On February 12 2013, Gerry Adams posted the following tweet: “In Dáil chamber. Thought I had a pen in my pocket. Discovered it is s toothbrush! Silly me!!!” It is difficult to imagine the same man once operating as Chief of Staff of a terrorist organisation which drew the attention of the world.
As the infamous politician’s career draws to a close, we are forced to ask ourselves what must we make of a man who can both mistake a toothbrush for a pen and propose to take the IRA bombing campaign to London? How can we categorise a person who has been simultaneously adopted and disowned by people in so many radically different cultural and political positions, a man who has been labelled a peacemaker and a murderer, an entertainer and a politician, a martyr and a terrorist?
In his long spanning career, beginning with election to Westminster in 1983, Gerry Adams has adopted every political or ethical stance which was most prudent to him at the time. Photographed in the mid 1980s standing in proud solemnity in front of a mural reading “the IRA will never be beaten,” and subsequently denying with vehemence that he ever supported the organisation, it appears that any attempt to impose a label on his politics is doomed to fail.
The only constant in Adams’ deeply controversial career appears to be flux. This is hardly surprising considering the drastic changes that came about in Ireland and Northern Ireland in the past forty years. What this tells us about Adams, however, is that the foundations of his politics do not stem from the fundamental desire to end British rule in Ireland, or any fundamental nationalistic desire at all. The framework for Adams’ politics has been slippery opportunism.
The complicated past of Adams brought him no small amount of sympathy. Between this, and the nation’s tendency to cherish him in the same doting style as we would harmless television figures, a dualistic view of the politician has arisen in the public eye, with opinions about him often at odds with each other.
The young Gerry Adams grew up in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast where his father was a violent alcoholic. His father has been accused of paedophilia and is said to have sexually abused one of Adams siblings. As a child Gerry suffered from a stutter and failed his “11 plus” exams. As a teenager he did not complete secondary school, being forced to leave early in order to become the breadwinner for his family.
This role fell to the wayside a few years later as Adams became what he termed an “activist”. Sympathy towards him increased exponentially due to his internment in prison from March 1972 to June of the same year. After this, many members of the public viewed him a martyr for the nationalist cause.
Internment (imprisonment without trial) was introduced in 1971 under the Special Powers Act issued by Brian Faulkner during his short but incompetent time as First Minister. In the course of the Troubles, 1,875 suspected IRA men would be interned. This was accompanied by a meagre 107 suspected Loyalist arrests which led to nothing more than a rise in public sympathy for radical republicanism.
In the same year, the British Army interrogated 14 suspects in a purpose-built torture centre in Ballykelly, Co. Derry. The ten suspects that survived have not recovered to this day. In his report, the head of the army wrote in the margins that the event “could grow into something awkward if pursued”. Due to these atrocities, and many more commissioned by the British government during the time, Adams, along with many other leading figures were incorrectly but understandably labelled guiltless victims of this imperial, oppressive regime.
On his visit to the White House in 1994, the New York Times described Adams as “an articulate and enigmatic partisan leader in a centuries old struggle”. It is deeply dangerous to label a person innocent and “enigmatic” merely because they have been affected by an unjust system.
It is widely presumed that Gerry Adams gave the direct order for the despicable La Mon House Hotel bombing in 1978. Former Provisional IRA member Anthony McIntyre reported recently that it was Adams who came up with the idea to take the bombing campaign to England, which resulted in 125 deaths. The same man blamed Adams for the “Disappearances” in which suspected informers were murdered and their bodies hidden.
In the release of the 1977 State Papers last December, it was revealed that it was highly probable that Adams set up his fellow IRA men in an ambush in which all eight of them, as well as one bystander, died. Consistent with his typical self-preservation tactics, the assumed reason for the ambush was that the victims were attempting to organise a plot to oust him from leadership.
In the lifetime of most of us however, Adams’ time as an IRA spearhead is history. The Gerry Adams known by our generation is a pseudo-celebrity with an entertaining social media platform. Knowledge of his tweets is more widespread than knowledge of his policies. There is not a soul in the country that believes Adams when he states that he was never affiliated with the IRA, and yet his violent past and the way in which he managed to avoid any sort of legal retribution since the end of the Troubles is often knowingly joked about.
In the face of this, it is arguable that the most shocking thing about this man’s life is the lack of controversy that follows him. His adeptness at twisting public opinion of him through little more than musing tweets must be recognised. We believe Gerry Adams is capable of anything and yet accountable for nothing.
In recent times, much of the media has been crediting Adams with bringing about the ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, for making sure the republican movement accepted the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and most significantly for the eventual decommissioning of the IRA.
Gerry Adams’ contributions to the peace process should not be ignored. Nor, however, should his motives for bringing peace to Northern Ireland be ignored. It was never feasible for Sinn Féin, and consequently Adams, to succeed in politics while the IRA was at large.
Adams began to withdraw from the organisation at the first hope of his advancement in politics. This is not to say that this should be condemned. What this illustrates however is that personal progression has always taken precedence over values Adams appeared to believe in so deeply. Radical socialism for example, has never been popular in the Republic. When Adams made the shift into Republic politics, he immediately abandoned his extreme socialism that he previously believed imperative to the country.
We must ask if the driving force of Adams’ career was the belief in the unification of Ireland, why now does he stand down when the most serious threat of a hard border since he was ending lives to dismantle one exists?
History has revealed to us almost as many versions of Gerry Adams as it has Irish Republican Armies, each one bearing a new temporal system of values presented to us as fundamental. In the past number of years, his lack of competence in ever being a part of leading this country has been pointedly obvious, not least of which is the comical mistaking a toothbrush for a pen in the Dáil.
A pragmatist above all, when political opportunities for Adams begin to disappear, so does he. Adams has achieved much for, and destroyed much of, the Republic and the North – all achievements he would consider as personal gains. His 34-year presidency of Sinn Fein has finally come to an end, and we should not grant him the farewell of an Irish hero.