Lighter moments on Gerry Adams canvass - but no high-fives

Sinn Féin looks to be on an unassailable and inevitable rise, but are the gains real?

Harry McGee goes on the campaign trail with Gerry Adams, the second in our series on the campaign trail. Video: Darragh Bambrick

Fri, May 16, 2014, 12:43

Gerry Adams climbs up a ladder to put up a Sinn Féin poster on a lamp-post outside Government Buildings.

The party’s Dublin European election candidate Lynn Boylan is commandeered to hold the stepladder steady, which she does a little nervously.

A small group of party acolytes stand around to admire the phenomenon of an Irish politician sliding up a slippery pole.

The last Irish politician of note to shin up a lamp-post was Michael McDowell. People remember his famous 2002 stunt (Single Government, No Thanks) but he tried it again in 2007. Sic transit gloria mundi. The Progressive Democrats were eviscerated. Looked at with a long view, that successful stunt of 2002 was the last sting of a dying wasp.

Has Gerry Adams’s moment passed? There was a time when every lamp-post in the country would have featured that unmissable combination of beard, spectacles and toothy smile. Not any more. Adams is leader of the party, but when you travel to Dublin West it is the image of the party’s deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, that crops up everywhere beside byelection candidate Paul Donnelly.

Adams has been at the helm of the republican movement (you can define that as widely or as narrowly as you wish) for 30 years, maybe more. Are we seeing the beginning of a transition where he moves from being the lead actor to playing a cameo role, what the Tories call a grandee?

Everybody forgets quickly how cyclical politics is. A big change happens in the political structure and people begin to think of it as permanent, when it is only actually permanent until the next big change happens.

Sinn Féin itself is a good case study. It had a meticulous strategy for growing the party in the South that looked foolproof until it hit the doldrums in 2007 and in 2009.

Now the party looks to be on an unassailable and inevitable rise, but are the gains real? Are the opinion polls, with their oscillating conclusions, that accurate? Even if they are, is it permanent, or might a chunk of the 15 per cent of floating voters move on elsewhere next time?

But with Sinn Féin, it’s the strategy of American civil war general Nathan Bedford Forest that comes to mind. Who wins is the side that can “get there fastest with the mostest”.

So, for political expediency’s sake, it is McDonald (the politician du jour) who will star in posters.

That’s not to say she’s supplanting Adams. He’s still the figurehead, and those who think his Dáil performances act as a drag on Sinn Féin sometimes don’t appreciate it doesn’t even come on the radar outside Leinster House.

Besides, Adams didn’t make it to the top of the republican movement solely on the basis of his PR skills. His skills as a strategic thinker remain core. In conversation, he is quite candid in his assessment of supposedly favourable opinion polls , and readily admits his arrest and questioning in the McConville case might adversely affect the party’s vote.

Spending a day with Adams is a different experience than spending it with Enda Kenny. There are a few moments of levity, but there is none of the high octane, high-five stuff.

The morning starts with Adams launching the party’s local election manifesto. What emerges from this is more questions on his arrest and questioning, as well as a full-frontal attack by him on Independent Newspapers for what he contends is a “scurrilous” article on his evidence during his brother’s criminal trial for serious sexual assault. He discloses he has instructed the Belfast defamation specialist Paul Tweed to issue proceedings against the media group.

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