Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein had been formed at the beginning of the 20th century. The words are Gaelic and they literally mean, 'ourselves alone.' They mean that we can go and achieve our own freedom, we don't need the help of anyone else do it, but that we have to be a free-standing nation among the nations of the world, and therefore the only answer is Irish unity.

Now, some of them believed in some sort of relationship with Britain, but Irish unity was the be-all and end-all of their policy. Sinn Fein was a constitutional party, and in fact, at the British general elections in 1918, Sinn Fein won the majority of seats throughout the island of Ireland, and it was that which gives them the animus to conduct a violent campaign against the British in the War of Liberation. And it was that war which persuaded the British to withdraw from Ireland, but to withdraw through a partition settlement.

And it was they who were engaged in the civil war against the majority of the community, it was they who argued that you do not lay down your weapons, it was they who refused to take any oath of allegiance to the monarchy in Britain.

By its use of this Gaelic name, Sinn Fein was demanding its own autonomy, and Irish unity was its ultimate end. In that respect, the slogan was very simplistic. It believed that the only way to get rid of the British was through the barrel of a gun, rather than through any rational argument.

The relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, historically, has been symbiotic. It is impossible to separate them. In more recent years, Sinn Fein has said, "We are not the IRA, they are a totally separate organization." In the minds of the vast majority of people in Ireland, whether they are Unionist or Nationalist, Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA, and it has played that role quite hotly down the years.

Sinn Fein's political role was never important until the beginning of The Troubles, because it had been the militants, the military types, who were in command inside the Republican movement. They believed that the only answer to the Irish question was what they called "one last heave." One last long push to get the British out of Ireland, and the only thing [that] will get that done is the use of weapons.

And in that respect, Sinn Fein was very much an auxiliary of the Irish Republican Army. They were there for propaganda purposes, they were there to raise the funds, they were there to speak on behalf of the IRA, but they were very much second-cousins. They didn't command. It was the IRA who commanded. But Sinn Fein had refused to organize politcally so it was never a serious political force within the Catholic community, as evident in its refusal to stand in Parliamentary elections, whether in Westminster, Stormont or Dublin.

So it wasn't in the business of electioneering, it was in the business of propagandizing. It's only in the 1980s that it begins to take itself seriously as a political organization.

Adams clearly was, and is, a highly intelligent politician. Adams, in some sense, is easier to read than Martin McGuinness, simply because Adams has published memoirs, his political manifesto, et cetera, and Adams shows some form of long-term political vision. He speaks in his memoirs of his time as a youth, growing up ... of a sense of discrimination. He was clearly an intelligent school boy who could have gone far, but, in fact, he left school early and became a bar man, but joined the Republican movement as soon as it was formed, because he had the family background.

And became deeply involved in the armed struggle from the earliest days, and was interned early in the 1970s, and was sprung from internment in 1972, because the authorities realized that he was one of the key members of the new generation who had to be listened to.

So, again, here we have someone who is incredibly single-minded, incredibly ruthless, but also has a sense of vision, and sees violence in its communicative framework rather than simply by destruction.

Gerry Adams comes from a very strong Republican family, on both his mother and father's side. He can trace it back to at least his grandfather, if not his great-grandfather. One of the earliest radicals in the 20th century, a man called Jim Larkin, who was concerned with trade unionism and with the national struggle, had as one of his assistants one of Adams' ancestors. And you could find ... in the Republican struggles in the '30s and '40s, either the Hannaway family, which was his mother's side, or the Adams family, were involved in all of those struggles.

One of the most important factors in explaining the resilience of the Republican movement is what I call generational continuity. It's handed down from father to son and mother to daughter, from generation to generation. For example, in the late '60s, when you had sort of youth protests, you had less of that in Northern Ireland, because the children were following the same values as the parents, whether they were Loyalist or Republican.

So, generational continuity, this strong sense of communal history and the sense of the Republican movement as a large family. Family involvement, not necessarily at the forefront of the struggle, but as backup troops, is very, very powerful in explaining the success of the Republican movement. That is, I think, probably the supreme reason why the IRA has had to endure as much as it has had. You know, we're talking about, for the most part, working-class youth, with no great sophistication, fighting against one of the supreme military operations in the Western world, against overwhelming odds, against huge... and yet they're able to endure. And endurance was its middle name.

[With regard to Sinn Fein] ... the contemporary view inside the Republican movement is that there are two separate operations. There is an Irish Republican Army and there is a political, but discreet, wing called Sinn Fein. It wasn't always thus. At one stage, Sinn Fein had no difficulty in standing alongside the IRA and saying, "We are one and the same."

What is different now is that Sinn Fein is engaged very heavily in a political process. But, given their sense of history, it is a process in which they are afraid of being betrayed yet again. And the only weapon they believe they have is the IRA. So, if they are seen to be totally separate from the IRA, then people will say, "Why should we talk to you? Who do you represent? OK, you've got 16 percent of the vote in the last election, but there are three other parties with larger votes. We don't have to take you seriously."

So, it is in their interest to be separate from the IRA, but not to disown the IRA. And they would argue that in doing this they are taking the IRA away from the armed struggle and leading them into the political process.

There is a view, not only in the British political establishment, but certainly even in the administration of this country, probably more strong in the State Department than the NSC that what the Republican movement is engaged in is a very cynical exercise, that the peace process is simply the struggle by other means. ...

But if they don't get what they want, or to the political dialogue or the political negotiations, they will simply revert to violence. That's the cynic's viewpoint. There is another viewpoint which argues that the Republican movement has come a long way in educating itself, and realizing that the armed struggle did more damage to the community it was supposed to be protecting. In recognizing that the war has reached a stage of stalemate,they cannot defeat the British; but, equally, the British cannot defeat them.

So, the only to move forward is through a political strategy. And once they abandon the armalite, they realize that it may take another generation before they could begin the armed struggle again. So, they see it as taking a huge political risk in the hope that they can persuade, in particular, the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to throw in their lot with Ireland rather than with Britain.

It's perfectly understandable why particularly people in the political establishment, and Unionists, would say that the IRA, because of the armed struggle, that Adams has bombed his way to the table and, therefore, they should have nothing to do with him. Adams would retort by saying, "Well, tell me about George Washington. Tell me about Kenyatta. Tell me about Nelson Mandela. Tell me about Yasser Arafat." Adams would say that he belongs to a proud political tradition where the politically oppressed have no other means than the means of their own violence to get to that negotiating table, to make it a level playing field. And in that respect, he belongs to a long and honorable tradition.

[But] if and when Gerry Adams uses the analogies of historic figures such as George Washington or Nelson Mandela, the short answer is that he's being premature. Time will tell whether he can become a person of that stature. What we do know is that he failed to demonstrate he was a Nelson Mandela when he got his visa to visit the United States for the first time. And the reason why we know he failed was because he had to satisfy two audiences simultaneously. He had to satisfy the external audience, personified by the President, who'd gone out on a limb to give him that visa, that he was a man of peace. But he had to satisfy the internal audience, Sinn Fein and the IRA, that the struggle would continue until there was ultimate victory. And he has not come to terms with how you satisfy both audiences simultaneously, which means that we cannot cast any judgement on whether he is truly an historic figure or not.

History will decide whether, in fact, the IRA and the Republican movement are engaged in a cynical exercise of using the political process as another wing of their armed struggle, or whether Adams can become a Nelson Mandela. It is too early to say. My own belief is that Adams is genuine in trying to move away from the violence. I think it's a strategy that he and Martin McGuinness have been developing for a very long time. I think it's partially a strategy based on the fact that they know that their own community doesn't want any more violence, that their own community has removed the sense of fatalism, that we cannot control our political destinies, that their own community has enough self-confidence to say, "We are prepared to use simply the force of argument as against the force of weaponry, and we do not want to see any more people killed."

I think that we sometimes forget that those who engage in armed struggle are also human beings. It's too easy to characterize them as psychopaths. It's too easy to demonize them. And so, therefore, we have to be careful in how we weigh the balance between their military actions or their support for military actions and their political agenda.

The evolution of Sein Fein's new strategy: electoralism

When internment was introduced in 1971, it was seen as being disastrous, because the wrong people were being picked up. But then they started to pick up the right people and they put them in. Long Kesh became known as the terrorist university. It was actually a very good education training ground for them, because they were grouped together in their own prison blocks, they were able to educate themselves together, they were highly disciplined, they were seen from the outside as a way that the British during the Second World War who were locked up in concentration camps. They were seen as national heroes.

So, to be someone behind the wire was to have graduated through the ranks of ... Republicanism, and was to give you particular status and stature in your community. There is a whole tradition in every guerrilla movement of using the prisons, of the symbolism of the prisons, to show how people can be reflective, how people can rethink their strategy. Whether you think of Mao and his long march or whatever, it is part of the mythology.

Adams used it beautifully in his writings about Cage 11. But he also used it very seriously. He and others ... because they were in the prisons for so long, and had the time to reflect--because, remember, men of action don't have time to reflect; they're engaged in activity--they had the time to reflect and he began to think of, "Where is this struggle taking us?" "How long is a long war?" "Is it going to succeed?" "The longer it goes on, does it, in fact, alienate even more of our people?"

And all of these things were beginning to address themselves to him, and he was beginning to put his thoughts together, which he brought together in a book, which he published in 1986.

I think that we have to be careful in mythologizing Gerry Adams. There is a Republican movement. He is the person who personifies that, if you like, gradualist and progressive wing of the Republican movement, but there are a number of others whose names I could give you, who wouldn't mean anything-- not only to people in the United States, but to people in Ireland--who were doing the thinking, who were the strategists, who were the politicals as opposed to the revolutionaries.

Adams had around him a team of people of around the same time ago, had gone through the same struggle--people like Tom Hartley, Jim Gibney, Martin McGuinness, McLoughlin--a whole series of them, Richard McCauley. They all formed this sort of group which began to think their way politically out of the impasse.

It occurred, at some stage in the mid-to-late '70s, to IRA and Sinn Fein, that they might actually win a military war, but lose the political piece; that they might set up the conditions for others to compromise. And they began to realize that they had to change things.

Now, it changed them by accident. It changed them as a result of the hunger strikes. And what happened there was, what the Republican movement realized, there was a huge untapped source out there in the community which didn't approve of IRA violence, but emotionally were attached to what the IRA was trying to achieve, Irish freedom.

So ... 1980 and '81 they seriously begin to put together a political strategy based on electoralism. And they were very anxious and concerned that electoralism could destroy them. They did not go into it lightly. They thought of it very, very carefully.

But they realized that they needed a dual strategy, what became known as the armalite and the ballot box. The armalite was one of their favorite weapons which could cause enormous damage. They were following, if you like, classic tactical issues by Lenin at the time of the Russian Revolution. In one of their newspapers, The Republican News, they put it this way, "Not everyone can plant a bomb, but everyone can plant a vote."

So, how do you maximize the support you've got there? There are those who are there for the military, there are those who are there for the political.

As soon as the British took control with direct rule in 1972, they began to work with the Irish government, because they didn't want to hang on in Northern Ireland. And they accepted the opinion of the constitutionalists that you could have a reform in the Northern political system with power sharing--in other words, you could bring Catholics into government for the first time, and you would give them a share of power. You also could have much closer north-south relations within the island of Ireland.

The 1986 Decision by Sinn Fein to Take Their Seats in Parliament

The decision by the Sinn Fein conference in 1986, that they would take their seats if elected in the south of Ireland, in the Irish Republic, was one of the most historic decisions ever taken by the Republican movement.

It ran contrary to their history of the previous 60 years. And it was an indication of just how successful Adams and McGuinness had been in taking over the Republican leadership, because it was something that they'd been working for for at least three or four years. Remember, that the provisional IRA was created because of a split about electoralism in 1969. So, here people were very conscious that this was very dangerous, because it went to the heart of Republican mythology, yet they pulled it off.

And the reason they did it was because they believed that their electoral star was in the ascent. And that if they wanted to speak for the people of Ireland, they'd have to show that they'd had support in the Republic of Ireland, as well as the north of Ireland. And that's what it was about.

John Hume, the SDLP and Sinn Fein

One of the seminal documents which will come out of the Troubles is the dialogue between the SDLP and Sinn Fein which began in March of 1988, and went on until September of 1988. And it is fascinating to read, because what it demonstrates is Sinn Fein have ceased to be a sect. They've now become a political movement.

Because they're engaging with a group who say "We want the same end of you, Irish unity, but we disapprove fundamentally of your methods. Not only do we disapprove of it, but we're telling you that it's counterproductive." And by challenging Sinn Fein on his own ground, we're challenging the very heart of Republican mythology, and they're making these people think politically for the first time. Very, very significant.

The person who has to take all the credit for this is John Hume. He chose the right psychological moment in the aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing. He chose the right target in Gerry Adams, whom he recognized as someone who wanted to move into another phase. He knew that Republicanism was weak as a result of the outrage of Enniskillen. And, therefore, would have to engage.

He knew that the IRA could go nowhere else but to the SDLP and engage in this.

If I had to single [out] one person who's done more than anyone else to get to this stage it would have to be John Hume, the leader of the constitutionalist party, the SDLP. His policy from the day he entered politics has been one based on non-violence. And it's also one in which he says you cannot demonize singlehandedly by building up relations in this country, from about 1972 onwards. Firstly, through striking up a very good relationship with Senator Kennedy and educating Senator Kennedy with the nuances of the Irish conflict, and then meeting with every successive president from President Carter onwards, he has done more than any single individual.

Because Irish Prime Ministers have come and gone. British Prime Ministers have come and gone. [Hume] has been the one constant factor. And he has always known what he's wanted, which was an end to the violence. And what he's always said is not about the uniting of territory, it is about the uniting of peoples.

And that very simple philosophy is something which he has pursued ruthlessly and single mindedly. And I think he has got us to this state. He, it was, who persuaded Adams into dialogue. He it is whose established now a good rapport with the former Loyalist paramilitaries. He it was who persuaded John Major to take risks when it wasn't in Major's interest. He has made all the important moves at the right time. And he's been through it all; no one else.


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