Today, Ireland holds a general election for the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of its legislature, which will be responsible for nominating a prime minister on March 10. The vote comes just over a month before the hundredth anniversary of the failed 1916 rebellion that sought to win the country’s independence.
The significance of the Easter Rising centenary has been felt across the island, but perhaps nowhere as acutely as within the ranks of Sinn Féin. A visible, though initially abstentionist, political presence in the North since the early 1980s, the party has enjoyed new success in the Southern republic.
Though it remains the most progressive — and certainly the most staunchly republican — of Ireland’s mainstream political parties, Sinn Féin seems to be in a process of reinvention. Far from its long-perceived status as an Irish Republican Army mouthpiece, the party leadership is now compelled to reach a hesitant electorate by renouncing their radical political affiliations on nationally televised debates.
Today’s election thus serves as something of a proving ground for the efficacy of the party’s pragmatic strategy. Is the legacy of the Easter Rising still alive in a meaningful way? To what extent can Connolly’s radical, socialist vision exist in a legitimized political party that has warmed to the electoral sphere? Is there a future for the republican left? These are all questions that hinge, to some extent, on the legacy of Gerry Adams, the party’s longtime president.
Adams is perhaps best known for leading Sinn Féin away from abstentionism, through the tenuous and difficult 1990s peace process, and for vocally championing the “armalite and ballot box” strategy (in which the strength of the latter invariably came at the expense of the former).
The West Belfast MP is also an increasingly believable, though certainly not favored, candidate to claim the seat of Taoiseach on the eve of the Easter Rising centenary. It is an opportunity for him to legitimize his claim of inheritance to Ireland’s radical history, an almost poetic victory that could hold the power to vindicate decades of strategy. In short: in this election, Adams has everything to gain and everything to lose.
All of this is clear to Adams. On January 7, he delivered a keynote address to a centenary event at the Mansion House, where the First Dáil famously assembled to declare the Republic in 1919. Firmly grasping his podium, Adams passionately claimed 2016 as “a time to celebrate our identity, commemorate our past, and deliver on the promise of the proclamation [of the Irish Republic].” The ghosts of history are everywhere in Adams’s political rhetoric.
Given the circumstances, it might come as no surprise that Adams chose to amplify the occasion of the centenary by publishing a new book. An accomplished writer, his bibliography already features over a dozen works with titles like Free Ireland: Towards a Lasting Peace and Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland.
Add now to that list My Little Book of Tweets, a curated collection of content from Adams’s personal Twitter feed. A far cry from his earlier theoretical and political writing, the iPhone-sized book features tweets such as this one, which was posted just two days after the aforementioned centenary speech (and surely reached a much wider audience):
I love Shrek.
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) January 9, 2016
Stop. Scroll back for a moment. Look at that tweet again, and think about all of the history that was baked into it.
To emphasize the absurdity of the situation: this is Gerry Adams, who served time in Long Kesh prison for accusations of IRA membership; Gerry Adams, who carried the casket of a Republican volunteer who prematurely detonated an explosive that also killed nine Protestants in Belfast; Gerry Adams, who is routinely accused of terrorist collusion by his political opponents.
And now, on the eve of a historic general election, he chose to punctuate the centennial of the Easter Rising — a momentous revolution that he has evoked in countless political speeches over the years — with a rehash of Shit My Dad Says.
Let the wind blow high. Let the wind blow low. Up the street in my kilt I go. All the lassies say hullo. Donal wheres your troosers.
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) January 3, 2014
If the timing of this release seems odd, you can at least find solace in the fact that its contents are even more so. For the uninitiated, Adams’s Twitter presence oscillates haphazardly between the political and the absurd. In one breath he tweets solidarity with Gaza, and in the next he captions a picture of a rubber duck with the famous IRA battle cry, “tick tocky ár lá” — “our day will come”:
Well at least some thing good came outta my day in London. Tick tocky ar lá.' Sez me. '4 Ducks sake Gerry' Sez RG. pic.twitter.com/a4yvSZY4Kq
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) July 3, 2014
If My Little Book of Tweets was just published last month, Adams is no newcomer to this surreal practice of tweetcraft. In a perhaps-unintentional (and perhaps-intentional) commentary on the position and meaning of politics in a socially mediated world, Adams has been using Twitter as a platform for embedding his uncompromising political life into his easygoing personal life since he started his account in 2011.
For a particular dramatic example, consider Adams’s April 30, 2014 arrest in relation to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. Not long before, the West Belfast MP was chronicling a strange obsession with Cadbury eggs; not soon after, he returned to his proselytization of rubber ducks, and boldly declared: “my favourite rapper is meself.”
To relive the events, as told by Adams’s Twitter feed:
Dreamt I was eating Cream Eggs. Woke up this morn. Pillow & beard covered in chocolate & cream thingymebob.
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) January 25, 2014
Brendan Behan on release from gaol was told 'It must b great 2 b free', 'It must' he said. Just 2 let U know this tweet is back. Dia daoibh.
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) May 4, 2014
U know when U stay in the bath till the water turns cold & parts of U pucker up or shrivel away & even the yellow ducks abandon U? Thats me!
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) May 30, 2014
My favourite rapper is meself.
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) June 8, 2014
More recently, Adams’s Twitter has heavily tended toward coverage of Sinn Féin’s ongoing political campaign in the republic. Photos from campaign stops and thoughts on the daily news have become commonplace among his typical antics. Vying for electoral support, he tweeted that Labour has abandoned working families just several hours after captioning a picture of frying eggs with “the yokes on me!”
The yokes on me! pic.twitter.com/nGJPHmnj8t
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) February 7, 2016
Labour have abandoned working families – Adams https://t.co/lCOajCjCd9
— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) February 7, 2016
With just over one hundred thousand followers at the time of writing, Adams is certainly no Kardashian, but he has achieved a remarkably active following for an Irish politician who is thought to represent a fringe contingency.
The Irish Examiner notes that he has garnered more than twice as many followers as any of his political opponents, and I would add that he seems to have earned at least some electoral support through his predominantly apolitical musings. There is a minor fad among young people on Irish Twitter: they tweet at Adams, saying that they will give him their vote if he retweets, follows, or some variation. Occasionally they go on to say that they will vote for Fianna Fáil if he ignores them. He always obliges.
Some critics have referred to Adams’s Twitter adventures as a brilliant PR scheme. I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but I think it is less calculated than that. If I were to guess, @GerryAdamsSF is less an example of Sinn Féin’s communicative genius than an indicator of the shape and direction of public discourse in general.
Breaking any kind of sensible sequence, the MP’s Twitter feed is hilarious and absurd, but at the same time oddly resonant. His social media persona isn’t popular simply because it is jarring, but also for the exact opposite reason: in a way, it is exactly what we have come to expect. It interfaces perfectly with its medium. Adams may be checking the pulse, but he hasn’t reinvented the daily news.
If you aren’t immediately sold on the idea, just try this: navigate to your Facebook feed, scroll through for a moment, and read it as a story. Treat it as a continuous f-l-o-w. If your feed looks anything like mine, the fragmentation and radical discontinuity will be jarring: progressive think pieces are framed by memes and sponsored content; an old friend shares a baseball pun immediately after another has announced the passing of a family member.
The medium obliterates context through a rapid-fire succession of images and signifiers that work against the creation of any kind of metanarrative. It is not just non-narrative, but anti-narrative. It looks quite a bit like Gerry Adams’s Twitter feed.
Adams has grappled with the conciliation of conflicting ideas for his entire political career: republicanism and socialism; the armalite and the ballot box; republicanism and loyalism throughout Northern Ireland’s lengthy and ongoing peace process.
Always the pragmatist, he has simply extended his practical reformism to the challenges now facing public discourse in the age of news by a million tweets: the juxtaposition of the stoic and the absurd; the decontextualization of history and information; the totalizing collapse of the personal into the political.
Gerry Adams has never been one to confuse strategy with tactics. The Sinn Féin president has always been hungry to adapt when he feels that he is losing ground, and I suspect that his approach to social media has followed a similar logic, even if unintentionally.
With the crushing weight of a hundred-year republican socialist tradition on his party’s back, how else to cater to our present media landscape than to publish a book of tweets? Today’s election is a powerful test of the strength and meaning of Adams’s reformism, all the way from armalite to ballot box to inbox. In the words of the man himself: tick tocky ár lá; I love Shrek.