A man and his movement
Kevin Bean examines the role played by Gerry Adams in Sinn Féin
Gerry Adams’ departure as president of Sinn Féin at a special party ard fheis (conference) on Saturday February 10 marks the end of an era in Irish politics. In stepping down after 35 years and making way for Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams brought to an end one of the longest political careers in recent Irish history. Although his departure had been long anticipated, this ‘transition to a new generation’ nevertheless inevitably prompted a number of quite wildly differing assessments of Adams’ career. However, given the continued stalemate at Stormont and the possibility of an election south of the border in the near future, many commentators were just as exercised by Sinn Féin’s future as Gerry Adams’ past.
Much of the media commentary and political reaction to Adams’ departure was, of course, entirely predictable and focussed on the future prospects for Sinn Féin on both sides of the border. For unionists and establishment politicians in Dublin alike, Adams remains a hate figure, despite Sinn Féin’s participation in government at Stormont and its transition into the political mainstream in Leinster House.1 Like the obituaries in 2017 for Gerry Adams’ late comrade in arms, Martin McGuinness, these hostile reactions told us more about the danger that militant republicanism had posed in the past than the danger that the Provisionals represent for the status quo in the present.2
However, some responses were more accurate and thus at the same time more generous in their evaluations of Adams’ career by acknowledging his ‘many achievements’ in the transformation of the Provisionals from revolutionary movement to a party of government.3 Drawing on themes familiar from the ‘peace process’, it was suggested that, by abandoning revolutionary struggle and embracing constitutional politics, Gerry Adams was simply following in the historical footsteps of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.4 Thus the less begrudging members of Ireland’s bourgeois parties joined with revolutionary republican critics in agreeing that Adams has “done the state some service, and they know’t”.5
From the late 1970s, when he achieved initial public prominence as vice-president of Sinn Féin, Adams’ politics and activism have been subject to intense scrutiny. Numerous books and articles have told his story and outlined his political history.6 In addition, his own writing, both autobiographical and fictional, has added to and yet obscured the picture even further.7 The result is that this focus has tended to reinforce a ‘great man’ school of history by suggesting that the Provisionals’ new departure from the 1980s was largely the product of a leadership conspiracy and secret manoeuvres by Gerry Adams.8 As someone who was near to the heart of the Provisional movement from its earliest days and who has remained at the top for so long, Adams is clearly a very important individual.9
However, a better way to understand him is to look at the complexities of his relationship with the Provisional movement. Like the late Martin McGuinness - a figure with whom he was closely identified from the 1970s - Adams as a political activist both created and was in turn createdby Provisionalism. Thus to understand Adams is to understand both the dynamics that shaped the republican struggle and the forces that would eventually produce defeat for that struggle during the ‘peace process’.
The Provisional movement developed during the crisis and collapse of the Northern Irish state resulting from the challenge of the civil rights movement, the unionist backlash and the direct intervention of the British state in the late 1960s and early 1970s.101 The mass insurrectionary movement - a community in revolt rather than a hermetically sealed group of terrorists - that emerged in these years drew large numbers of young nationalists from the urban working class and rural poor into a militant confrontation with the British state.11 Adams was intimately involved in this movement and quickly emerged to play a leading role in the Irish Republican Army in Belfast. By 1972 he was sufficiently important to be part of an IRA delegation that was flown to London to take part in negotiations with the Tory government.12
However, Adams was not typical of the new generation of militants that had flooded into the Provisional movement in the wake of August 1969, internment and Bloody Sunday. His republican family background gave him a pedigree in the movement and he had been involved in republican activism since the mid-1960s. By his own account his politics in this period were influenced by various left currents and the impact of international struggles for civil rights and national liberation.13 Consequently, when the republican movement formally split between the Provisionals and the Officials, many contemporaries were surprised that Adams, after a period of prevarication, finally went with the Provos.14 For many of his republican critics this hesitation and a taint of ‘Stickyism’ were to remain hanging over him for the next 50 years.15
The decisive period in Adams’ political rise was the aftermath of the disastrous IRA ceasefire of 1975-76. Along with a group of young militants, centred in Belfast, he criticised from the left the politics and strategy of the old leadership as compromising and incapable of taking the struggle forward. His alternative to end the military and political containment that the British state had successfully imposed on the Provisionals by the mid-1970s was ‘the Long War’ and a revolutionary remobilisation of ‘the people’s struggle’ through “active abstentionism”.16 Adams’ election as Sinn Féin vice-president in 1978 was external evidence of a developing internal struggle for power, which culminated in the resignation of Ruairí O Brádaigh - a key figure in the old leadership - and his replacement as president of the party by Gerry Adams in 1983.17 Building on the mobilisation of popular support and the successful electoral interventions during the 1981 hunger strike, the Adams’ leadership consolidated both its organisational and ideological hold within the movement. The celebrated ‘ballot paper and armalite strategy’ was firmly in place from 1981, and its initial electoral successes in the Six Counties seemed to justify the confident predictions made by Adams and his comrades that they would lead the people on to the high road to ‘the Republic’18
1. A Kane, ‘Unionist loathing of Gerry Adams was counterproductive’ Irish Times February 8 2018; M McDowell, ‘Sinn Féin may participate in the democratic process, but it is not a democratic party at all’ Sunday Business Post February 11 2018.
2. K Bean, ‘From guns to government’ Weekly Worker March 23 2017.
3. V Browne, ‘The scale of hatred for Gerry Adams is unfair’ Irish Times February 3 2017.
4. H McGee, ‘Michael McDowell compares SF to De Valera and Collins’ Irish Times October 17 2015.
5. ‘Provisional Sinn Féin complicit in British rule’ Saoirse November 2017.
6. M O’ Doherty’s Gerry Adams: an unauthorised life London 2017 is just the latest in a long line of accounts that attempt to ‘expose the man behind the myths’.
7. For example, see G Adams Before the dawn: an autobiography Dublin 1997. In an almost comical description the publisher’s outline omits any mention of republican militancy and talks instead about Adams’ ‘turbulent years of social activism’!
8. A very valuable account of the history of the Provisional movement which tends in this direction is E Moloney A secret history of the IRA London 2003.
9. A McIntyre, ‘Gerry Adams’s IRA years: an insider’s account’ Irish Times February 9 2018.10. T McKearney The Provisional IRA: from insurrection to parliament London 2013.
11. For some individual accounts by republican activists of this period, see K Bean and M Hayes Republican voices Monaghan 2001.
12. E Moloney op cit pp74-129.
13. G Adams op cit pp62-65.
14. E Moloney op cit pp68-73.
15. ‘The Stickies’ was the nickname given to the Official republicans who emphasised the civil rights campaign in the north and reformism, as opposed to the national liberation struggle advocated by the Provisionals. They were to become a by-word for constitutional politics amongst the Provisionals in the 1970s and 80s. For the Officials’ convoluted evolution through Stalinism to Eurocommunism and eventual collapse into the Irish Labour Party in the 1990s, see B Hanley and S Millar The lost revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party London 2011.
16. For details of this left orientation and ‘new’ revolutionary strategy, see K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007, pp59-62.
17. For one account of this internal struggle, see R White Ruairí O Brádaigh: the life and times of an Irish revolutionary Indianapolis 2006.
18. B O’ Brien The long war: the IRA and Sinn Féin 1985 to today Dublin 1993.