Mr Adams regrets
The apology by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to the family of Det Garda Jerry McCabe, who was shot dead by members of the Provisional IRA during a post office raid in Adare, Co Limerick, in 1996, is to be welcomed.
It represents part of a slow and painstaking transition by a paramilitary organisation to mainstream politics. The apology followed the murder of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe by a cross-Border gang in Mr Adams’s Louth constituency. Obliged by Dáil procedures to comment on that murder, Mr Adams took the occasion to issue an extended apology to the McCabe family and to “other members of the State forces who were killed by republicans in the course of the conflict”. The apology came just three years after Kerry North TD Martin Ferris greeted Det Garda McCabe’s killers as they left prison, an action later defended by fellow Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin as Mr Ferris’s “responsibility”.
It represented a small step towards political convention, rather than a Pauline episode. The statement does, however, raise a number of questions: on whose behalf was Mr Adams speaking when he apologised? Is he slowly emerging from the closet in relation to past IRA membership? These questions may fade with time. But the public would benefit from knowing to what extent republicans who directed or carried out past atrocities influence current Sinn Féin thinking.
Ruthless opportunism and political flair have been the hallmarks of the Sinn Féin leadership. Three years ago, the party was in the political doldrums, having flirted first with Fianna Fáil and later with Labour and the Green Party in the elections of 2007 and 2009. Then, as Fianna Fáil dithered over the 2011 presidential election, it pulled a masterstroke by nominating Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, as its candidate. In the absence of a Fianna Fáil contender, Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander and architect of the peace process, brought Sinn Féin to centre stage in the South and helped to “decontaminate” the party for Southern voters.
Within months of the election, Sinn Féin had overtaken both Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party in opinion polls and was the second most popular party in the State. Opposition to greater EU integration and the fiscal treaty brought some slippage with an uncertain electorate, but the party has remained within striking distance of Fianna Fáil and has hollowed out Labour Party support. Critics of Mr Adams and his shadowy past will demand that he retract previous denials of IRA membership. They will focus on his past demands for the release of Det McCabe’s killers, the support they received from Sinn Féin, and his own refusals to apologise for what happened. They will accuse him of hypocrisy. They will be right. Mr Adams marches to a different drum.