Northern Ireland’s protests, parades and past – and a party president with no plans to go away

It was a bad year for Gerry Adams, but the North has experienced many much worse years

Political culture, political cult: republicans are true to Gerry Adams. Photograph:  Gareth Chaney Collins

Political culture, political cult: republicans are true to Gerry Adams. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins


It was a messy year in Northern Ireland, but there have been worse years, even since peacetime. The year started with flags disorder and ended with the American diplomat Richard Haass trying to put order on flags, parades and the past.

Somehow, through all that happened this year, the question that kept emerging was what the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, will be doing in 2014. Some people even harbour the thought that he might leave politics to focus on his literary career.

The sense of bewilderment and incomprehension about Adams was palpable: many people, particularly in the South, can’t figure him out, and Adams and his supporters can’t seem to figure the bafflement. “It’s like parallel universes,” as one republican puts it.

This must have been an annus horribilis for Adams, what with the Disappeared; the imprisonment of his brother Liam for sexually abusing his own daughter; investigations into whether Adams withheld information about the abuse; his remarks about the murders of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan; and the continuous and occasionally derisive jibes about his not being a member of the IRA. Would such a litany of verbal assault and allegation not prompt any other politician to quit or be forced from the stage? The culture of any normal party is that it would. But here you move from political culture to political cult.

This month Sinn Féin has been circling the wagons to support its leader. His Belfast friend Jim Gibney, the senior republican and Irish News columnist, complained of “political and class prejudice in the media against Gerry Adams”. A “Patten-style investigation into the media” might “put the brakes on an unaccountable and out-of-control clique”, Gibney wrote.

Many Northern and Southern republicans agreed. “Republicans will be critical of anyone who lets them down, but Adams has not let them down,” says one. “Nobody is suggesting he should collect his bus pass.”

“Republicans will choose their leader, not the media. Republicans stand or fall together,” says another Northern republican. “We see an agenda here. It is heads the establishment wins and tails Adams loses.”

Another bottom-line point for republicans is that Sinn Fein is still on the up, in both the North and the South. That, they are sure, is because of Adams and Martin McGuinness. Why would they remove him?

Some republicans will, if really pushed, concede that the horrors of the Disappeared and the nonsense about not being in the IRA are awkward for Adams, but then add quietly: “The republican base understands.” Nobody within mainstream Sinn Féin has suggested, on or off the record, that Adams is becoming a liability. So it seems Adams doesn’t want to go yet, and republicans don’t want him to go yet.

Seamus Heaney
Northern Ireland also experienced the unexpected death of Seamus Heaney, a loss that engendered a bitter-sweet feeling of sadness as well as pride in a great, good, generous man. Other landmarks were the death of Fr Alec Reid, the successful G8, the birth of the new NI21 pro-union party that is attracting Catholics, and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore saying the Government would address unionist concerns that more could have been done south of the Border to thwart the IRA.

Collusion dominated the news, with the Smithwick report about Garda collusion at Dundalk and the Lethal Allies book about RUC and British army collusion.

Other notable events included Peter Robinson praising the GAA; the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast; the attorney general, John Larkin, suggesting an effective amnesty for Troubles-related killings; and a Catholic priest in full clerical garb being applauded at a DUP annual conference

Haass and his colleague Meghan O’Sullivan, a Harvard professor, have been tackling the big issues, and it will take time to determine how much progress they have achieved. They can chart the way forward, but it’s for the politicians and the people to travel away from the festering past while allowing the thousands still suffering grief and pain to have some effective release.

Northern Executive business was both done and not done. Robinson and McGuinness fought over the stalled, possibly doomed peace and reconciliation centre at the old Maze prison site while the Narrow Water Bridge, like the shared sports stadium before it, appeared lost. Still, the Stormont institutions and departments roll on.

There was trouble on the Twelfth and, as a consequence, a loyalist Drumcree-style protest camp at Twaddell Avenue, in north Belfast. There was the death of Dolours Price and the admission in court of dissident activity by her sister Marian.

The reason there have been worse years than 2013 is that the dissidents didn’t make major headlines this year, though on occasion this month they might have done. Dissident leaders have been more cautious, because of greater infiltration of the groups by agents and informants and by good policing and intelligence work by the PSNI, the Garda and MI5.

But the threat isn’t going away, and they remain determined to kill police and prison officers and whoever might get caught up in the crossfire. The sad certainty is that at some stage they will succeed.

The two main loyalist groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, have been getting very agitated this year, mostly about racketeering, drug dealing and internal power plays, and nobody knows what 2014 will bring.

There is always the fear that dissident actions could provide the loyalists with the pretext to switch from criminal activity to more overtly sectarian actions.

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