Leading article

The long journey of Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams, who has announced his intention to stand down as president of Sinn Féin, has invariably been a political leader who has attracted widely conflicting assessments.

His admirers view him as a figure in the mould of Pearse and Connolly who survived turmoil and imprisonment before developing a peace strategy which transformed modern Ireland.

Critics of Mr Adams regard him as inextricably linked with the IRA's campaign of violence which resulted in almost 2,000 deaths and left a legacy of bitterness which will divide our society for generations to come.

What cannot be disputed is his sway on republicanism for almost half a century and the way in which he has steered Sinn Féin from fringe status to becoming a key player in all aspects of politics across Ireland.

When Mr Adams succeeded Ruairí Ó Brádaigh after another acrimonious split in the party in 1983, Sinn Féin was very much a junior partner to the IRA in the republican movement and had uncertain wider political prospects to put it mildly.

Mr Ó Brádaigh walked out in protest over the party's decision to drop its ban on taking seats at Leinster House, a move which seemed largely academic at the time as it did not have a single TD anyway.

In the north, where any sign of political progress appeared remote, Sinn Féin regularly trailed well behind the SDLP in terms of nationalist support and was publicly shunned by the British government.

Mr Adams set about rebuilding his organisation and by any standards can now look back at a remarkable series of electoral advances.

Sinn Féin ultimately surged past the SDLP to become the main nationalist voice at Stormont where it has practically reached parity with the DUP.

In the Dail, it has steadily grown to hold 23 seats and may well take ministerial posts in the next coalition administration.

The main factor in this dramatic rise was undoubtedly the peace process, which Mr Adams and John Hume instigated and led directly to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

It was Mr Hume's relentless logic which dominated the initiative, but it was the calm authority of Mr Adams which kept the vast majority of republicans on board up to the present day.

The reputation of Mr Adams will always be associated with that of the IRA, and his claims that he was never a member of the group over which he exercised such massive influence were rejected by all but his most fervent backers.

There could be no possible justification for any of the murders carried out by all sides during the Troubles but it needs to be acknowledged that only Mr Adams, together with the late Martin McGuinness, could have created the circumstances in which the IRA finally left the stage.

While the IRA wrongly believed that it could achieve a united Ireland through the use of force, Mr Adams, as he retires, will be acutely aware that reaching the same outcome through purely constitutional means has increasingly become an entirely realistic objective.

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