The End of the Old Brigade

Gerry Adams is stepping down as Sinn Féin president — what legacy will his long leadership leave behind?

Gerry Adams in 1989 alongside longtime ally Martin McGuinness, who died earlier this year. (Credit: Rex)

Gerry Adams announced this week that he will be standing down as president of Sinn Féin, after one of the longest and most influential careers in Irish political history. Growing up in Ballymurphy, a working-class Catholic ghetto in West Belfast, Adams went on to become a senior IRA commander before establishing himself as the public face of Irish republicanism. His departure from Sinn Féin’s leadership is one of the most significant moments in the party’s recent history.

For his supporters, Adams is the man who guided Sinn Féin to unprecedented political success; for disillusioned onetime allies, he is a slippery opportunist who abandoned fundamental principles in the name of expediency. His most vociferous critics in the Irish media will be glad to see the back of Adams, but their relief at his departure will be mixed with awareness that he did more than anyone to bring the IRA to a permanent ceasefire. He leaves Sinn Féin at a moment of uncertainty on both sides of the Irish border, with fundamental questions to answer about its political strategy in the years ahead.

Óglach Adams

If Gerry Adams was a conventional politician, we could date his entry into front-line politics from 1983. That was the year when he was first elected to Westminster as the MP for West Belfast, and replaced Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as the president of Sinn Féin. Thirty-five years would constitute an impressive span for any political career. But Adams had already been a central figure in Irish politics for more than a decade by the time he first held elected office.

His real debut on the political stage came in June 1972, when he was released from Long Kesh internment camp to take part in talks with the British government. The IRA leadership insisted that Adams be released if a truce with the British Army was to go ahead. Despite what Adams might claim, twenty-three-year-olds with no public profile weren’t given that kind of importance without being intimately involved in the IRA’s guerrilla campaign.

Frank Steele, an MI6 officer who took part in those abortive talks, later said that he had expected Adams to be “an arrogant, streetwise young thug” but found him to be “a very personable, intelligent, articulate and self-disciplined man” who “obviously had a terrific future ahead of him whatever he did.” This says as much about the prejudices of the British ruling class as it does about Adams, but his qualities as a leader were apparent to friend and foe alike from the beginning.

In the early years of the Provisional movement Adams helped to bridge a generational gap. Republicanism in Belfast and Derry had been a marginal tradition, kept alive by a cluster of families, including his own — his father, Gerry Adams Sr, had served time for IRA activities in the 1940s. Those veterans supplied the organizational core of the rejuvenated movement in the early 1970s, but its impetus came from a much younger cohort, many of whom were teenagers when they joined the IRA. Martin McGuinness, who became a vital component of the leadership team that formed around Adams, was in charge of the Derry IRA by the age of twenty-one.

Adams was a few years older than these young militants, giving him a head start in terms of political experience, and was already a republican activist when violence erupted in the summer of 1969. He later wrote with obvious enthusiasm about the IRA’s role in community activism during the late 1960s under the leadership of Cathal Goulding. When the movement split at the end of 1969, Goulding guided the Marxist Official IRA towards social activism while their “Provo” rivals took up arms against British rule. Adams sided with the Provos, seeing a military campaign as essential for the republican cause. But he never forgot the debates of the 1960s and drew on them when it became clear that armed struggle alone would not deliver the goods.

New Departure

Adams spent the first half of the 1970s in jail or on the run, rising to prominence in the Belfast IRA alongside men like Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes. He was in Long Kesh when the Provo leadership called a second ceasefire that lasted for much of 1975, and began writing articles for the newspaper Republican News under the pen-name “Brownie,” setting out his stall for a new approach. The Brownie columns argued for republicans to broaden their repertoire, building up a political movement alongside the IRA that could engage in trade-union and community struggles, which he termed “economic resistance.” Adams borrowed freely from left-wing writers like Desmond Greaves, Michael Farrell, and Eamonn McCann, although he continued to distance himself from Marxism. But this left turn was to be a complement to the armed struggle, not a substitute for it.

After his release in 1976, Adams was ready to challenge the old guard in the republican movement. His faction promised that there would be no more ceasefires without a clear British commitment to leave Ireland for good, earning themselves a reputation as hardline militarists. The vision of a federal Ireland with an Ulster parliament espoused by Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh was dismissed as a sop to unionism. Ó Brádaigh and his allies were ruthlessly marginalized by the younger northern Provos who rallied to Adams. In a dramatic role-reversal which reveals much about Adams’s political journey, Ó Brádaigh would later became one of his leading critics when he led Sinn Féin into the peace process of the 1990s.

The armed struggle continued in the 1980s but the desire to strengthen the movement’s political wing never went away. The period was dominated by the battle waged by republican prisoners for political status, which culminated in the 1981 hunger strikes. Borrowing ideas from hard-left groups like People’s Democracy and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the Provos started to build a broad campaign in support of the prisoners that became one of the biggest mass movements in Irish history. When hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster from his prison cell in a by-election, it broke Sinn Féin’s taboo about electoral politics and paved the way for the party’s subsequent rise.

In the 1983 Westminster election Sinn Féin won over 40 percent of the nationalist vote. It was a remarkable success that demonstrated the potential of an electoral strategy to Adams and his comrades in leadership. But it also proved to be the high-water mark for the dual strategy of “the Armalite and the ballot box.” As time went on, the contradictions between the IRA’s guerrilla warfare and Sinn Féin’s political growth became ever more apparent. Support for the IRA campaign was confined to a minority of nationalists in republican strongholds like Derry, West Belfast, and South Armagh. Beyond those circles, there was a ceiling that Sinn Féin could never break while the war continued. Controversial IRA actions, such as the bomb attack that killed eleven civilians at Enniskillen in 1987, would have a direct impact on Sinn Féin’s electoral prospects.

In the end, the desired breakthrough at the ballot box failed to materialize. In the North, the middle-class nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) successfully held the line against Sinn Féin. South of the border, republicans had few electoral prospects: whatever sympathy there might have been for their cause, most people wanted the conflict to end far more than they wanted the IRA to win.

Farewell to Arms

We will probably never know exactly when Adams and his inner circle decided that the IRA campaign would have to be wound down. By the late 1980s, it certainly should have been clear that outright victory was beyond the IRA’s grasp. Hardline republicans detected a slackening of commitment to armed struggle. Adams had to face down an attempted heave by Ivor Bell, who had been one of his closest allies, over the increased resources he was directing towards electoral campaigning. Some IRA leaders wanted to use a massive consignment of arms and ammunition from Libya to escalate the war dramatically, in the hope of precipitating a terminal crisis for British rule in Ireland. If this “Tet Offensive” strategy had ever been carried out, it would almost certainly have ended in a messy defeat.

Adams was in no mind to take that gamble. Instead, he began reaching out to the SDLP and the Irish government in the hope of forging broader pan-nationalist unity. Secret contacts were initiated with the British government. With the ANC and the PLO also engaged in peace processes during the early 1990s, republicans felt more comfortable moving away from traditional nostrums. But by the time the IRA called a ceasefire in 1994, it was already clear that any settlement emerging from the talks would fall a long way short of what the Provos said they had been fighting for. The Downing Street declaration issued by the British and Irish governments in December 1993 insisted that there would be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without majority consent, thus reaffirming the “unionist veto” republicans had pledged to overturn.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 left British rule in place for the indefinite future, but guaranteed nationalists their place in a regional power-sharing government. This was precisely the kind of peace settlement that the Provos had rejected out of hand in previous years. In return for its willingness to compromise, Sinn Féin found doors opening in the political mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. Steady electoral growth followed in due course. By 2001, the party had overtaken the SDLP in the North, displacing the traditional middle-class leadership trained for command by the Catholic Church. The symbolism of this shift would not have been lost on Adams, who spoke with some bitterness about the class hierarchy among nationalists:

It was the experience of most people of my age at grammar schools that we were being groomed. Certain people finished that grooming, and became bishops, parish priests, leaders of the SDLP — and other “responsible” positions. You hear all this talk about “responsible” leaders: homilies by the cardinal to Catholics that we should be involved in campaigns like housing because if we don’t, the men of violence will fill the vacuum. That’s a most unchristian reason to be involved in any just cause. There’s an aspect in all of this in which the Catholic establishment looks for “safe” and “responsible” figures. And at least among some of them there’s this snobbery, that these Sinn Féin people haven’t been trained in our schools to be in positions of leadership.

But by the time Sinn Féin finally got the better of this Catholic grammar-school elite, it did so not by emphasizing class politics. Instead, the feat was achieved by playing down the social fractures in the nationalist community and adopting much of the SDLP’s agenda.

The peace strategy that underpinned these political advances required great dexterity. Adams wanted to bring as many IRA volunteers with him as possible, and showed himself to be a subtle and persuasive leader as he guided the movement onto a new path. There were splits along the way, but none of the dissident factions was able to launch a major campaign. No doubt there was plenty of dissembling by the republican leadership, but that would never have been enough if there had been a critical mass of IRA supporters who believed that guerrilla warfare was the path to victory. Even harsh critics of the Adams leadership recognized that armed struggle had run its course.

A Party of Government?

Although they had no intention of going back to war, the Provos wanted to use the IRA as a bargaining chip in negotiations for as long as possible. They resisted pressure to decommission its arsenal until 2005, when Sinn Féin came under intense pressure after the Northern Bank robbery, widely assumed to be the work of the IRA, and the murder of Robert McCartney by IRA members in Belfast. In 2007, Sinn Féin finally took its place in Northern Ireland’s regional government alongside Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But it was Martin McGuinness, not Adams, who led the party’s ministerial team.

Meanwhile, in the South, Sinn Féin had grown to be a serious electoral force for the first time. In the 2002 general election, the party more than doubled its vote and won five seats in the Dáil. Two years later Mary Lou McDonald, a former member of Fianna Fáil, was elected to the European parliament for Sinn Féin in Dublin.

The party’s post-ceasefire momentum seemed unstoppable — much of the commentary on the 2007 general election focused on whether it would join a coalition government. With the prospect of working with Fianna Fáil on the horizon, the party leadership prepared to ditch its progressive taxation platform during the campaign. But the result was stagnation. Instead of making a real breakthrough in southern politics, Sinn Féin lost one of its five seats.

There wasn’t much time to reflect on this setback before the global financial crash sent the Irish economy into a tailspin and offered Sinn Féin a fresh opportunity. It harshly criticized the governing parties in Dublin and the programs imposed by the troika, building itself up as the principal anti-austerity voice in the South. The party also changed its line on coalition. As the Irish Labour Party began to gravitate towards a deal with the Right, Gerry Adams said it had “a duty not to prop up either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael” and should instead be part of a “new alignment.” “The dominance in this state of two large conservative parties,” he declared, “can be brought to an end.”

Adams himself spearheaded the charge in the 2011 general election, moving his base from Belfast to Louth where he won a seat in the Dáil. The move was intended to give Sinn Féin’s parliamentary group more heavyweight political talent, although Adams rarely made a strong impression as an orator. The party’s most notable interventions in parliament came from younger MPs like Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, and, more recently, Eoin Ó Broin.

Adams’s presence on the Dáil benches has been a problem as well as an asset. He was dogged by accusations from his former comrade Brendan Hughes of involvement in the murder of Jean McConville, a middle-aged woman abducted and killed by the IRA in 1972. Adams has a serious case to answer, but politicians from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour have cynically used McConville’s death to deflect criticism from their own unpopular economic policies.

The southern political class never really expected Sinn Féin to become a major electoral force in their own state. Having cheerfully endorsed an agreement that put Sinn Féin in government north of the border, they have belatedly discovered a sense of moral outrage about the victims of the Troubles — one which only applies to those killed by the IRA. Revelations about collusion between British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries have never inspired the same passion. Adams has become the lightning-rod for this selective indignation, and has not been able to counter it effectively.

On the Wrong Road

With Adams stepping aside, we will see whether this baggage really has been an obstacle to Sinn Féin’s growth in the South. Since last year’s general election the party has again found itself becalmed. Its 13.8% vote share came as a disappointment after the polling highs of 2014–15, when it appeared set to overtake Fianna Fáil as Ireland’s second-largest party. Now it looks more likely to become their junior partner in government, with this weekend’s historic Ard Fheis [party congress]opening the way to such a move.

It makes for a stark contrast with 2015, when Adams insisted that Sinn Féin “certainly won’t go in with anyone as a junior partner.” Clearly Adams doesn’t feel the duty he bestowed upon Labour not to “prop up” Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil should apply equally to his own party.

But this should not really be surprising. For Gerry Adams and the movement he has built, social questions are ultimately a means to an end: useful insofar as they advance the prospects of Irish unification, disposable insofar as they don’t. And under his leadership, Sinn Féin has come closer to its primary objective than ever before. When Adams promised, at this year’s Ard Fheis, that his party would secure a referendum on Irish unity within five years, it wasn’t for show. Amid the fallout from Brexit, with unionism historically weak in the North and the conflict fading from the memory of the southern electorate, a referendum is increasingly plausible. What kind of Ireland it would produce is another story.

Before the choice to enter government in the South has to be made, Sinn Féin will have its work cut out preventing the British Conservatives and their DUP allies from trashing what remains of the Good Friday Agreement. Adams may be stepping back from a formal leadership role, but it won’t be possible to write his full political biography for some years yet.