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Adams gambles on big pay-off for SF

(Ed Moloney, Belfast Telegraph)

The phrase "most important in recent history" is an expression most writers learn to avoid like the plague but there are times when it is fully justified. The coming election in the Republic certainly qualifies as one. It could reconfigure southern Irish politics in a fundamental way and mark the disappearance of Fianna Fáil as a major force, perhaps for ever.

It is no less an important election also for the leader of Northern Nationalism, Gerry Adams who has quit the West Belfast seat he first won in 1983, albeit in confused and somewhat quirky circumstances, to stand in Louth which even before the recent political turmoil was one of the safest Sinn Féin seats in the South.

Few doubt that Adams will win easily and take his seat in the Dáil as the leader of his party's parliamentary bloc. But the manner of his victory, how his presence at the hustings in the South affects Sinn Féin's overall performance and whether it emerges from the contest as a candidate for partnership in government either now or the near future will determine Gerry Adams' place in Irish history.

The stakes in the election for Fianna Fáil are enormously high but no less so for the man who has been the Provisionals' dominating influence for nearly four decades, in times of both violence and peace.

That Adams has this opportunity to stake a place in the history books should be a reason for him to fall to his knees every night and thank the almighty for Irish bankers, those at Anglo-Irish in particular. The truth is that the the economic collapse precipitated by the bankers and the housing bubble they financed has rescued his party from virtual political oblivion and breathed life back into what was effectively an electoral corpse.

Four years ago Sinn Féin looked finished as a political force in the South. The party went into the 2007 general election bragging about how many seats it would win and warning Fianna Fáil of the tough terms they would demand to prop up the government but came out of it less one seat and with faces blushing in humiliation.

The man who carried the can for the mortifying defeat was Gerry Adams who during the campaign had displayed an almost non-existent grasp of the intricacies of the Irish economy, then in the first stages of melt-down. During one memorable television debate, Sinn Féin's mortal enemy, former justice minister Michael McDowell, cruelly exposed Adams' failings in a performance that many say lost Sinn Féin the election. That was followed by some high level resignations from the southern party and allegations that the party leader was a control freak who brooked no dissent or debate.

It says a lot about the clout Gerry Adams carries in the Provisionals' political wing that when the party's leadership sat down afterwards to rethink their southern strategy the solution they hit upon was to make the man most credited with Sinn Féin's failure the centrepiece of its comeback effort.

It is a high risk strategy for Sinn Féin. As his party's national leader, Gerry Adams will have to play the dominant role during the campaign and be the voice and face of Sinn Féin for southern voters. His party's performance will in large measure depend on how well he reverses the image created in 2007 of a man who, in McDowell's words, "changed the subject to the peace process or the health service" every time he was asked questions about handling the economy.

The early signs are not encouraging for Sinn Féin. During a debate in January on Louth's LMFM radio during which Adams proposed that Ireland should default on all bank debt, the major parties joined ranks to poke fun at his naivety. His ideas, said Fianna Fáil "would immediately close down our financial system and eliminate the savings and deposits of everyone who has put what money they have in Irish banks." Fine Gael said he had learned nothing since 2007.

And while he is expected to easily win a seat in Louth, it promises to be a rough and tumble campaign. Ghosts from the past are likely to haunt Gerry Adams, notably Jean McConville, whose missing body was found buried on a beach in his constituency; his part in the saga of his brother Liam's alleged molestation of his daughter Ainé and the never-ending dispute over whether he was or was never in the IRA.

These are sure to be important issues not just because of their intrinsic interest but because they go to the heart of what is likely to be the central theme of the election in every other constituency thanks to the financial trauma: whether Irish voters can trust their political leaders to tell the truth. Sinn Féin's opponents can be expected to ask whether a man who cannot tell the truth about his own life could ever be relied upon to be honest about an economy in crisis.

There are glittering prizes waiting for Adams should he overcome these difficulties. The oddity of the peace process has been the fact that one of its principal architects had no position worth the name in the institutions created by it. As leader of a sizable Sinn Féin party in the Dáil, Adams would have the chance to carve out a consequential role for himself on a larger stage than exists in Belfast.

And a very good result could see Sinn Féin on the cusp of becoming a government party in the South. With that SF could hope to see the day come when the party has ministers at cabinet tables in Belfast and Dublin, a development that would help vindicate a peace strategy that not all republicans could embrace. A poor result, one below expectations, could, on the other hand, usher in the political twilights years for Gerry Adams.

The Sinn Féin leader has a huge amount riding on the coming general election. The coming days will be anxious ones but he will have one consoling thought uppermost in his mind. If he and his party cannot do well in these straitened times, with public anger at and distrust of the old establishment political parties at unprecedented heights, it never will.

February 7, 2011

Ed Moloney is author of Voices From the Grave, now available in paperback.

This article appeared in the February 1, 2011 edition of the Belfast Telegraph.

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