Adams line on nationalism and slavery wide of mark

Sinn Féin president’s retreat from incendiary tweets exposes an underlying anxiety

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has acknowledged he “made a mistake” in using the N-word in a tweet in which he compared the struggle against slavery in the US to the plight of Irish nationalists.

 

“The Irish are the n****rs of Europe. ” So Jimmy Rabbitte famously told the band in Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments. But that line didn’t make it intact into Alan Parker’s 1991 film, where the Irish became the “blacks” of Europe. The “N” word had been banished.

In the three decades since, the layered and multiple meanings around the N-word, how it’s used and by whom, have become ever more complex. But, paradoxically, one rule has got much simpler: if you’re white, don’t use it. Not ironically.

Not when quoting somebody else. Not when singing along to your favourite gangsta rap track. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that Irish politicians of a certain vintage stumble sometimes at this apparently straightforward fence. Enda Kenny did it 13 years ago, and had to issue a grovelling apology.

So when Gerry Adams wrote on Sunday evening, “Watching Django Unchained – A Ballymurphy N****r!”, he may just have got a bit overexcited by the fact the word in question appears no fewer than 115 times in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked film.

To unpick what really happened, we need to consider the deeply peculiar phenomenon that is the @GerryAdamsSF Twitter account, wherein the Sinn Féin president posts gnomic messages about teddy bears and rubber duckies, along with more predictable rallying calls to party supporters.

‘Absurdity and banality’

What the New Yorker magazine described as their “increasingly odd amalgamation of absurdity and banality” is typified by Adams’s last tweet before midnight on Sunday, presumably after the credits had rolled: “Oichey oichey xozzzzzzzz.”

It was not to be. Less than three hours later, the account was up and active again, in full defensive mode: “Any1 who saw Django would know my tweets & N-word were ironic. Nationalists in Nth were treated like African Americans,” wrote the risen Adams.

Django Unchained is a deliriously over-the-top and extremely violent revenge drama, in the style of pulp exploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s , in which Jamie Foxx plays the titular liberated slave who sets out to free his wife from a vicious plantation owner. It seems remarkable that Adams immediately saw a parallel between Tarantino’s self-consciously hyper-theatrical celebration of gore and his own personal experience of living in west Belfast. But who are we to judge?

Some hours later, in a further statement, he said that “while there are parallels between people in struggle, the tweet was inappropriate”. Finally, it seems, it had dawned on someone somewhere in Sinn Féin that comparing the civil rights abuses suffered by nationalists in Northern Ireland to the experiences of African-American slaves was, to put it mildly, unwise.

Whatever else he may be, Gerry Adams is no racist, but in his 12-hour walkback from his original tweets he may have exposed the unresolved tension underlying this story. “Like African Americans, Irish nationalists were denied basic rights,” he said. “The penal laws, Cromwell’s regime and partition are evidence of that.”

Parallels

It wouldn’t pass muster with many historians, but this is standard 800-years-of-oppression fare from Sinn Féin. However, the party might want to think about whether it should keep drawing such parallels. As the Limerick-based historian Liam Hogan has pointed out, false equivalence between the treatment of African slaves and of indentured Irish servants in the 17th and 18th century has become popular in far-right and white supremacist circles in the US and elsewhere as a means of delegitimising African-American political movements and playing down the grim history of centuries of institutionalised racism and slavery.

In that context, Sinn Féin’s fondness for equating the Provisional IRA’s campaign with the long struggle against slavery starts looking less clever, particularly to the kind of supporters it hopes to attract in the US.

In The Commitments, there’s another alteration from the book. When Jimmy finishes his speech, one of the band pipes up to say: “Maybe we’re a little white for that kind of thing.” Adams might take note.

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