The republican rosenkavalier hangs up his boots

Gerry Adams: rebel to peacemaker on an unfinished journey

Gerry Adams is a charmer. He once gave my wife a flower, a red rose I think it was, as a gift. He’d plucked it from a floral arrangement in Belfast City Hall. The occasion was the formal dinner to mark Alban Maginnis’s election as Belfast’s Lord Mayor – 21 years ago.

I was the Irish News editor at the time, and had been seated beside Gerry and his quiet, warm and down-to-earth wife Collette.

It’s fair to say that Gerry and I didn’t normally see eye-to-eye on how best to create an Ireland at peace with itself. The table plan, I assume, had been signed off by someone in the SDLP with a sense of humour.

It was a historic evening.

The first Catholic Lord Mayor was some achievement. This was an orange-coloured glass ceiling, well and truly shattered by one of the gentlemen of Irish politics.

There’s nothing the Irish like more than being present at a moment of history. The craic, as they say, was good – and Gerry was entering into the spirit of it. I’d like to think that I reciprocated with a rose for Collette. But I have no memory of that.

I’ve known a few politicians over the years; and one of the common threads I have noticed is the difference between their public persona and their private one.

In a television studio once, Ian Paisley went as close as he dared to saying I’d wanted him shot. (An editorial that week had suggested if he didn’t have anything useful to say, a period of silence was called for. This he translated as “you said you wanted me silenced!”) When the lights went down, he turned into avuncular companion and joked away with me.

Behind the scenes in City Hall, DUP and Sinn Fein members were working together quietly on a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ basis years before they dared be seen together in public. It might have been “a putrid little statelet”, but in truth both of them saw it as their own putrid little statelet.

This weekend saw another of those moments of history. Mary Lou McDonald’s assumption of the presidency of Sinn Fein brings the curtain down on Mr Adam’s remarkable career. It is a career that has taken him from armalite to ballot box in the space of a generation.

Those of us who never bought the legitimacy of the armed struggle find it hard to give the Sinn Fein leader much credit for the peace process. John Hume, a visionary prepared to put country before party (a rare quality in a politician), was the one true author of the Good Friday Agreement. But Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness did a lot of the heavy lifting – and deserve credit for that at least.

It is just a pity the agreement came so late – when so many voices were raised in the seventies and eighties pointing out the futility of trying to coerce a million unionists into a political union with the Republic.

Those attending Sinn Fein’s special ard fheis in Dublin’s RDS felt the hand of history upon their shoulders – as we did at Alban’s installation dinner – accompanied by fine words and grand statements; a tear or two perhaps at the passing of the Easter Lily to a new generation

At the time, Alban Maginnis’s elevation seemed momentous. But the world did not change much for the unionists who felt the loss of the lord mayoralty. And, in truth, it did not change much for the many nationalists who struggle still with poverty, unemployment and a nagging feeling that they do not fully belong in their own city.

The world without Gerry Adams at the helm of Sinn Fein will not be that much different – even if Mary Lou is bringing her own shoes.

If we always do what we’ve always done; we will always get what we’ve always got.

Adams remains an enigma. Charming yet ruthless. Loved and loathed. Public and private. There are many – and not just unionists – who will never be able to reconcile Gerry the Peacemaker with the leader of a movement that for so long put ideology before human life.

In a much-celebrated observation, Enoch Powell noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”

Having, in 1984, narrowly avoided being “cut off in midstream”, the jury is still out on whether Gerry Adams’ political career can be judged a success or failure. Final judgment depends on his successor’s ability to break the current deadlock.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News

Whatever the question, Trump is not the answer



Donald Trump infiltrating the Republican Party

The American sociologist Robert King Merton is not a household name. But he is one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. An unassuming professor at Columbia University, Merton, who died in 2003, pioneered the scientific study of human society.

He is perhaps most famous for his exploration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Each of us will have experienced its effects. We do something for the right reasons, but the outcomes are often different to those we expect.

A classic example of the law in action can be seen in the current state of the British Labour Party. Those who signed nomination papers for Jeremy Corbyn, to ensure a full range of voices were heard in the leadership debates, never believed this would result in his election.

Much the same thing is happening in the United States where Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party and is in the process of destroying it from within.

Whatever you think of their politics, the Republicans are one of the great political parties of western democracy. Among their presidents they number Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln.

Richard Nixon (although a crook) transformed the west’s dysfunctional relationship with China, and Ronald Reagan (by no means a towering intellectual) presided over the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war.

A President Trump would make the most recent Republican incumbent of the Oval Office – George W Bush – look like a master craftsman of the democratic arts.

Trump should have been taken down in the US Primary elections. These are designed to weed out the rubbish from the field of candidates. No-one imagined he had a chance. Then the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in. Much the same thing happened in the Brexit referendum.

David Cameron – recently branded one of the worst prime ministers in British history in a poll of politics academics – never believed the vote would be won by a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists with an inferiority complex about Britain’s relationship with Europe. But it was.

Trump’s brand of negative, misogynistic politics is tailor-made for the Twitter age. It’s easy to lie in 140 characters – Tweets, sound-bites and slogans strip away the detail, the context and the facts.

And they play to an audience that is looking for simple answers to complex problems; that believes nobody is listening to their voices, and which sees the elite getting away with murder.

Lost on them is the nonsense of a multi-millionaire property developer portraying himself as an anti-elitist man of the people.

Trump is on the ballot because people have exercised their democratic right to put him there. It cannot be contested that the exercise of democracy is a good thing. Yet the unintended consequence of giving people a voice is that they may misuse it. Or worse, their legitimate fears and worries might be exploited.

History is filled with those who exercised power through the exploitation of democracy. In the last century Adolf Hitler rose to power by taking over and then undermining the democratic process.

It is instructive to look at the Merton’s analysis of why actions and motivations that are inherently good can lead to unintended consequences: ignorance, making it difficult to predict outcomes; failing to analyse problems properly; putting short-term interests ahead of long-term goals; making decisions to address problems that don’t really exist; and making decisions on the basis of outmoded value systems.

That final one is the most dangerous. It is what is fuelling Trump’s cry of “make America great again”, and it was the underpinning basis of the xenophobic, anti-European, Little Englander campaign that it taking us out of Europe,

For those of us looking on (in horror it must be said), the consequences of a Trump presidency are all too apparent. If he governs the country the way he has governed himself over this past 18 months, God help the free world.

His core vote – and he has one – has been sold a vision of a resurgent America on the side of the little people against the forces of global capitalism. If they buy into his dream, their vote will have the same unintended consequence of those who claimed Brexit would make Britain great again: a currency in free-fall, an economy unfit to meet the needs of working people, a society riven by racial hatred and abuse.

Having given us candidate Trump, the US electorate appears to be the only force capable of stopping him. Let’s hope they do.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News

Rebels without applause: unionism and 1916


Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed

It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.

Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.

Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.

It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.

England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.

Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”

‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.

Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.

It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.

Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.

“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”

One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.

For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.

The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.

It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.

If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.

  • This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015