When Harry met Gerry: Adams not hanging up boots

Sinn Féin’s chief struggles with detail but the veteran is in no mood to ‘hang up’ his boots

Harry McGee heads to Cork to catch up with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams on the canvas.

 

Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin battle bus are running about half an hour late for an engagement at the Togher Family Centre. The rain is bucketing down.

Professional as always, The Irish Times is fully prepared for the conditions when we arrive at this local authority estate in the south of Cork city. A rummage through the boot reveals a Minions umbrella, the property of a five-year-old girl. The umbrella is later requisitioned by the chair of the centre who is also umbrellaless.

So when Adams finally arrives the welcoming party is holding aloft a ridiculous umbrella depicting a dayglo yellow creature with massive begoggled eyes. Not to worry. This is the guy who tweets about trampolining naked.

The Sinn Féin leader, himself protected by an umbrella as imposing as the Belfast Peace Wall, does not bat an eye, other than murmuring with approval something about the Antrim colours.

The party’s election battle bus is also bright yellow. When it parks outside the modest centre it towers over it, reminding you of those massive multistorey cruise ships that dock along Dublin’s quays. Any Sinn Féin candidate who wants to be fully “on message” only needs to view the side of the bus. Every conceivable party slogan is featured from “There is a better Way” to “Right to Change” to “Fair Recovery” to “Better 4 Health”.

You find very quickly when joining a canvass that (for blatantly obvious reasons) political parties and candidates take you to places where the chance of being chased from the doors are zero.

With Fine Gael (and Labour these days) that tends to be middle class and rural. With Fianna Fáil it tends to be a place where there is an older demographic. With Sinn Féin, in urban settings, it is invariably where there is most disadvantage that the party draws its strongest support.

Togher would fit into that category. It’s an area with a proud tradition, and a great GAA club, St Finbarr’s, but there are areas of high unemployment and deprivation. The family centre is an admirable initiative that has sprung from the community. The service caters for 220 kids, from a community creche to helping older children who are vulnerable, or who do not live with their parents.

Within the Kildare Street bubble, one of the recurrent themes of representatives from other parties is that Adams is a political liability to his party. There is a disconnect here and it’s one of a quiver of contradictions about the Sinn Féin leader that can be sometimes hard to square.

Adams cuts a recognisable figure. Tall, grey-bearded, bespectacled, he is wearing a raffish red scarf today and everywhere he goes a rolling maul of people press for snapsots or selfies. Adams doesn’t do glad-handling like other political leaders. In fact, he doesn’t really do small talk at all. But he is so well known, domestically and internationally, that his presence alone can generate hype.

Celebrity

Sure doesn’t Fianna Fáíl leader Micheál Martin represent this constituency?

“Sure, we all know Micheál,” a grey-haired woman standing on the periphery says, “but this is Gerry Adams!”

There are supporters here and there are curious onlookers. Among them is a bona fide celebrity, Gary Spike O’Sullivan, a professional boxer. He cuts an impressive figure with a woolly hat, Spanish Inquisition beard and a waxed handlebar moustache. Politics is not his forte. He knows Adams is from Belfast, is in Sinn Féin and is involved with the peace process – but not much more. “I’m interested in seeing him in the flesh,” he says.

Is the Kildare Street bubble wrong? Well, it’s true that Adams is box office. But it is mainly among his own. Sinn Féin like other parties creates its own bubbles. He visits places where the reception is more or less guaranteed to be strong. There is always a degree of control to the situations. More general visits to the main street of a town are less frequent – perhaps there’s anxiety there should be no repeat of the embarrassing showdown Martin McGuinness endured in Athlone in 2011 with the son of an Irish soldier killed by the IRA.

When you talk to people later in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, who do not form part of the Sinn Féin synchronisation moving down the street, the reaction to Adams ranges from indifference to antipathy.

Togher Family Centre is an admirably positive place and its manager, Niamh Sheridan, is dynamic and hopeful. Adams sits with his back to a wall, under a logo that says Happy Hub, and listens patiently to her outline its work and mission and how the child is at the centre of everything she does.

At one point, talking of children who live with foster parents, Sheridan says often the only time they meet their birth parents is on special days like birthdays. She says they pull out all the stops to gather the relations, get a cake and make a big occasion of it. “For a child in that situation, it’s very important to have a photograph of them with all the people who love them,” she says.

It is poignant and plaintive.

Adams may not have the zip or vigour of Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin but he is good when addressing crowds. He makes a gracious speech praising the centre, particularly all the women who have built it up.

Later in the day he delivers a strong pep talk to supporters in Clonmel. “There is a chance of winning this seat. It’s not in the bag. It can’t be taken for granted. It will be a hard battle. Big parties will be coming back at us,” he tells them.

“Right up until 10pm we need to knock on every door. I don’t mind if the next day we wake up and Seamie (Morris, the Tipperary candidate) has not got elected. As long as it’s not our fault. If you give it 100 per cent, you can do no more.”

Back here in Cork, he is accompanied by the party’s candidate in Cork South-Central, Donncha Ó Laoghaire who is from Togher. At 27, this lawyer and Gaeilgeoir is one of the party’s youngest candidates. This is a bellwether constituency for Sinn Féin. If it wins here, it is going to be a huge election.

Its pattern matches the growth of the party nationally. Before 2004 there was no councillor. Now there is four. Ó Laoghaire joined at 18 after being impressed with the work of Adams and Martin McGuinness in the peace process and because of his concern about the disadvantage he experienced in his own area.

Another Adams contradiction concerns the past. His denial of IRA membership is a recurring stone in the shoe. Ó Laoghaire gives the standard answer, that the issue does not come up on the door and the past is complicated and wrongs were done by all sides, republicans included.

For a party wishing to broaden its appeal, this will be more than a stone in the shoe into the foreseeable future. It is of no import, though, for its base. In a way it is a bit like how we deal with a man wearing a wig, everybody plays along.

A party official told me last year. “For an awful lot of people we canvass they are not hung up on whether or not he was a member.”

IRA link

But then the official added a careful coda: “Gerry Adams would not have been as much value to the peace process were he not very close to the IRA and its thinking.”

More than 10 years ago, Bertie Ahern said Sinn Féin was mainstreaming but the process would take 20 years. The party has developed some very strong policies and has some very clever representatives. Mary Lou McDonald has said people would be surprised at how responsible the party would be in government. Its performance in government in the north suggests that it might be far more pliable and flexible that its rather obdurate image suggests.

Adams is in reflective mood when we sit down to talk at the back of O’Gorman’s, an old-fashioned bakery in Clonmel, owned by a lovely cheerful woman.

Sipping green tea, Adams seems relaxed though his back has been giving him “gip” for the last week. He predicts Sinn Féin will make gains but is coy about how significant.

“We work away, encourage people, there will be seats lost. People will hit the crossbar and seats may be lost on a handful of votes.”

You ask him does he now consider the championing of Syriza an error, especially as it’s never mentioned.

“The Syriza thing is totally exaggerated by sections of the media. We are Sinn Féin we are not Syriza . . . It does not mean a blind bit of difference as to how we do our business here.

“Tactically, we may have come at some other issues that faced them in a slightly different way.”

Another word the party does not use too often these days is austerity. Adams believes Fine Gael and Labour lucked out on the back of global factors but does accept it is happening.

“Because there is a recovery under way, we changed our approach to argue for a fair recovery and a sustainable recovery.”

I first saw Adams speak as an undergraduate in Galway in the late 1980s. Section 31 was in force at the time. His booming bass voice, command of detail and defiance were extraordinary back then. He has been leader of Sinn Féin for 33 years and you wonder are those powers waning. He really struggles with detail, especially when it comes to the economy and specifics. His interview with Seán O’Rourke this week illustrated that lack of clarity and force.

Lately Mary Lou McDonald said he could not go on forever. His response accepts that but also says not yet. “I know it’s a bit unique that I have been in the job for as long as I have. It was never my intention.

“We have a duty to ensure, the generation that I come from, the peace process is bedded down. I think it’s irreversible but it still needs to be developed into something more than we have at the moment.”

He also says the party is in transition to something bigger, North and South.

“I’m a team player. If I bring any qualities to this I bring that ability to be both a team player and a team builder . . . God willing I enjoy relatively good health. I am totally committed to this struggle. I will serve the party in whatever capacity as long as I am able. Could I do other things with my life? Yes. But I enjoy life.

“I haven’t thought yet of hanging up my boots. When I do I will let you know.”

He leaves in the rain. It has been pouring all day. At this moment in time some things seem like they will never stop. The February rain; and Gerry Adams too, come to think of it.