Tom Kelly: I saw the nastier side to Gerry Adams

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams addresses the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in the RDS, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 18, 2017. See PA story POLITICS SinnFein. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

SO Gerry Adams has finally decided to stand down as President of Sinn Féin after some 35 years.

No doubt he would have preferred not to share the headlines of his momentous move with the fall of the Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe whose long reign was only three years more than the Sinn Féin veteran.

I got up close with Sinn Féin leader in the 1992 Westminster election. Being from the border, the urban sprawl of West Belfast with its peace walls was alien to me. Running an election there was like taking a midnight run across a minefield.

The SDLP campaign HQ was blockaded by the contents of an industrial skip; an incendiary bomb was left on the office door whilst volunteers were inside, the battle bus was burned out, campaigners were threatened, personation was commonplace and on Election Day, SDLP polling agents had their cars damaged.

Still the result dented Gerry Adam’s faultless electoral career to that day when on April 9 1992 when the mild mannered Joe Hendron of the SDLP took the Westminster seat off him with a winning margin 589 votes.

The genial Adams of the campaign disappeared at the count and a nastier side came to the fore when he accused Hendron of stealing the election by attracting cross community votes.

There were no messages of regret or apology for the actions of his followers. Condemnation was a foreign word to Adams and remained so for much of his career.

He learned that night that democracy could hurt. Some veteran politicans say that to appreciate winning a candidate has to experience losing. Adams put that experience to good use. He retook the seat five years later with a whopping majority.

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Adams is a formidable leader and opponent. He has out lasted many Taoisigh and Prime Ministers. Unlike Mugabe he has chosen the time of his departure, which he says will be in 2018. Unfortunately everyone in politics knows the rule - that when you say you are going you are gone.

There’s no doubt that without Gerry Adams there would be no peace but to get what he wanted - to paraphrase Seamus Mallon - he played everyone in that process like a 10lb trout. But it couldn’t have happened without him.

It’s also true that he has successfully managed the internal and electoral affairs of Sinn Féin with militaristic discipline. The public cracks that have started to appear over bullying allegations within Sinn Féin are an indication that the ‘military’ grip on that party is indeed loose.

Adams, unlike his late deputy, Martin McGuinness is a controversial, divisive and idiosyncratic character. He has achieved much in his long tenure but one suspects he wanted to achieve more as government in the Republic has now eluded him.

Unionists loathe Adams and he polarises various strands within Irish nationalism but to his grassroots he is irreplaceable. If Adams had a favourite song it could well be the Edith Piaf classic “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

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