Colm Keena: Gerry Adams’s legacy is one of getting things wrong

Campaign of violence and Sinn Féin party politics have been disastrous for Ireland

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: sense of separatism, superiority and suspicion of others allows the party exist within a special type of bubble, and within that bubble the tradition’s undemocratic and violent past is treated as a source of pride. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: sense of separatism, superiority and suspicion of others allows the party exist within a special type of bubble, and within that bubble the tradition’s undemocratic and violent past is treated as a source of pride. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

 

The career of the politician and republican activist Gerry Adams has shown an almost unerring capacity over the decades to get the important things wrong.

This marked capacity is as true of his time as a leader of a movement committed to the use of killing and destruction in pursuit of its aims, as it is of his more recent phase as a parliamentary politician in pursuit of those same aims.

The overarching mistake that has coloured his contribution to life on these islands was the position he embraced in the late 1960s that the appropriate response to the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland was violent republicanism.

The tradition he grew up in and joined is a profoundly undemocratic one. Back in the early 1970s, its true believers held that only violence would bring about a united Ireland, and that only unification could resolve the manifold problems confronting the island. The fact that just about no one else agreed with this view was not deemed relevant.

It seems counterintuitive to think that hardline nationalists could have a powerful sense of dislike for their fellow countrymen and countrywomen

A bizarre aspect of the Irish republican tradition was that it often included a type of scorn for those who didn’t share its views about violence. This in turn could bleed into a sense of moral superiority, and something like contempt for those who opposed its violence and cruelty. It created a type of hierarchy of moral status, at the top of which were the martyred dead.

Sense of dislike

It seems counterintuitive to think that hardline nationalists could have a powerful sense of dislike for their fellow countrymen and countrywomen, but that is in fact often the case, and it is certainly true of Irish republicanism. There was a sense of this abroad during the recent centenary of the Rising commemorations, when Sinn Féin felt the need to have its own, separate series of events to mark the occasion.

This sense of separatism, superiority, and suspicion of others, is far from being irrelevant to the contribution Adams and his republican colleagues make to life on this island. It allows the party exist within a special type of bubble, and within that bubble the tradition’s undemocratic and violent past is treated as a source of pride.

The public image of contemporary Sinn Féin masks a kind of creepy weirdness. You can see this creepiness if you visit its shop on Dublin’s Parnell Square where, the last time I went, you could buy Loughgall Martyrs hoodies, and fridge magnets of happy republicans waving their Kalashnikovs. The walls were painted with images of the martyred dead.

It’s a troubling place to visit, especially given how sectarianism continues to be a serious problem on this island. On both sides of the Border, Sinn Féin’s insistence on not admitting the lack of legitimacy of the IRA’s decades-long campaign of murder and destruction, is a slow poison being released into Irish public life.

Enormous suffering

Adams’s belief that a united Ireland could be achieved through violence, and only through violence, was catastrophically mistaken. It took almost three decades, and enormous suffering, for that particular penny to drop. He has never acknowledged the enormity of his error, or the fact that the policy he was so central to for so long was toxic to public morality. It is fair now to suspect that this is because he does not regret those years and all the suffering they involved.

For Sinn Féin everything, all strategy decisions and their effects, is subservient to the objective of winning power and using that power to further the goal of Irish unity

The catastrophic mistake that was the Provisional IRA campaign did not prompt him to have a crisis of self-confidence. Instead he set out confidently on a whole new plan whereby he would achieve his goal through other means: party politics.

This too has been disastrous for the island. The main reason is that for Sinn Féin everything, all strategy decisions and their effects, is subservient to the objective of winning power and using that power to further the goal of Irish unity. The effect on people’s lives of any policies adopted is not the point. As is almost inevitably the case with political movements driven by one overarching goal, proximate opportunism is excused by the (usually mistaken) belief it is advancing progress towards the ultimate aim. All of this is part of Adams’s legacy.

Colm Keena is Legal Affairs Correspondent and author of Gerry Adams: A Biography

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