Defeat is victory
Gerry Adams may take pride in the legacy of Sinn Féin under his leadership, but Kevin Bean wonders how he will ultimately be regarded
One of the most frequently reproduced images of the Irish Republican Army’s 1994 ceasefire was of a Sinn Féin car cavalcade driving through west Belfast with tricolours flying and bystanders cheering. Its message was clear: the IRA was undefeated and the Provisional movement remained a force to be reckoned with. In a language that would become familiar over the next 25 years, the IRA’s statement announcing the ceasefire argued that republican objectives could now be pursued politically through “unarmed struggle” and dialogue as part of an Irish peace process. It continued:
Our struggle has seen many gains and advances made by nationalists and for the democratic position. We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created. We are therefore entering into a new situation ... determined that the injustices which created the conflict will be removed and confident in the strength and justice of our struggle to achieve this ... We urge everyone to approach this new situation with energy, determination and patience.1
This statement and the orchestration of these events in the early stages of the peace process tell us a great deal about the politics and strategy that Gerry Adams and his comrades in the Provisional leadership would pursue in the future. For the next quarter of a century Adams would constantly repeat that political retreat was a form of advance and that defeat was victory. There was a “new situation” and a “new phase of struggle”, marking the “beginning of the transition towards an Ireland of Equals”.2 Even in his final speech summing up his political legacy to the February 2018 SF ard fheis he continued to argue in a similar vein.3
However, throughout these years, such claims were not uncontested, either by unionists or, most importantly, by republican and socialist critics of the Adams’ leadership. Ian Paisley, for example, could quite accurately claim in one of his valedictory interviews that he had successfully “smashed Sinn Féin” because of its participation in government as “ministers of the crown” and the party’s de facto acceptance of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.4 For unionists, Martin McGuinness’s historic handshake with Queen Elizabeth in June 2012 was the icing on the cake and a symbolic confirmation of the final political accommodation made by the Provisionals.5
As if to confirm this unionist self-satisfaction, from the beginning many republicans were completely sceptical that Adams’ strategy could be successful in achieving the goal of a 32-county socialist republic.6 At various stages throughout the 1990s and 2000s, these critics mounted political challenges to both the ideological and organisational dominance that Gerry Adams exerted over the Provisional movement.7At all the key turning points in the journey from guns to government - the acceptance of the ‘Mitchell principles’ committing the Provisionals to exclusively “democratic and peaceful politics” in 1997; SF’s welcome for the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and its participation in the executive in 1999; the formal ending of the IRA’s armed campaign and the complete decommissioning of its weapons in 2005; SF’s support for policing and the justice system in 2007; or, following the St Andrews agreement, participation in government with the Democratic Unionist Party in that same year - Adams faced quite serious internal opposition, which he was always able to see off with varying degrees of ease.8
Tide of history?
In the two previous articles, I have outlined some of the factors that might have contributed to the success of Adams’ revisionist project from the 1980s, including the internal dynamics of the Provisional movement, developments in the political economy of both the Northern and 26-County states, the changing social and political composition of the nationalist population, and the significantly altered external and international political terrain on which republicans operated after 1989.9 This new configuration clearly aided the Provisional leadership and as a result, in comparison with both their internal opponents and ‘dissident republicans’, they appeared to be strongly swimming with the tide of history. Consequently it was easy for Adams and his followers to dismiss dissident opposition as “out of time” or “conflict junkies” - especially in the wake of their botched operations and shootings of police officers.10
By the 2000s, Adams electoral strategy seemed to be paying dividends on both sides of the border. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s share of the vote grew in tandem with its movement into the mainstream and into government: before the ceasefire it polled 12.5% in the 1993 local government elections, rising to 17.7% in the first assembly elections in 1998. In the 2001 Westminster poll SF narrowly beat the Social Democratic and Labour Party in terms of votes, with a 21.7% share, before going on to consolidate its position as the leading nationalist party throughout the 2000s. Following the St Andrews agreement with the DUP in 2006, the party’s share of the vote continued to grow, reaching 27.9% in the 2017 assembly elections - just 0.2% and one seat behind the DUP. A similar process was evident in the 2017 Westminster election, which saw SF maintain its place as the dominant nationalist party.11
One significant outcome of this long electoral march was Martin McGuinness’s election as deputy first minister in 2007; another, the appointment of Sinn Féin members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) to important ministries in the executive. Whilst south of the border the growth has not been so dramatic or rapid, the Adams strategy has increasingly seen Leinster House as the key electoral battle ground. Drawing on the ‘reflected glory’ of the northern peace process and by positioning SF as a radical anti-establishment voice, it increased its representation to five TDs in 2002 and two MEPs in 2004.
The collapse of the Celtic Tiger, and the ensuing political and economic crisis after 2008, have provided excellent electoral opportunities for Sinn Féin: in the 2011 general election it more than trebled its TDs to 14, whilst Martin McGuinness’s 13.72% vote in the presidential election in the same year further consolidated the party’s base. In the 2016 general election SF representation continued to grow - its 23 TDs made it the third largest party.12 Even before Gerry Adams and the old guard stepped down from the leadership in February 2018 (to be replaced by Mary Lou McDonald’s new generation), SF’s focus was increasingly on the possibilities of coalition politics and the prospects of ministerial positions in the southern state.13
In the conventional terms of bourgeois electoral politics, Gerry Adams’ career could be counted a success. Even the current stalemate in the devolved government of the north and the continued political polarisation between SF and the DUP at Stormont can be said to work in the party’s favour.14 As the most energetic and determined defenders of the nationalist electorate, Sinn Féin successfully mobilised voters in the 2017 assembly and Westminster elections with forms of communalised politics and rallying cries to defend the gains of the Belfast agreement in the face unionist bigotry and sectarianism.15
However, when nationalist and unionist politicians battle with equal determination over flags, languages, communalised housing and resource allocation, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the sham from the real fights - except perhaps that the ‘real’ are frequently marked by their remoteness from the issues actually relevant to the lives of the people in the Six Counties.16 For republicans and socialists, this defenderist and particularist nationalism is a far cry from even the limited promises of Adams in 1998 - much less the democratic, universalist republican demand for Irish reunification. The Good Friday agreement was sold by the Provisional leadership as a “great experiment”, which opened up the possibilities for a transition towards reunification, by providing the “architecture for an all-Ireland government”. It would be
part of the seed that could grow into all-Ireland governance … the possibility of all-Ireland justice and policing, accountable to the people; an all-Ireland economic strategy, or growth path, for a human rights-based economy; all-Ireland governance of environmental, health, rural development, education - not just a united Ireland, and a New Ireland of Equals, of Human Rights.17
Despite the positive rhetoric of the new generation of Provisional leaders and the seemingly unchallengeable electoral proof of success in both jurisdictions, the promises made by Gerry Adams throughout the peace process remain unfulfilled. The transition towards a united Ireland in the terms laid out in the Good Friday agreement has not only remained unachieved in the 20 years since 1998, but, given the need to obtain unionist consent, will remain unachievable for much more than the next 20 years - irrespective of the hopes placed by desperate Provisional politicians in border polls and the shifting demography of the northern state.
The current consociational dispensation ushered in by the Good Friday agreement, and confirmed by the St Andrews agreement, places severe structural limitations on the possibilities of any real political development, even for such a partial and communal project as contemporary Provisionalism. Given these barriers to even limited change, much less the realisation of the revolutionary, transformative agenda of Irish reunification, how long will the Adams’ strategy of angling for parliamentary power be able to satisfy Sinn Féin’s electoral base?
His success looks to be very time-limited indeed. Thus, despite the superficial signs of electoral success, the future of the inheritance that Gerry Adams’ passes on to the new generation of leaders looks far from certain.18 Will the very factors that underpinned the ‘success’ of the Adams project in the Six Counties ultimately contribute to its eventual decline on both sides of the border?
2. For an example of this rhetoric see ‘Gerry Adams addresses Sinn Féin all-Ireland conference on border region’, October 24 2006: www.irelandofequals.com/news/2074.
6. For one account of the development of this opposition see A. McIntyre, Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, New York 2008.
7. For a good summary the emergence of dissident republican critiques of Provisional strategy see L Ó Ruairc, ‘Ditching republicanism’ Weekly Worker June 16 2005.
8. For a summary of these events see K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2008; and LO Ó Ruairc Paix ou pacification: l’Irlande du Nord après la défaite de l’IRA Brest 2016. For an ‘official’ Provisional account see Sinn Féin, ‘Advancing the peace process’ (www.sinnfein.ie/peace-process). An account of some of the differing ideological and strategic trends amongst ‘dissident’ republicans is given in M Hall (ed) Republicanism in transition (four parts), Belfast 2011-12.
9. K Bean, ‘A man and his movement’ Weekly Worker February 15 2018; and ‘Genesis of “new” Sinn Féin’ Weekly Worker February 22 2018. For an account of these wider background factors see also K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2008, pp16-50, pp138-73.
10. See, for example, ‘Murderers are traitors to Ireland-McGuinness’ The News Letter March 11 2009; and ‘The curse of the conflict junkies’ The Economist December 2 2010.
13. P Leahy, ‘Mary Lou McDonald: a Dubliner with deep republican roots’ Irish Times February 13 2018.
14. Peter Robinson, former first minister and DUP leader, suggested in 2007 that any future DUP/Sinn Féin government would involve ‘a battle a day’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6414637.stm).
15. See, for example, ‘History makers’ An Phoblacht March 2017; and ‘Vote Sinn Féin’ An Phoblacht June 2017.
16. P Mitchell, G Evans and B O’Leary ‘Extremist outbidding in ethnic party systems is not inevitable: tribune parties in Northern Ireland’ Political Studies 2009 Vol 57, pp397-421.
17. M Anderson, ‘The great experiment’ An Phoblacht October 16 2003.