“Let me be clear”, Gerry Adams stated in a speech at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in 2014, “Sinn Féin won’t take lectures on 1916 from those revisionists and other slibhiní who abandoned its ideals many decades ago and who sought to prevent its commemoration. The 1916 Proclamation remains unfinished business.”
How should historians analyse the extraordinary career of Adams in light of his announcement last week that his leadership of Sinn Féin is drawing to a close? Surely, in documenting the manner in which he managed to lead Sinn Féin through the Troubles and the Peace Process, they will chart how Adams himself engaged in the wholesale revising of Sinn Féin to the point that it has declared itself open for business as a minority partner in government with the parties he has so derided; those who abandoned the ideals of 1916 “many decades ago”.
Sinn Féin have staked a claim to join the “other slibhiní” because Adams is part of a century-long historical narrative of pragmatism trumping conviction and many would see that as a positive thing. In deciding to support the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Kevin O’Higgins urged realism; the treaty did not deliver a republic but “you are not entitled to reject it without being able to show them you have a reasonable prospect of achieving more”. During the Civil War, the following year, bereft of the influence he wanted, Éamon de Valera wrote plaintively to hard-line republican Mary MacSwiney, “unfortunately for me, Reason rather than Faith has been my master . . . I have felt for some time that this doctrine of mine unfitted me to be leader of the Republican Party”.
De Valera’s solution to that dilemma was to establish Fianna Fáil in 1926 and keep “republican” as a subheading rather than its raison detre; even a year after its establishment, ever more pragmatism reigned as de Valera acknowledged the oath to the crown while describing it as an “empty formula”. MacSwiney and de Valera became irreconcilable; she referred to herself and other keepers of the republican flame as “guardians of the republican position” but in practice, that meant political wilderness, the same hinterland experienced by the opponents of Adams within Sinn Féin during the course of his long leadership.
Fianna Fáil continued to invoke its republican “heritage” while determinedly staying the revisionist course; the same conclusions are likely to be reached about Sinn Féin under Adams. One of the reasons for the self-righteous defensiveness beloved of Adams was precisely to mask the revisionism, or what has been referred to as the “creative ambiguity” of peace process Sinn Féin. The revisionist project gathered pace within Sinn Féin in the 1980s, including the dropping of its abstentionist policy towards Leinster House in 1986, while Martin McGuinness simultaneously declared: “our position is clear and it will never, ever change. The war against Britain must continue until freedom is achieved.” In truth, the ballot and Armalite strategy did not work and it was only in the aftermath of the cessation of violence that Sinn Féin could begin to take off; in the same way in the 1920s, de Valera saw abstention and association with republican violence as a political cul de sac.
Tactics and strategy
Through the 1990s and beyond, Adams’s maintenance of control of Sinn Féin and the IRA was a singular achievement; much of that had to do with what Jonathan Powell referred to as the extent to which he was “supreme master of the distinction between tactics and strategy”, often telling the grassroots not to believe what was being said publicly. As American political scientist Paul Power predicted in 1998, “For reasons of heritage and constituency, the party will not disown its past”, but the party would “effectively finesse constitutional republicanism and become part of greater revisionist nationalism . . . Sinn Féin is on the brink of joining greater revisionism.” The same year, Sinn Féin’s Dublin ardfheis overwhelmingly endorsed the Belfast Agreement; none of the 350 delegates walked out and the party also cancelled its ban on party members taking seats in a Northern Ireland assembly.
Almost 20 years later, Sinn Féin wants to be on the brink of joining a coalition government in the republic with the arch slibhiní, while British politicians demonstrate a cold indifference to the issue of the Irish Border and Sinn Féin attends to constituents in the Republic for whom, in the words of Pearse Doherty in 2015, a united Ireland “is not their burning question”. Power sharing in Northern Ireland is suspended and it cannot it be maintained that North-South relations are anywhere near developed to the extent they might be.
It is almost 30 years since Adams declared that “the failure to develop revolutionary politics” was the republican movement’s “most glaring weakness”. The revolutionary politics has now developed to the point where Sinn Féin is open to being Fine Gael’s junior partner. Many political careers end in failure; some just end in irony.