Miriam Lord: Adams tugs heartstrings in ‘end of era’ speech
During his final ardfheis speech as SF leader, Adams is canonised by the party faithful
Voting at the Sinn Fein ardfheis. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Gerry Adams and Martin Ferris at the ardfheis. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Adams with Toiréasa Ferris ahead of Adam’s final ardfheis speech as leader. Photograph: RollingNews.ie
It was never going to be business as usual at this year’s Sinn Féin ardfheis. Martin McGuinness gone. Gerry Adams finally letting go. Will it ever be business as usual again?
The procedural end of the event went ahead in accordance with the clár, but as delegates debated the different motions there was a sense of them merely going through the motions: marking time for two main events that would see Sinn Féin emerge from their weekend with one canonisation complete and a second beatification process in full swing.
At times, to the uninitiated, it felt a bit like intruding upon a family’s private grief, such was the mood of loss and remembrance swirling around the Simmonscourt Hall in the RDS.
And at times, the outpouring of adulation and emotion from the delegates felt a bit over the top.
The death in March of Martin McGuinness, the terrorist turned peacemaker who was idolised by the Sinn Féin membership, had a profound effect on the party. He had intended to step down as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland two months later, in May, 10 years after entering government with Ian Paisley.
“Then life punched us in the face” said Gerry Adams during his keynote speech on Saturday night.
In the large exhibition area outside the auditorium, McGuinness’s face was everywhere – on books, posters and souvenirs and in a special corner where a memorial area showcased nearly 50 framed photographs of the man, telling the story of his remarkable life in pictures.
In another corner you could admire, or buy, the “official portrait” by artist Robert Ballagh, specially commissioned by veteran republican Bobby Storey on behalf of Sinn Féin. Five-hundred limited edition prints have been produced at a cost of £500/€600 per print.
Busloads of delegates streamed into the Dublin 4 venue on Saturday evening and packed the hall for a special tribute to McGuinness, which, along with Gerry Adam’s keenly awaited address, was the highlight of the night.
The 30-minute tribute, narrated by Derry MP Elisha McCallion, featured music and poetry and images of the man they loved so well from the town he loved so well.
“Do not cry and shed a tear for Martin, for he is with us smiling over us today,” she said as the big screen flashed up a panorama of green Irish countryside with a rainbow dazzling over the hills and Martin’s smiling face looking down from the top right-hand corner of a gorgeously blue sky.
“From arrests to fly-fishing to raids and, indeed, funerals,” and from going for walks with his dog Buttons and loving Sunday dinner at home with the family, “Martin McGuinness was an all-round man” said McCallion, to huge applause.
“So let us remember the life of Martin McGuinness, and, in his own words: “Up the rebels!”
The rapturous cheers for her closing line were as nothing compared with the thunderous ovation when she cried: “Martin was a proud member of the IRA!” The delegates applauded and roared, furiously stamping the flooring on the metal-framed, tiered seating until we feared the stands might collapse.
Through the tears and the cheers, the crowd loved every minute. This was a sort of fraternal bonding session that you just don’t get at other party conferences, and the party faithful were buzzing after it.
There was more to come. Soon it would be time for Gerry’s Intentions.
First, though, some housekeeping. It was time to announce the results of the Ard Chomhairle and national officer board elections. Would Gerry Adams sweep the boards again and make it 34 successes in a row in the no-contest to become president of Sinn Féin?
Oh, the suspense.
MEP Matt Carthy chuckled as he announced the result from the platform, concluding with the jaunty shout “Up the rebels!”
Winner, all right. Everyone laughed because they were all in on the joke and there was an immediate standing ovation. It was 8.24pm, and Gerry was declared president exactly six minutes before going onstage to announce, as was widely expected, his intention to stand down from the job early next year.
Toiréasa Ferris, a county councillor from Kerry and daughter of TD Martin Ferris, was chosen to introduce her party leader and get those precious couple of minutes of live television exposure before his speech.
A general election run has to be on the cards, especially when Gerry ratcheted up the emotion quotient when informing the crowd that he won’t be the only one bowing out at the next election – Ferris is decommissioning himself too.
With the canonisation of McGuinness done, it was time to get down to the beatification of Adams. “As a child, I actually thought there was nobody like Gerry Adams,” smiled Toiréasa, pausing slightly before adding, “but then I grew up.”
The crowd laughed. “Now, as an adult, I know, I know, that there isn’t anyone like Gerry Adams.” And the cheers went up again. Cllr Ferris continued to speak, unaware that the man whom she now definitely knows has no like, had already crept unnoticed across the back of the platform and was now quietly sidling up behind her with his arms folded and a grin on his face.
He caught her by the shoulder and they had a little embrace and he kissed her on the side of the head. That nearly did for the crowd entirely.
The content of the speech Adams chose for his last ardfheis as party leader was interesting as he reminded delegates how the party went from just one Dáil seat 20 years ago to an impressive representation now at the Dáil, Seanad, county councils, European Parliament, Northern Assembly and Westminster.
As he looked back on the years since he became Sinn Féin leader in 1983, Adams opted to concentrate on name-checking people more associated with the republican movement’s paramilitary past, listing a long roll of honour of “many comrades [who] have given their entire lives to our struggle” and ultimately embraced hope.
He added, “We are also very conscious that 20 of our members were murdered during the conflict.” There was less talk, surprisingly, of the success of the peace process. It had been one of Sinn Féin’s “great achievements”, said Adams, generously giving credit “to John Hume and others”.
The faithful had to wait until the very end to hear what they knew was coming. Gerry confirmed it was his last ardfheis as leader. A voice cried out in the body of the hall. “Aaaaw!”
Adams’s voice thickened as he mentioned his old comrade Martin Ferris, and Martin McGuinness, his friends in west Belfast and, in a lovely tribute, his wife, Colette. They have been married for 47 years, though ups and downs, “but love has prevailed over everything life has thrown at us”.
At the end of his speech, with the crowd on its feet, Gerry beckoned Martin Ferris to the podium. They embraced and held each other’s hand aloft. Tears in their eyes, they punched the air as all around, people held up mobile phones to capture the moment with one hand and wiped away their tears with the other.
Then their senior colleagues arrived and the hugging and more crying started. In the middle of it all, Adams took out a pen and signed a book for somebody. The crowd joined in with a spine-tingling rendition Óró Sé do Bheatha ’Bhaile, solemn and proud, clapping and stamping their feet in perfect time before the platform party stood and faced the flag for the National Anthem.
And that was it. The delegates filed out, slightly subdued. Thinking, perhaps, of what is to come without the likes of McGuinness, Ferris and Adams front and centre and adding their unique, combat-hardened USP to the party.
An elderly man in a suit stood on the first step of the rear stand, surveying the scene. Another man, around the same age, remarked as he passed “It’s a sad old night, isn’t it? It’s the end of an era.”
He agreed, then added “But we’ve got some great young people coming up. They’re very good.”
His comrade nodded. “You’re right there, I suppose.” Then he shook his head slowly. “Aah, but it isn’t the same. It’s just not ...” his voice trailed off as he continued on his way.
The reporters were already writing up their accounts of the speech and the significance of the night’s major announcement from Adams, many of them prefacing commentary on his important role in Irish history with phrases such as “Like him or loathe him ... ” or “Whatever people might think of him ... ”
The man himself had to walk through the press room to reach his team in an adjoining area. “My friends in the media,” he smiled, suddenly swiping a printed copy of his script out of fellow Irish Times journalist Sarah Bardon’s hand, signing it for her in green ink and handing it back with a flourish.
“Maith thú,” we said, when he proffered his hand. “Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat,” Gerry replied. Then he shook hands with the man from the Indo. “I forgive you” murmured the beatific President Adams. Whoever takes over from him, he really won’t have gone away, you know.