As people in the Republic were still digesting the news of the resignation of Gerry Adams as leader of the Sinn Fein party, his heir, Mary Lou McDonald, moved a potentially election-triggering motion in the Dail that in effect marked Sinn Fein’s greatest impact on the Southern electoral scene since the party showed its muscle in the 1918 general election.
McDonald set in train the motion of no confidence in the current Irish government based on the claim that then Justice Minister Frances FitzGerald helped the police prosecute Sergeant Maurice McCabe, a whistleblower in their ranks, and she knew but never revealed that they tried to destroy him with trumped up evidence.
The main opposition party, Fianna Fail, could not standby and give Sinn Fein the stage but it was the Sinn Feiners who created the conditions for the no confidence motion.
Meanwhile, in the North, no meaningful political activity could (or can) take place without the party’s consent. They are standing firm on the right to express their Irish identity and voters agree with them.
These two facts illustrate the impact of Gerry Adams on Ireland since he first entered politics.
A milestone on his road to that point occurred on an August day in 1969. That was when a young Gerry Adams, a twenty one year old barman, stood amidst the warren of mean Belfast red-bricked streets surrounding the Redemptorist Clonard Monastery, directing a group of teenagers throwing stones at a hordes of invading Orangemen attempting to burn down the area.
One of the teenagers was shot and killed, and one street, Bombay Street, burned down, but the monastery was saved. The stone throwers were members of the local Fianna Eireann, the republican boy scouts, and the barman was about to be the most significant player in Irish recent history.
Decades later, within the walls of the same monastery, Gerry Adams and one of the Redemptorists, Fr. Alec Reid, would initiate the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement.
The young barman would mature into a political leader of world stature, commanding respect equally from an American president, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
However, and unfortunately, Adams can not ride off into the sunset leaving behind an unblemished record of success. Powerful forces have combined to freeze developments in toxic political aspic.
This is despite the fact that in the Republic under Adams’ leadership, Sinn Fein achieved results which would have been unthinkable during The Troubles.
Those were the days when Gerry Adams could not appear on Irish television and I was in danger of going to jail had Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, then a Minister a Labour in a Fine Gael government, succeeded in extending the prohibitions of the Broadcasting Act to the newspapers.
In an interview with The Washington Post, he said that he and his government wanted to prevent letters articulating a Republican view from appearing in the newspaper I edited, the Irish Press. We have come a long way from censoring the free press.
Currently the Sinn Fein party has 23 seats in the Dail and their main rivals for the opposition role, Fianna Fail are well aware of it.
Last week the entire political structure shook as Fianna Fail rushed to outdo Sinn Fein and demanded FitzGerald resign or lose an “no confidence” vote. Their leader Micheal Martin’s opportunism raised the possibility of an election before Christmas.
But Martin‘s move also showed his alarm at the prospect of Sinn Fein’s becoming the Dail’s main opposition party. Even though the party’s advance had stumbled and stuttered somewhat in recent years Sinn Fein’s underlying strength was demonstrated by the manner in which Mary Lou McDonald’s motion shook the political establishment.
Before announcing his resignation, Adams had been struggling with the unacknowledged fact that partition has worked north and south of the border because two separate societies have emerged. The south showed little concern for issues such as discrimination and gerrymandering. They worshipped and got rich on the Golden Bullock of the European Union’s agricultural policy, attracted American multinationals, and, with criminal irresponsibility, brought the bank crash down on itself, with literally fatal consequences. More people died of suicide in the crash years than in the thirty plus years of the Northern troubles.
On top of all this, the Republic was afflicted with crises in crime rates, its two tier health service, and rising homelessness, something unforgivable in the midst of prosperity. Worse, and ultimately even more unforgivable there is the spectacle of the seemingly out of control police force.
My father, who emerged from the independence movement, to become the first garda Deputy Commissioner at the age of 24 once told me that the setting up of an unarmed police force, in the middle of a civil war was the new Irish Free State’s greatest achievement. Today he must be turning in his grave.
The litany of corrupt practices culminating in the effort to smear the whistleblower Sergeant McCabe, that have led to the present crisis and the spatter of no confidence motions seeking the head of the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald's, all remain to be dealt with after the present controversy subsides.
Sinn Fein should have profited more from these developments, but Europe and budgets and multinationals are not Adams’ strong suit and he did not respond with the automatic surefootedness he showed, and still shows, north of the Border. As a man who shared Bobby Sands death agonies, he found it hard to resonate with a yuppified Dublin society which developed a glazed, “who farted?” look when such northern heroes were mentioned.
In the north , though the historical Unionist project has failed, and will fail further, local power still resides in the grasping hands of the DUP although the party has advanced on power with a bible in one hand and a brown paper envelope in the other.
Each of its three administrations have ended enmeshed in corruption scandal rumors. Paisley’s after planning controversies involving his son. Peter Robinson’s ended as reports of million dollar slush funds set up to further the malodorous Project Eagle maneuvers circulated. The leader now, Arlene Foster, is currently out of office over The Cash for Ash scam that caused a disgusted Martin McGuinness to pull the plug on Stormont.
The party, born out of a background of the corruption of bigotry and denial of democracy to Catholics and nationalists was simply not ready, or willing, to abandon apartheid and embrace power-sharing. The current impasse over the Irish language is but the tip of a cultural iceberg of identity.
This was summed up for me in Belfast recently. A mother--- and a worker for inter-denominational co-operation, who holds a senior position in a major Belfast hospital---said: “When I started work here before the Peace Process the only Catholic staff were maids. The doctors and nurses were all Unionists with the exception of a few foreign doctors. Now the doctors are all Catholic, Protestants as well as Catholic girls are working as maids, but the difference is the Catholic kids are doing it to put themselves through University.”
The Protestant young professionals had joined the march of the former elite to the “UK mainland” and elsewhere. No DUP voices are raised pointing their working class followers towards education, But the demographics show the path to the nationalists’ future. They outnumber the Protestants in every educational category, primary, secondary, and tertiary. The fraying lifeline that the Conservatives have thrown the DUP in return for supporting Brexit, which can ruin northern farmers and industrialists as well as southern ones is no guarantee of safety.
Many years ago. Gerry Adams recognized these trends and risked his life to induce followers of the Irish physical force tradition to lay down their guns.
Unfortunately the Unionist community have not produced leaders of his stature. Peace walls still stand along the Clonard district. But though momentum has stalled, the children and the grand children of those young stone throwers of August 1969 face a better future than they did. That is Gerry Adams’ legacy. It is one to be proud of and Irish history will thank him for it.
Tim Pat Coogan is Ireland’s leading historical biographer and former editor of the Irish Press.