So. What legacy has Gerry Adams left ? Was he, as many southern commentators claimed over the years, a ball and chain on Sinn Féin’s progress? Or was he a driving force for republicanism in Ireland since the mid-1960s, transforming the movement’s position?
Gerry Adams was many things. He was a massively popular figure among republicans, a fact that his political opponents found hard to swallow. He was the Sinn Féin party leader, not because he imposed himself on the party, but because the party knew a good thing when they saw it.
In the north, he took Sinn Féin from a position below ground zero to make it the dominant nationalist party here. In the south he moved the party from having one TD in 1997 to having 23 TDs twenty years later. It now has the support of some 500,000 Irish people and is still growing.
From the 1980s, along with Martin McGuinness, John Hume and others, he brought republicans from armed conflict to peace and politics. Others took political risks to achieve this; Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness risked their lives to achieve this.
This latest move – from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill – is a startling step. But then that’s what Sinn Féin tend to do. The nomination of Martin McGuinness as Minister for Education; the entry of Martin McGuinness into the south’s presidential election; Martin McGuinness meeting the queen; Gerry Adams meeting Prince Charles; Gerry Adams quitting West Belfast and standing in Louth, where he topped the poll. All of these were walking-on-thin-air, put-the-heart-across-on-you moves. But then change of any kind involves risk. The alternative is to stagnate and rot.
Even with the emergence of Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill as the leaders of Sinn Féin, voices still insist that Sinn Féin has not done enough to disown its violent past. Which would be funny if it wasn’t so hypocritical.
Republicans for decades were urged to abandon violence and choose democratic politics. Now that they have, there are continual efforts to chain them to their past. This also ignores the fact that a violent past is the rule for political parties, not the exception.
For example, Fine Gael each year gathers at Béal na Bláth to commemorate and honour a man called Michael Collins. If you didn’t know Michael Collins was a man of violence, you should maybe get out more.
For example, Fianna Fail was founded and led for decades by a man whom the British condemned to death for his violent actions. He was called Eamon de Valera.
For example, the Ulster Covenant in 1912, with its armed threat against Home Rule, is held in the highest esteem among unionists today
For example, Nelson Mandela spent decades in jail because he refused to turn his back on the violent campaign of the ANC.
For example, there is a statue in London to Sir Arthur Harris. Sir Arthur, sometimes known as Bomber or Butcher Harris, was responsible for the bombing of Dresden in 1945. The death toll of innocent German civilians ranges somewhere between 35,000 and 100,000.
Finally, let’s face the facts: we all support violence. That is, if we pay our taxes. Because a sizeable chunk of those taxes goes to recruiting and training young men and women in the use of weapons that kill people. Not to mention a vast nuclear arsenal which would wipe out civilians by the hundreds of thousands. Our money helps make all that violence possible.
So now he’s retired, will Gerry Adams go away? I imagine republicans hope not – he is an invaluable source of experience and advice.
It makes sense. This very morning, on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme, I heard the voice of Nelson McCausland. Nelson didn’t retire – he was retired by the electorate. Despite that, he is used regularly as a DUP spokesman. Will anyone claim that Nelson is pulling Arlene Foster’s strings? Unlikely. Let’s hope unionists see Gerry Adams in the same way – not as a string-puller but a valued adviser.
I do hope Gerry doesn’t feel too insulted by being mentioned in the same breath as a man of infinitely inferior quality. And I do hope Nelson won’t be so self-delusional that he isn’t aware of his own inferiority.