On Saturday, Gerry Adams will step down as Sinn Féin’s president, having outlasted prime ministers, taoisigh, US presidents and two generations of unionist and nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland. He is the political manifestation of the “dreary steeples”.
Yet his most extraordinary quality has been political and psychological agility and adaptability. On a number of occasions he has triple-somersaulted Sinn Féin from previously fixed positions, taking months, sometimes years, to persuade his republican base that change was required for the sake of the “unity project”.
No one should underestimate the enormous energy and manipulation it must have required to persuade the IRA army council and Sinn Féin activists that sharing power with unionists, in Stormont, with a unionist First Minister, while Ireland remained partitioned, was the right strategic move.
Yet Adams did it in 1998. And in 2007 he further persuaded them that Martin McGuinness as Ian Paisley’s deputy was also a price worth paying for eventual unity.
In a recent interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, about why he had never joined the IRA, Adams responded: “I was active in Sinn Féin when the IRA was non-existent in the 1960s. After the Border campaign, the whole trajectory within republicanism was to build politically and I am one of the very small group of people who were activists before the pograms of 1969.
“Having said that, and it is a matter of history, the IRA is gone and my position has been consistent, that I was not a member of the IRA, but I have never distanced myself from the IRA.”
What this suggests is that the “ballot box/armalite” strategy actually has its roots in the late 1960s rather than 1981. Adams wanted to “build politically” but not at the expense of distancing himself, or Sinn Féin, from an IRA campaign.
In other words, whether or not he was ever a member of the IRA is not entirely relevant anymore, for it seems clear he believed the IRA and Sinn Féin were, to all intents and purposes, one and the same thing anyway. Different tactics maybe, but the same jointly agreed end goal. If that meant him having to “justify” IRA terror, then so be it.
Adams has often been described as Teflon when it comes to his non-distancing from the IRA. But it’s more than that. He has never shied away from the difficult interview or putting his head in the lion’s mouth. He has taken everything the media has thrown at him – kitchen sink and all – and emerged smiling. And Sinn Féin loves him because of that. That and the fact the risks he has asked them to take for the past 30 years or so have reaped huge electoral dividends on both sides of the Border.
Whether or not he was ever a member of the IRA is not entirely relevant anymore, for it seems clear he believed the IRA and Sinn Féin were one and the same anyway
Which is why unionists loathe him. They have always loathed him. They loathe the fact that he is still standing, still smirking, still ticking off the “job done” boxes. They loathe the fact he seems able to ride out every new revelation and controversy.
They loathe the fact he plays the reconciliation card without, as one very senior unionist negotiator put it to me, “actually giving a damn about unionists”.
They regard everything he does as calculated and mischievous. They can’t understand why someone with his baggage and background has remained a key player for so long.
I’ve argued before that the loathing of Adams was, almost certainly, self-defeating for unionism. They should have understood how he thought – and what he was doing – rather than simply focused on his past and his links with the IRA. They needed to deconstruct his strategy and produce coherent counterattacks.
Their loathing of him helped him with his own support base, of course, which – as they did against the relentless media attacks – rallied to him time after time. It’s almost as if he gathered strength from the loathing of his enemies.
All that matters to Adams now is his legacy. Is Irish unity more likely because of his efforts since the 1960s? No. The IRA did nothing for equality and civil rights that couldn’t have been done (indeed, was done) by peaceful means and political pressure.
The dynamics of a unity debate – which was always coming because of demographic shifts since the 1960s – was irredeemably soured by the IRA terror campaign.
The relationship between unionism and republicanism has grown increasingly toxic: and Adams must take some responsibility for that. That toxicity will continue to seep through the debate for decades.
Unionists needed to deconstruct his strategy and produce coherent counterattacks. Their loathing of him helped him with his own support base
How will history judge him? As someone who would do anything, say anything, reverse anything in the cause of Irish unity. As someone who didn’t shrink from the deployment of terror. As someone who didn’t shrink from cutting a hollow deal with his enemies.
In the end, though, a vote on June 23rd, 2016, did more to influence the unity debate than anything Adams had done in the previous 55 years. Yet it’s that past record which makes it much more difficult for him to capitalise on the opportunity provided by that vote.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party