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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Adams reasserting himself in the North

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Gerry Adams didn't take a ministry at Stormont so that he could devote his energies to spear heading a revival of Sinn Féin in the south. Instead the party lost seats in the last Dáil election with the result that he has been largely excluded from the forthcoming European poll. Mary Lou McDonald will take care of that one.

Just as people are starting to ask "what is Gerry Adams for?" he is showing ambitions for a heightened role in the north, where his protégé is Caitriona Ruane and he is starting to worry the DUP.

The DUP knows that every other party who got as close as they have to Sinn Féin has finished up as road kill, and note that it all happened when Adams, not McGuinness, was in charge.

Even though the SDLP managed to shorten the IRA campaign by some years, they ended up being taken for all they had got by Sinn Féin. John Hume's generosity and understanding to Sinn Féin at crucial points in the peace process had the unintended effect of allowing Adams to replace him as leader of nationalism.

Then there was the UUP under David Trimble. That party's recent decline can be traced to the failure of republicans to reward their trust on such issues as decommissioning and intelligence gathering. As a result the DUP was able to present Trimble as a soft touch, "push over unionism" was the jibe they threw at him at elections.

One sound bite that dogged Trimble came in April 1998, when Adams used his Presidential speech at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis to congratulate the unionist leader on backing the Good Friday Agreement. Adams words, "well done David", allowed Trimble to be portrayed by hard liners as a man more willing to please his enemies than his friends.

A few days ago, and just under twenty years later, Adams repeated the trick at the this year's Ard Fheis, in which he called for Paisley to stay on as unionist leader, and he elaborated in a subsequent article on the Guardian's website. Adams characterised Paisley as civilised, good-humoured, respectful, and cordial and said he would like to get to know him better. Paisley, he said, had "whetted my political appetite and radicalised a generation of young people like myself".

It is hard to believe that Adams comments were entirely well intentioned; he may have been playing with Paisley or he may have been trying to damage him. The decline of both the SDLP and the UUP, were of undoubted benefit to Sinn Féin. It removed two traditional opponents and cleared the deck for Sinn Féin and the DUP to emerge as the largest parties.

By hugging Hume close Adams inherited Hume's position as the leader of Northern nationalism, by hugging Trimble close but always bowling a little short on delivery Sinn Féin weakened and diminished the party which had controlled Northern Ireland for most of its history. The prospect of a revival of IRA violence during both the Hume/Adams process and the Trimble years made both leaders wary of destabilising the republican leadership and as a result they were prepared to take chances with their own support bases. This allowed Sinn Féin to gain ground.

In the DUP Adams encountered a party that didn't want to hear his problems and was instead demanding up front delivery before making any moves themselves. The DUP approach may have failed disastrously at a more delicate juncture in the peace process but its time had come. Paisley managed to go into government with Sinn Féin while remaining strong in the eyes of the vast majority of unionists.

His Achilles heel was the "Chuckle brothers" double act which he shared with Martin McGuinness. Paisley dislikes doing anything under protest so he decided, with the advice of his family, to embrace the relationship and make the best of it. He looked as if he liked it, perhaps he grew to like it in the end, but it sapped his image as a strong man amongst crucial sections of his grassroots.

The Dromore by election was a wakeup call. Jim Alister's breakaway Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) couldn't point to any areas in which Sinn Féin had made policy advances in the Executive where the DUP has held republicans' feet to the fire on most issues. Instead the TUV played on the ubiquitous images of Paisley, who had led them through decades of protest and refusal, sitting chuckling beside the man he had once described as a "murderous god father" and a "bloody and deceitful" man. A section of voters felt the joke the two men were sharing might be at their expense.

Adams' Ard Fheis demand for Paisley to remain in office to secure the relationship with Sinn Féin would have further weakened the DUP leader's once ironclad credentials as an implacable enemy of republicanism.

Now that he has announced his retirement Paisley has side stepped this issue and the DUP can be expected to look a little less enthusiastic about sharing a bed with Sinn Féin. They may well survive the embrace which others have found fatal.

On the other hand Sinn Féin is feeling the strain. Many republican veterans, including ex prisoners who followed him in the past, are put off by McGuinness's apparently friendly relationship with Paisley. The DUP leader seemed, in the eyes of some, to patronise the former IRA commander and treat him like a lap dog.

It was also apparent that, while Sinn Féin had many able ministers, they weren't gaining ground on any of the symbolic policy issues. The DUP have the measure of them and calculate that Sinn Féin's best option is to remain in office whatever the difficulties.

The DUP poured scorn on the idea of an Irish Language Act, though it had been guaranteed at St Andrews, giving more grant aid to Ulster Scots than Irish.

Plans to develop the site of the Maze prison are also on hold because of DUP fears that a museum, which is part of the blueprint, could turn into a shrine for terrorism.

The biggie is the devolution of policing and justice, which the St Andrews Agreement stipulated should be completed in May. The DUP are ignoring the deadline.

It is against this background of frustration that the recent spate of verbal republicanism must be judged. When you aren't getting what you want a chorus of "wrap the green flag round me" may rally the troops, especially if it gets a rise out of the unionists.

Cue Martin McGuinness boasting to Eamon Dunphy about how many British soldiers he would have liked to have killed when he was a young man. Cue a celebration of the life of Mairead Farrell at Stormont. What Farrell, a would be IRA bomber shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar, would have made of the prospect of canapés with the speaker in the Long Gallery if the event had been allowed to go ahead as planned is another matter. Cue rows about unionist regalia in council chambers.

And cue Gerry Adams singing Paisley's praises, supporting the Farrell event, which was eventually held in Sinn Féin's rooms, and bolstering Caitriona Ruane's tactics on education.

As minister Ruane has handled the selection issue with an Adams like insistence on her broad vision coupled with lack of clarity on the details. She has enraged not just the DUP but most of the educational establishment. McGuinness is said to regard her tactics as dangerous brinkmanship. The DUP have warned Sinn Féin that the affair could endanger the executive.

Insiders point to two big speeches which she made on the issue when McGuinness was away. One, spelling out her vision in January, came when McGuinness was in Canada. Last week she spelt out details of area plans while he was in Dubai, a trip which also coincided with the Farrell event.

There is an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin that major speeches like this should be cleared with the executive before they go onto the floor of the house. In practice this means that McGuinness clears them after discussion in the OFM/DFM.

Instead everybody was taken by surprise, including McGuinness but not Adams. He said that, as party President, he had cut through the red tape and cleared Ruane to speak.

It was Paisley like gesture, and we all know what happened to him.

March 10, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 9, 2008.