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Gerry Adams at 75: What role now for Sinn Féin’s former president?

A ‘man about the parish’ or ‘extremely active’ - party members weigh up the part currently played by the retired politician

How will Gerry Adams celebrate his 75th birthday?

In the face of such a milestone, it is human nature to reflect, to assess our successes and failures, achievements and regrets.

How might the former Sinn Féin president weigh up those 75 years today? Undoubtedly, he has come a long way from his early life on the Falls Road. He spent almost four decades at the head of a party which, under his leadership, has developed from the political wing of the IRA to within touching distance of being in government both North and South, with the prospect of a Border poll and the party’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland apparently closer than ever. That is surely success by anyone’s estimation.

There will no doubt be some reflection too on the heavy cost. Lost Lives, the Bible of the Troubles which records every death in the conflict, lists among the more than 3,700 people left dead some 1,768 killed by the Provisional IRA, alongside a further 294 members of the paramilitary group who also died.


In an interview with The Irish Times earlier this year, asked where Sinn Féin has come in the last 25 years, Adams replied: “I think the most important thing is that there are people alive now who would be dead.”

At this late stage in his life, how might he weigh up the loss of life against the political goals achieved?

Adams has always denied he was ever a member of the IRA. Security sources are in no doubt he was a senior IRA leader in Belfast in the 1970s, on the IRA army council and, for a period, its chief of staff – again, something he has denied.

In his book Political Purgatory, the former BBC security correspondent Brian Rowan wrote that the answer is in “plain sight. Heard in orations to the most senior IRA figures and seen in his direct involvement in all of those negotiations involving the business of that organisation, from 1972 ... right through the major moments of the peace process. An outsider would not be allowed such roles.”

“He does have that sort of twin responsibility,” says Mark Devenport, the former BBC Northern Ireland political editor and co-author of a biography of Adams. “On the one hand [he has] responsibility, you could say, for defending and promoting the armed struggle for many decades, but on the other hand the kudos of being part of the resolution of the conflict.”

Adams is among the few leaders from that time who survive. At an event at Stormont in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it was all too obvious that many of the parties to that landmark 1998 Good Friday peace agreement – among them John Hume, David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Mo Mowlam – were no longer present.

In a speech that day, Adams spoke on the continued absence of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, the institutions at Stormont, and legacy. The message was that what he says still matters.

He is always careful not to encroach on Sinn Féin’s current leadership, as in The Irish Times interview last April when he said: “It’s not up to me to speak for the party, Mary Lou’s the party president so I give her all due deference.” But it would be naive to think that his views do not carry weight, or indeed that his opinion or advice would not be sought on major issues.

“He is the surviving architect of the Sinn Féin project, which is being delivered in spades at the moment in terms of their political rise, so inevitably he still has influence as the elder statesman of that project,” says Devenport. “It would be foolish for anyone to think he’s just any old former leader.”

Indeed, Devenport says that there was no distancing of Adams by Sinn Féin over high-profile controversies, including the party’s response to the rape of Maíría Cahill as a teenager by a senior IRA member, or the abuse of his niece Aine by his brother Liam Adams.

That showed “that his position was unassailable enough that, despite the personal difficulties and question marks over his handling of matters closer to home ... that’s probably also proof of just what an immense kind of authority he still has,” says Devenport.

There is no doubt he is still an influential figure in the party; the question is, how far does this influence extend?

Sinn Féin sources are adamant he has retired; while still an activist, his day-to-day involvement is “minimal” with no decision-making role.

“He’s a man about the parish now,” said one party member. “You see him about west Belfast with his grandkids and the dog.”

“I’ve really been surprised at how much he’s been able to let go,” says his fellow columnist at the Andersonstown News, Andree Murphy.

She describes him as an “elder statesman”, like a former US president “sitting down and chewing the cud over an issue”.

Yet the man who was once Sinn Féin’s biggest player is still doing his bit for Sinn Féin’s biggest project: achieving a united Ireland. His close friend, the former Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison, describes him as “extremely active” on the campaign around the logistics of a unity referendum, as demonstrated by his public engagements.

He also still writes, including pamphlets on figures in republican history and short stories, and campaigns on the Irish language. At election time, these days he prefers to stay local, focusing on knocking doors in west Belfast, often clad in jeans and an Antrim GAA top.

“To me, he’s the pre-eminent republican of our generation,” says Morrison. “Gerry Adams remains a huge asset to the republican cause and to the modern contemporary republican project.”

As for that project, in the North, Michelle O’Neill would be First Minister but for the collapsed Assembly. In the South, to what extent does Adams help – or indeed hinder – the drive to government as opinion polls put Sinn Féin in the frame to take power after the next election?

“There would have been a school of thought that having people like Gerry Adams around – and the reminder of the days when Sinn Féin was very much the political wing of the IRA – could have been off-putting to voters, but I really suspect that largely those days are gone,” says Devenport.

“It’s almost as if those arguments have to some extent been exhausted,” he says, given how thoroughly Adams was challenged as TD for Louth and Martin McGuinness during the 2011 presidential campaign.

“His past now is almost kind of priced in by the market. If you’re going to be extremely put off by his association with the IRA, you’re going to be voting for someone else.”

“He was holding the party back [in the South],” says Gary Murphy, professor of politics at Dublin City University. “I don’t think he got the South, certainly economically, and his association with the IRA was a drawback in comparison to someone like Mary Lou McDonald, who has no association with violence.”

Murphy draws a comparison between Adams and his past, and the popular chanting of “Up the ‘Ra” from the Celtic Symphony song by The Wolfe Tones; to a younger generation of voters, “that stuff is pretty much completely irrelevant,” he says.

“Almost inevitably there will be awkward moments for Mary Lou McDonald when it comes to the general election campaign, but I think it’s not costing Sinn Féin votes like it might have done in the past with Adams as leader,” he says.

“Sinn Féin seems plausible in government in a way, with Mary Lou McDonald as leader, in a way they never would have with Adams.”

The baton has been passed on. At the suggestion Adams might still contemplate a run at the presidency, a senior Sinn Féin source simply laughs.

“It has never been on Gerry’s radar, it is not something he has ever contemplated, and he has no interest in it,” he says.

“He’s stepped back at the right time, handed over to a younger generation,” says Morrison.

But the former publicity director adds: “He’s still contributing. Maybe the advantage in longevity is that you get to write the history.”

As Adams turns 75, he is still writing it, not least in the letters page of this newspaper on Tuesday, when he opined on Sinn Féin’s healthcare policy in defence of the party’s health spokesman David Cullinane.

His signature? A simple “Gerry Adams, Belfast.”