally in Ireland, no matter how little it is watered from Westminster. Adams says that there will be Orange parades in a United Ireland. The mayhem that he encouraged in Northern Ireland, the trauma that was inflicted on the other “community,” may have extended the life of that Orange tradition by several generations, perhaps centuries.

What was it all for?

Adams is retiring. Irish Catholics have more political rights in the North than they did when he started his career. There is peace, of a testy, angry sort. Northern Ireland is, practically and demographically, fated to unite with rest of Ireland. Adams played a role in Northern Ireland’s life, but I’m not sure he was needed for any of the above to come about. All I know is that Sinn Fein is doing well, and has defeated and out-bargained all its critics, dissenters, and splitters. In that, and that alone, Adams’s genius was essential.

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