Gerry Adams stresses Sinn Féin’s durability

2015 will see party getting ‘match-fit’ for election, leader says

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams is adamant the party “does not want to go into government as a minority party”. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams is adamant the party “does not want to go into government as a minority party”. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

With the TV dramatisation in full flow, it’s not surprising that Charlie Haughey creeps into conversation during an interview with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. On both occasion that the subject comes up Adams firmly distances himself from the erstwhile taoiseach. Which is fair enough. But they do have one thing in common. Adams is comparable to Haughey in this respect: he is an extraordinarily polarising figure.

In the most recent opinion poll, 52 per cent of those polled said they would never vote for him under any circumstances. On the flip side, those who support him do so unambiguously, almost without question.

His party has developed itself in the Republic as left-wing. It has brandished an anti-austerity message, emphasised itself as an entity that will not compromise on core principles no matter what.

It also presents as as an ethical, anti-corruption and ascetic party, with all its employees on the national industrial wage.

The problem with taking the high moral ground is that it can present a contradiction with past actions. You see that in all parties, but it’s probably more apparent in Sinn Féin because it was the political wing of a secret army that was involved in a violent conflict for 30 years.

On the rise

Divisive as Adams is, contradictory as Sinn Féin may be to some, there is no denying that the party is on the rise.

At the beginning of 2015, Adams sets out his priorities for his party, for his own leadership and defends his own and the party on its positions, past and present. The year ahead, he says, will see the party preparing to be “match-fit” for elections here if they happen.

Does that involve entering a coalition? “Here the party is very clear and I am very clear; we do not want to go into government as a minority party.

“The only point of being in government is if you can improve the conditions for all of the people and if you can advance your overall project. The question of who would form a coalition and who would go in. That is dependent on the mandate you receive and vote you receive.”

Does that mean Sinn Féin would have to be the dominant partner? “Not necessarily. I do not want to speculate too much around this. You could have a three or five-party coalition.”

What can you take from that? Well, Sinn Féin will not be a junior party in a coalition.

When you ask about red-line issues and compromise, Adams says he accepts it as a general principle but pursues another theme centred on approach and attitude.

The nub of it is this: he says that nobody believed that it was possible in the North to achieve ceasefires, or a peace process, or Ian Paisley going into government, or policing being achieved. He argues that Sinn Féin durability and its ability to last the course in negotiations was what made the difference.

Applying that in the South, he argues that a better deal with Europe over burning bondholders or recapitalisation could have been achieved if his party had been involved. An example: “If you think back to the last election, Labour put out absolute positions. There were these red line issues and the Tesco ads. They slipped seamlessly into government. There were no all-night negotiations, no effort to sign up to a programme that was in any way upheld their principles.”

Not in power

A little later, there is a biting assessment of Labour.

“You could be in government and not in power, and it strikes me that Labour was in government and not in power.”

And for Enda Kenny, no less criticism. Adams said he challenged him to face down the EU and ECB on loading private debt on to the sovereign.

“Kenny told me we are not going into negotiations with ‘defaulter’ stamped on our heads. He was going away to do negotiations assuring those he was negotiating with he was not going to raise any rí rá around these very central issues.”

But would his alternative (Sinn Féin’s ultra endurance approach) have really involved any less pain or hardship?

“I’m not saying people would not have been disadvantaged if the position that Sinn Féin was arguing for had been followed through. But it would have been different people ...”

He adds: “[The EU and ECB] might not have gone as far as we were arguing for but for us it would have been a better deal.”

Adams believes a realignment of politics is under way, and that in terms of a coalition Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are a “natural fit”, both being conservative as he sees it.

But hasn’t his own idea floated last year of a grand coalition of the left died a bit of a death?

He agrees that it would be difficult for his party to reconcile a programme with the smaller left-wing parties who “don’t cost things ... work things off the back of an envelope”.

But what about Sinn Féin’s red-line issues. Did it not flip-flop its position on water charges during the Dublin South West byelection?

Adams denies this. He says the party has been consistently opposed to water charges for 30 years but has always equally come out against any call for people to boycott.

The party’s detractors argue that the party’s bloody past has carried through, that it’s still secretive, militaristic and sinister. Adams dismisses the notion of secrecy. “It is very democratic. I would argue all the time for dissent. It’s a battle of ideas.”

And the charge he has blood on his hands, that he is not to be trusted? He says people voted for him in Louth and made Sinn Féin the largest party on the island in the European elections, both actions that made him inherently trustworthy.

Trust

One of the issues around trust is the case of his brother, convicted sex offender Liam Adams, and the allegations put by Maíria Cahill. He won’t discuss the Liam Adams case because of the “traumatic effect abuse has even on family members”.

In the Cahill case were there things that he did do or did not do that he now regrets? Is his conscience clear?

“I accept entirely she was abused and she needed justice and I would stand over how I handled that at a personal level.

“It became a highly politicised case seized upon by our opponents and sections of the media and political establishment.

“On the one hand trying to be sensitive and compassionate I robustly defended myself on charges that were totally and absolutely untrue.

“When you look back at [the Dáil debate on the issue] can you think of a more charged and unacceptable and more offensive charge being made against you that you had conspired to cover up child abuse or hide child rapists? I think it shows the depths that other parties were prepared to go.”