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Ignore the Headlines
Gerry Adams May Be The Real Loser From This Election
Tom Luby • 30.11.03

In the wake of the count of Wednesday's Assembly's election, it was perhaps inevitable that attention would focus upon the troubles besetting Unionist leader, David Trimble and the electoral triumph enjoyed by Sinn Fein over their long time rivals in the SDLP. The latter result, accorded the status of a political earthquake by some over-excited correspondents, reversed the outcome of the 1998 contest between them, with the Provos this time winning 24 seats to the SDLP's 18 and the (theoretical) right to nominate the next Deputy First Minister.

Before the media pundits get too intoxicated, it might be wise to put a number of things into context. On the Catholic side of the election result this was not a victory of one ideology over another, but rather the outcome of a contest between two adherents of the same ideology with the slightly younger, more financially sound (thanks to generous subsidies from corporate Irish-America), more aggressively led, more media friendly and more tribally assertive of the two winning out.

The days when clear blue (or should that be green?) political water separated the SDLP and Sinn Fein have long gone. Article by article, Sinn Fein have stolen all the SDLP's ideological garments in one of the most shameless and devious hold-up's in Irish political history. As the Provos embraced the principle of consent and parliamentary reformism, long the defining characteristics of the SDLP, they ditched their guns, talk of revolution and, paragraph by paragraph, whatever left-wing programme they had once preached. So advanced is this process by now, that any resemblence between the Provos of 2003 and the Provos as they existed, say twenty years ago is, as they say, entirely coincidental.

To try, therefore, to portray Wednesday's election result as a victory for "Republicanism", or a vindication of strategy to obtain by constitutional methods what cannot be won by force, is an absurd exercise, comical if it were not so serious, rather like describing Tony Blair's 1997 election in Britain as a triumph for socialism. If the Provos that emerged from the 1981 hunger strike had defeated the SDLP, then that would have been something to wonder at. But the Provos of 2003 beating the SDLP? I don't think so. The acid test is contained in these two questions: which of those two results, the Provos of 1981 or 2003 winning, would really have worried the British and Irish political establishments? And would George W Bush have hosted Gerry Adams in the Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle if he was the same firebrand we knew in 1981?

That's the first lesson from Wednesday's election. The second is that the pundits are wrong to focus so much attention on the significance of David Trimble's woes. True, he has suffered a grievous political wound which may both end his political career and strengthen hardliners within his own party. And it would be foolish to ignore or minimise all that.

But serious though the consequences are for Trimble, they are, potentially, no less serious for Gerry Adams and his colleagues in the Provo leadership - although this aspect of the election result is unlikely to attract as much comment and analysis.

The reasons for this lie in the claims made for their strategy by the Sinn Fein/Army Council leadership. The first boast is that the strategy is splintering, and thereby weakening Unionism. This was always a dubious claim to make in the first place, since back in the 1970's, when the IRA's armed campaign was in full overdrive, there were more divisions and sub-divisions of Unionism than emerged in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. And division, it is important to remember, is first cousin to democratic debate, a healthy phenomenon that is largely a stranger to the inhabitants of Connolly House.

Leaving aside that argument, the claim that the Sinn Fein/IRA strategy is shredding Unionism has been comprehensively undermined by Wednesday's election result. Far from dividing into more and more squabbling and rival groups, Unionism last week came together, propelled by scepticism about the Good Friday Agreement, into two large blocs represented by the DUP and the Ulster Unionists. Where once there were ten or more Assembly members not linked to the two large Unionist parties, now there are only two, Bob McCartney and David Ervine, both of whom were lucky to get re-elected. And the divisions within the Ulster Unionists, between the Trimble and Donaldson wings, between a "soft" and a "hard" approach to the Sinn Fein party, may also count for less given the blows suffered by the UUP leader. The Adams strategy, far from dividing Unionism, is solidifying it again.

The second claim made for the Adams' strategy is that it will lead to a United Ireland. The theory behind this claim is that by forging a successful electoral strategy, Sinn Fein will get their hands on the levers of power in the North, becoming mnisters, and even one day perhaps, Deputy First Minister, in a power-sharing government in Belfast.

In parallel with that, and feeding off the popularity of the accompanying ceasefires, Sinn Fein would build up political strength in the South, possibly ending up as partners in a coalition government with Fianna Fail. Able to exert power on both sides of the Border, Gerry Adams and his colleagues would steer us all, slowly but steadily (by 2016, we are told!), towards the Nirvana of Irish unity.

That, at least, was the theory but it was dependent upon the existence of a viable Assembly and power-sharing Executive at Stormont. That, in an important sense, was the engine of the strategy - but also its weakness.

The first part of all that, creating electoral success, has been largely accomplished, especially in the North. But there is no point in winning elections unless they are elections to something that wields power, especially if your long term strategy depends on it. And in the wake of Wednesday's results the likelihood of that existing while Ian Paisley Snr is still alive, is remote in the extreme.

Under Gerry Adams' leadership, the IRA and Sinn Fein have abandoned swathes of ideological high ground, accepting previously heretical ideas such as the principle of consent and the legitimacy of the post-1921 arrangements, in the pursuit of power. In the process, through lengthy, debilitating ceasefires and the negotiation of troop withdrawals, prisoner releases, weapons decommissioning and a transformation of the mood on the ground, they have so weakened the IRA that they have made the alternative of armed struggle an option that cannot be returned to.

And in exchange for all these irrevocable concessions, Adams now faces the prospect of getting almost nothing in return, nothing except victory over the SDLP - no Assembly, no power-sharing Ministers, no Deputy First Minister, no cross-Border bodies to sit upon, no policing committees to infiltrate, no quangos to subvert. And, most importantly, no engine to drive the electoral machine in the South. In short, he faces potential disaster. Without the Stormont Assembly, without the power-sharing Executive, the Adams' strategy is robbed of all meaning.

In the absence of the Good Friday Agreement will come direct rule from London, with an input from Dublin. Most Unionists, and ultimately most Catholics, as well as the British and Irish governments will be content with prolonged direct rule, as long as it is fair and they can be sure that the IRA has been de-fanged and cannot go back to war. A power-sharing Executive may have been the ideal for some of them but if it cannot be attained, and provided there can be no return to violence, they will all live with it. Equally the prospect of joint authority being established instead is non-existent; where are the pressure points for that?

The metaphor has often been used comparing the Provos to a shark and like all metaphors it has its limits, not least in the fact that the Provo shark is much less menacing, given that it is rapidly losing its teeth. But the comparison is all about movement; a shark has to always swim forward, otherwise it drowns, and so do the Provos. Direct rule for them is like dragging a shark backwards through a stagnant marsh. It will kill them.

It is worthwhile, for a moment, to recall why this has happened. The IRA's refusal or reluctance to transparently decommission its weapons was the factor which so weakened David Trimble that it has now brought him and the Good Friday Agreement down. The reason there was no transparency was because if there had been, then the Army Council would not have been able to lie to their supporters, to tell them there had been no weapons destroyed when there had.

This was but one instance of the fundamental dishonesty and deceit built into the IRA's peace strategy, built into it by the Adams' leadership. The lies were there to re-assure the rank and file that there was no sell out, that no matter what the appearance, the reality was the opposite. And so, for instance, when the ceasefires were called the base was told they would be temporary and would be ended as soon as it became clear that the British would not name a date for withdrawal. In the same way, the base was told decommissioning would never happen and then when it did, that they had tricked General de Chastelain, and the IRA's weapons had not been touched. And so on. Adams and his allies could never tell their followers what the real strategy was, for to do so would have been to invite their own destruction.

If the same deceit drove the impulse to bring down Trimble, then there is an irony of historical proportions here, and it is this: Gerry Adams constructed a clever strategy which was based on lies and dissembling. For a long while it succeeded and did so dramatically and to the applause of the British, Irish and US governments. But the same deceit and duplicity now threatens to pitch the strategy, and its architect, into the dustbin of history. Gerry Adams once stood on the cusp of political triumph; last week he was on the verge of being just another might-have-been, the victim of his own chicanery.

There is only one way he can change that - and we all know what that is.





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Index: Current Articles

30 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Anthony McIntyre


Special Election Coverage:


Ignore the Headlines

Tom Luby


Doing Well for Themselves Alone
Mick Hall


Our Day Has Come...
Liam O'Comain


Paying the Price
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Féin Advances Enhances Process
Fr. Sean Mc Manus, INC


'RSF satisfied with outcome - time to consider alternatives'

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Republican Sinn Féin


Poll Result Highlights Flawed Agreement
Andy Martin, 32 CSM


Election Comment


28 November 2003


Where Two or Three Shall Gather...
Liam O Ruairc


Julian Robertson Interviewed

Anthony McIntyre


From the Franklin River to the Chalillo Dam
Toni Solo


Rafah Today
Mohammad Omer




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