I recommend watching Django (‘the D is silent’) just to try and get some kind of a fix on what sort of context Gerry thought he was coming from. The film is full of crude violence, retribution, and of course that fatal taboo word, “Nigger”.
Since the word recurs right through the Tarantino film, it’s perhaps not surprising the impulsive Mr Adams thought he was safe to publicly denote the singular parallels he felt existed between his own biography and that of the vengeful slave liberator of the film in a single short tweet.
As Pat Leahy notes in the Irish Times, the party has been here before and is prepared to endure it with “the usual mixture of ruefulness and defiance”. Gerry and his Twitter account are considered a thing all of their own. At times like these, the press like to speculate on the next generation.
So what’s likely to endure? The most jarring of the post hoc rationalisations is perhaps Adams claim that he’d been a founder member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
Certainly the OC of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA Billy McMillen was one of a three-man committee which drew up the Association’s constitution in 1967, although most of these ‘entryists’ would have stayed with the Official IRA after it split three years later.
Back in August 1995 Adams gave an interview to Professor Anthony Clare. In this section he reveals his views of the Civil Rights movement and its failures at a point in time when many of NICRA’s original objectives had long been established both in law and custom.
Gerry Adams [GA]: My move into politics was quite a gradual one.
Anthony Clare [AC]: Would that have been when you would have discovered you had certain abilities or talents to do this kind of thing?
GA: Well I don’t know. I do know that I felt – and I think this was a mistake – that the demands of the Civil Rights movement and the demands of that time for equality were so reasonable and so modest and so moderate that the state would have to concede. I just thought that it obvious that people had a right to a decent house, the right to a job the right not to be persecuted.
AC: So you are saying that after that time you would have felt that violence wasn’t needed, wasn’t justified, that changes would come through political means?
GA: We’ll whether or not the use of physical force is justified or not is a separate question.
AC: Well, one of the justifications I would assume is that rights you are entitled to cannot be obtained through peaceful means.
GA: The proof of the situation has been that in the entire history of English involvement in Ireland the maintenance of whatever influence they want has been by denying people rights. In the last seventy-five years and in the last fifteen to twenty the reality of the situation is that the British government has never willingly conceded anything and the Unionists have not conceded anything at all.
AC: I interrupted you. In the late sixties and early seventies, you said the mistake you made was that to assume that these very reasonable requests would be granted …and I understood you to say and that’s why you involved yourself in what was legitimate political activity.
GA: But it was illegal.
AC: To join the IRA?
GA: No it was illegal also to be involved in legitimate political activity.
Later in the interview Adams has difficulty articulating what drives a man into the physical force tradition of Irish Republicanism. And not just for the obvious legal concerns. Watching Django may well have connected with the inarticulate core of the soldiering volunteer.
Adams has long operated in ways that would kill any other politician. Well into his fourth decade in charge of Sinn Fein internally he is unassailable with a broad willingness to believe that he is an unrivalled vote getter.
But like Ken Livingstone, Adams is getting older and less adept at breasting the challenges of modern politics than his younger alter ego. And like Livingstone his missteps get more bizarre and harder to explain.
Drafting in Cromwell and the troubles of 1641 may sound reasonable to those on the inside, but odd and misshapen to those outside. But it is probably only in America where it is doing him the most active damage.
And it is not as though he wasn’t warned. Eamonn McCann writing in March after Adams compared himself to Rosa Parks had this to say back then:
Huge numbers of Irish people were forcibly displaced – “ethnically cleansed” we’d say today – and shipped to America and the Carribbean as indentured labour and treated abominably.
This was the fate of thousands of English poor as well, swept up from the streets and carried off against their will. James I once ordered the transportation of 100 Newbury youths whose late night roistering had disturbed his sleep.
These were not slaves, not the legal property of their masters, and had the right – not that the right was always vindicated – to buy out their “contract” after their allotted time.
Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, puts it straight: “The Irish, because of the colour of their skin, had preferential treatment and pathways out unavailable to black slaves.”
To deny this, to equate Irish-Americans with African-Americans is insulting to history and to African experience.
The problem is not the insult to African experience. We’ve seen Adams time and again turn a tin ear to victims of the IRA’s long war with the temerity to speak out against the largely unregarded and persistent effects of that war.
The larger question is the quality of his judgement and the pursuit of a narrative which ignores any inconvenient precepts of historical fact that get in its way. So, sufficient unto the needs of the day, he becomes a founding member of the Civil Rights movement the IRA tried so hard to circumvent.