Gerry Adams’ announcement that he is retiring from politics brings to an end one of the most significant public lives of the past century.
He is without doubt a major historical figure whose influence on events in Ireland was hugely significant. I cannot claim to have known him well. I did know him but I was not at the level where my political acumen was of much interest to him. Most of the conversations I had with him were brief ones about hurling. He used to read my GAA column at the back of An Phoblacht and when he met my daughter in the Leinster House restaurant he remembered me mentioning her in a piece I had written about the Dublin junior camogie team that won the All Ireland in 2003. That is why people like him, sometimes more than that.
I was at meetings where grown men were clearly verging on fear of him, which says more about them than Adams I suspect. I have met few people who have that kind of presence and he was the most impressive. The meetings only tangentially involved me so I did not have to deliver any sort of result, as it were. So I could observe the courtiers. Those who did were not comfortable. It was clearly his influence which produced any end result in political gains for what were once, the Provies.
Before one meeting began he was humming a song and asked me did I know what it was. Fagamuid suid mar a tá said. The Limerick Rake. My estimation had possibly increased when I knew that but I declined the invite to sing.
He is a clever chap and one with an eclectic but broad appreciation of many things. And a weird sense of humour.
Now for the bad parts. I suspect like other people of his acumen with ambition that he surrounded himself with flawed people. Some of those closest to him like Brendan Hughes the Officer Commanding the H Blocks during the first hunger strike who once professed to have loved him in the way that men do their comrades who have seen the best and worst of them, believed similar.
The fact that so many of that inner circle have been exposed as British paid informers and rapists and god knows what else, suggests either a serious misjudgement of character or a willingness to use such people for ulterior ends. I don’t know. I was never at a level where I had to make such decisions, but I suspect the latter. Sometimes it is good not to be embraced by power. Probably it is always best not to be embraced by power. Lord Acton, to quote the much abused and overused dictum, was indeed correct.
There is also the manner in which he has denied his past. Some regard that as part of his own personal reinvention. I have no idea, but for many republicans and especially for many of his own peer group his denial of having been a member of the IRA is regarded as a denigration of their own history.
Is it something to be ashamed of? As with all the other participants in the conflict the IRA did do shameful things. Does that mean that all of those who were members are tainted with some eradicable historical guilt? That we should all bow our heads in shame for eternity and deny our past as do Adams and Gerry Kelly and others?
While Adams’ denial of membership made sense when it was an indictable offence, that no longer applies. The IRA was stood down and disarmed and disavowed its historical objective under Adams’ watch. He was at one time Chief of Staff and always after that remained the main power no matter who held that position and he was at all the IRA conventions that made the crucial decisions regarding the ceasefires. They were not the sort of events that people just wandered in to.
Be all that as it may. The decision to call off the IRA campaign was correct. And there is no excuse for attempting to have another one. What happened after the ceasefires is more questionable. There was no reason that republicans should have embraced Stormont and effectively agreed to administer the British controlled part of Ireland for the British. There is a democratic alternative to that without accepting their rules.
That the party claiming the historical title of Sinn Féin and all that entails should have become part of the docile acceptance of the surrender of sovereignty to the EU is also of note. That was never put for debate before the members and never voted upon.
There is also the fact that Sinn Féin has wholeheartedly embraced a political agenda which has included the introduction of abortion by default in the north. I remember when Adams and McGuinness were infuriated over the decision by the Ard Fheis in 1985 to support abortion and ensured that this was overturned the following year. I also know current Sinn Féin TDs who promised emotionally that they would never support abortion on demand. Then I saw them arguing for this in front of television audiences.
Adams like the rest of them voted for the government legislation and in some cases for the most extreme amendments proposed by the ultra left, and against proposals by Peadar Tóibín and others that sought to ameliorate the legislation.
So. If I was ever to get to meet Gerry Adams again there are lots of things I would like to discuss with him. As I said in regard to my own personal interactions, I liked him and that is how I judge any person. History and such shall be his judge on other matters and none of us know what that will be.