Gerry Adams: ‘I will not be puppetmaster for the new SF leader’

Interview: Sinn Féin president says he is looking forward to stepping aside after 34 years

Gerry Adams  delivers his address to delegates at the Sinn Féin ardfheis. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Gerry Adams delivers his address to delegates at the Sinn Féin ardfheis. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Gerry Adams has no intention of playing the role of the puppeteer during his retirement, or so he tells us.

After 34 years at the helm of Sinn Féin, the 69-year-old will pull back from the centre stage and resign as party president in February.

Many believe he will continue to pull the strings from the sidelines, a notion he strongly rejects.

In fact, he told The Irish Times he is looking forward to shifting the weight of being party president on to someone else’s shoulders.

“I look forward to not having the responsibility of doing interviews like this, of the dross and the tedium, and the mechanics of building a political party and having to deal with every single issue and having to be across every single issue.”

Do not leave the party bitter and twisted, having given your life to this cause

He is not making any presumptions about his future role in the party but one thing he is looking forward to is being known as the former president of Sinn Féin.

If his health continues, Adams wants to assist his successor but he says he has “no intention or desire” of dictating to the new leadership.

“I listen to this nonsense that in someway I will control things. Why is there not a presumption that Enda Kenny is controlling Fine Gael or that Eamon Gilmore [is controlling Labour] or Bertie Ahern [is controlling Fianna Fáil]?

“I have done my best, I am happy with what I have done but the people in charge of the leadership don’t want anybody . . . they are not puppets.”

Controversial

Adams is one of the most controversial yet dominant figures in Irish political life. To some, he is a peacemaker who played an integral role in ending violence on this island. To others, he is a leader who refuses to distance himself from the worst atrocities and the violence of the Provisional IRA.

Either way, his departure from political life will be a defining moment for Sinn Féin and politics in the North and the South.

His retirement has been over a year in the making, Adams tells The Irish Times in his constituency office in Dundalk, Co Louth, and is part of the plan he had hatched with Martin McGuinness in the summer of 2016.

The two men had an agreement to go to the party’s ardfheis in 2017 and announce their joint decision to stand aside.

Amid failing health, McGuinness changed his mind and told Adams he wanted to resign as deputy first minister on May 8th, 2017, 10 years to the day he entered that office.

“That would have been late 2016, early 2017 but the decision in principle would have been in the summer of 2016. He would come out of that public office and then we would both go to the ardfheis this year [2017] and announce it. Of course, he fell sick and died so that disrupted our plans,” Adams says.

Neither man intended to walk away from Sinn Féin; both planned to continue to strive towards the party’s strategy of achieving Irish unity, he adds. However, they both agreed it was time for new leadership.

McGuinness’s death meant Adams made the announcement on his own at the ardfheis in November last year.

His replacement will be decided at a special conference in February. Mary Lou McDonald is the only person to have entered the race.

Adams will not be drawn on her chances of success but stresses he will fully back whoever the party chooses.

“I do think you have to be loyal to your leadership. If you elect anyone into the position of leadership, you have to support them. So whoever we elect at the ardfheis, I will support them. I will never criticise them, I think it is a huge thing for people to put their name forward for this responsibility.”

Series of challenges

Whoever replaces Adams will be met with a series of challenges, including the party’s failure to increase its support in the opinion polls, the stalemate in Northern Ireland, achieving Government in the Republic and its ultimate goal of Irish unity.

The party also has to address the raft of bullying allegations. Twenty-two public representatives have left the party, 10 vacated their seats, seven resigned and five were expelled.

Such problems are not unique to Sinn Féin, Adams says, insisting there is no culture of bullying within the party.

However, he acknowledges Sinn Féin has made some mistakes along the way including spending too much time dealing with local rows.

“These are all local disputes. Some of them are electorally driven, some of them are part of that process of change. What we should have done and we are now doing is go in for a time-limited period and then we are kicking in with disciplinary processes.”

The problems may not be unique to Sinn Féin but it does fit with accusations that the party is a hostile environment for internal discontent.

“I have always said if you are going to leave Sinn Féin, leave on a good day. Do not leave bitter and twisted having given your life to this cause and then fall out with your comrades and end up in a really contrary mood where you end up attacking the party over problems which are not the party’s.”

One ongoing challenge Adams will have to address before his departure is that of the stalemate between his party and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Almost a year has passed since McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and Stormont has yet to sit.

The main stumbling blocks remain the introducing of marriage equality and Irish language rights, Adams says.

Sinn Féin has accepted it is not going to change the DUP’s mind on same-sex marriage, but its unwillingness to allow the matter to be debated is a significant difficulty, he adds.

If I had any special talents, it is to build teams and work in a collective way

In addition, he wants unionism to come to terms with Irish language rights.

But there are other issues too, Adams says. Ordinary governance cannot prevail without decency, manners and respect.

“I understand respect is a two-way street, I understand all of us can say things that people find objectionable but there is a difference between me misspeaking and you misspeaking and an entire system being offensive and refusing to tolerate.

“For unionism, the challenge is if you accept a rights-based society in the North, then you are acknowledging that the state has changed utterly. Some of them won’t do that, most of them have come round to that view but some in the leadership won’t.”

Debilitating

Adams has been a TD for Louth since 2011 but southern politics never seemed to interest him. He says he found the Dáil debilitating and criticises other politicians for using the House to make “unfounded and vicious remarks about me and Sinn Féin”.

Such claims will continue to dog Adams and Sinn Féin in the coming years as it tries to shake its past and make itself attractive to possible coalition partners and new voters.

There is no denying the party is continuing to grow. Its support base is bigger than ever before.

“I always think you need to leave something better than when you found it. I think I leave that position with the party and the broad republican cause in a better position than it was when I went into it. I am not being glorious about that, it is a team effort, I am a team player. If I had any special talents, and they are quite limited, it is to build teams and work in a collective way.”

So, what does he think about unofficial biographer Malachi O’Doherty describing him as “vain to an extraordinary degree”, or a man with the “ego the size of a moon”?

He does not want to respond directly to O’Doherty, insisting the man does not know him.

But he says: “People have written acres of news print about me, used up years of broadcasting and television time talking about me who have never talked to me in their lives. That is the game.”

As he prepares to exit the stage, no doubt there will be plenty more written and a lot more said.