by Seán Canniffe
Gerry Adams, the iconic Irish Republican leader, announced at the party’s Ard Fheis (party conference) in mid November that he will be stepping down as President of Sinn Féin, the party he helped mold from a revolutionary force into the potent political power it is today.
Adams has been at the helm of Sinn Féin for more 34 years, and in that time he has guided the party from the margins of politics on both sides of the border to the center stage. Sinn Féin is now the dominant party representing catholic nationalists in the north of Ireland, having eclipsed the SDLP. In the assembly elections held earlier this year Sinn Féin came within one seat of becoming the largest party in the assembly, a phenomenal achievement coming from where it was at the start of Adams’ leadership, with virtually no representation at all. Similarly in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin has 23 TDs sitting in Dáil Éireann, the most it has had since the partition of Ireland. When Adams took over the reins of Sinn Féin in 1983 (after winning the British parliamentary seat for West Belfast) the party had no TDs at all. Adams himself is now a TD for County Louth where he is enormously popular, getting more votes in the last general election than any other candidate, with the exception of then Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny.
Sinn Féin’s goal is the reunification of Ireland, the creation of a state where freedom, equality and fairness applies to all its citizens regardless of their creed or political persuasion. In that, Adams has immeasurably advanced the conversation in both jurisdictions.
His signature achievement was the initiation and subsequent development of the Peace Process. Starting as early as the late 1980s Adams was to the fore in the republican movement in calling for an end to the armed campaign. In the early 90s—alongside the late Martin McGuinness, a commander of the Irish Republican Army, and other republicans—he began a dialogue with John Hume of the SDLP which developed into talks with the Irish and British governments. In 1998 the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed as a direct result of years of effort on behalf of Adams. The US-brokered deal ushered in the end of The Troubles and the subsequent decommissioning and disbanding of the Provisional IRA. Getting to the deal was far from easy. Adams took enormous political and personal risks to keep pushing the governments, unionists and hardliners within his own movement. Together with McGuinness and former IRA icon Joe Cahill, Adams persuaded militant republicanism that the time was right to move on to what was described as “a new phase of the struggle.”
Adams was born into the segregated northern statelet in 1948. He grew up in a society where catholics, by dint of their faith alone, suffered gross discrimination in employment, housing and even voting rights. The late 1960s saw the creation of Civil Rights movement, an effort to correct the numerous injustices visited on the catholic population of the six counties. When peaceful protestors were met with bullets from the British Army, as in Derry in 1972 on Bloody Sunday when 14 civilians were killed, the IRA took matters of defense into their own hands. Prior to Bloody Sunday Adams personally witnessed the murders of 14 innocents, including a catholic priest, in his native Ballymurphy in Belfast. That atrocity was carried out over a three day period by the same British regiment subsequently responsible for Bloody Sunday.
Adams was a 19-year-old bartender when he joined the republican movement but he quickly rose through its ranks. In 1972 he was interned—imprisoned without trial—under the abusive Special Powers Act. More than three thousand people were caught up in the internment net in the early 1970s, all but a handful were catholics. He was subsequently released in order to attend talks on negotiating an IRA ceasefire. He has been accused his whole adult life of being an IRA member, but was acquited of that charge in 1977.
In 1981 the deaths of 10 hunger strikers in the Maze Prison, led by Bobby Sands, changed the political calculus. Under Adams the republican movement developed the strategy of “the armalite and the ballot box.” Sands had been elected as a Member of the British Parliament before his death. Another hunger Striker Kieran Doherty was elected to Dáil Éireann. Adams knew that the movement he was leading had political support and was determined to bring it into the mainstream of democratic politics. The rest of the 1980s and the early 1990s, in the context of history, can be seen as a forerunner to the Peace Process.
Throughout this time and, indeed, up to the point at which the IRA decommissioned Adams faced dissension from elements of hardcore republicanism. But he prevailed. In the eyes of many of his supporters, and indeed those who are his political opponents, the Peace Process and the end to 25 years of violence could not have come about without Adams.
For most of this time, Adams, and other senior republicans lived a surreal life, unable to stay more than a few nights in any one place for fear of assassination. In fact, several attempts were made on his life. In 1984 he survived a gun attack perpetrated by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist terror group, in Belfast city center. He and three comrades were wounded but managed to escape.
In 1988, at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone targetted Adams and McGuinness while they were attending the funeral of three IRA members. Three mourners died in that attack.
Adams has never sought to distance himself from the years of violence and has often spoken of the regret he has that anyone was killed or injured, but he has always placed those regrets in the context of the war that was being fought between republicans, loyalists and British forces.
When Adams made his announcement, in front of the 1,000 plus audience at the Ard Fheis in Dublin, it did not come as a massive surprise to most. Prior to Martin McGuinness’s death early this year, the pair had made it known that they had a joint plan to transition out of the leadership.
In his Ard Fheis speech Adams said: “Leadership means knowing when it is time for change and that time is now.”
He said that Sinn Féin needed to “prepare for being in government on republican terms in Dublin,” adding: “We have also recast Sinn Féin into an effective all-Ireland republican party, with clear policy and political objectives, and the means to achieve them through democratic and peaceful forms of struggle where none existed before.
“Republicanism has never been stronger … this is our time. We will grow even stronger in the future.
“I want to thank everyone who has welcomed me into their homes and communities and have made me part of countless campaigns, countless elections and countless negotiations,” he said. “We are going to continue to go forward.”