Noel Whelan: Sinn Féin and the Gerry Adams nerves

Replacing him is a challenging prospect – but his recent gaffes have been a liability

A nationalist Twitter user in Turkey recently suggested that perhaps the best way to discredit the iconic and currently imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Kurdish militant organisation PKK, would be to give him direct access to Twitter. To illustrate the point the tweeter posted a recent tweet by Gerry Adams in which the Sinn Féin leader whimsically wondered: "What side of me is UP?" The Turkish tweeter's point being that the Adams example suggested that, if allowed on Twitter, Öcalan might make such a fool of himself as to undermine his credibility.

This Turkish interest in Adams's Twitter utterances pre-dated the bizarre tweet that he posted last Sunday night which has since attracted considerable controversy. The Sinn Féin leader posted the Tweet while watching the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. In it he compared the struggle against slavery in the United States to the struggle of Irish nationalists in his native Ballymurphy and used the "n-word" while making the comparison.

Wave of coverage In so doing Adams not only generated a Twitter storm but also attracted a wave of media coverage here in Ireland, across the United Kingdom and even in the United States. The reaction of most ordinary people to Adams's tweet was best summed up by Áine Lawlor's opening line in an interview with him on Monday when she asked: "What possessed you?" She went on to ask him the other obvious question: "Had you had a drop?"

Adams emphasised that he had not been drinking. In an interview with Ryan Tubridy on Wednesday he was at pains to set his tweet in the context that he had had been canvassing on Sunday in the Ballymurphy area, where he had come across many sites of emotional significance to those involved in the republican struggle.


Even in Sinn Féin, where loyalty to the leader is paramount, they must be embarrassed to see the Adams tweet and his various efforts to explain it feature so prominently in coverage of the party this week. The tweet raised eyebrows not only among many voters North and South but also among Sinn Féin’s crucial fundraising audience in the US.

It must also concern them that this recent online blunder by Adams mirrors a series of blunders offline. These have included his melodramatic equating of his exclusion from a White House reception to the plight of the American civil rights icon Rosa Parks. He had a series of brain freezes during debates and interviews on economic issues in last February's general election campaign. It is now also clear that his mishandling of incidents of child abuse by some in the republican movement has damaged the party. Such a bad run would have been terminal for any other political leader.

Adams has enjoyed an unchallenged tenure at the top of Sinn Féin of a duration once seen only in newly established African democracies. His leadership has, at least until recently, been entirely benign for the party. They have gradually strengthened their position in the Republic and, as today's counts in the Stormont election are likely to confirm, the party is unassailable on the nationalist side in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is soon going to have to embark on the delicate process of the Adams succession. The risks for the party associated with that adjustment should not be underestimated.

Dev's iconic presence The only leadership change in Irish politics which even approaches comparison was Éamon de Valera's stepping down as Fianna Fáil leader in 1959. It took election to the presidency to ultimately leverage de Valera out of the Fianna Fáil leadership. Even Seán Lemass was extremely nervous of whether the party could sustain itself and its level of support without Dev's iconic presence. Lemass, says one historian, found it "almost impossible to conceive a Fianna Fáil without de Valera at the helm".

The complexities for Sinn Féin surrounding the Adams succession are much more intense. Questions of who really runs Sinn Féin, or how precisely Sinn Féin is run, do not lend themselves to transparent answers. There are no parliamentary party meetings in either the Oireachtas or Stormont. Those who have popular electoral mandates do not hold sway. Paid officials or ardchomhairle members are as powerful as, and in many instances more powerful, than those elected to decide law and government in each jurisdiction.

Adams presides over and embodies a shared, blurred leadership structure, the precise contours of which are never really clear. Adams’s background, standing and original skills enabled him to straddle the 26-county element and the six-county element and to manage the purely political and one-time paramilitary dimensions. Displacing Adams risks disrupting a careful balancing between the various elements. Replacing Adams threatens alienations of some of the internal cliques.

Sinn Féin has reason to be nervous about life and leadership after Adams. However, his recent gaffes suggest they may however also have reason to be nervous about him remaining in post.