It’s worth quoting at length from historian Diarmaid Ferriter in Saturday’s Irish Times on the ironic legacy Gerry Adams leaves for Sinn Féin.
Fianna Fáil continued to invoke its republican “heritage” while determinedly staying the revisionist course; the same conclusions are likely to be reached about Sinn Féin under Adams. One of the reasons for the self-righteous defensiveness beloved of Adams was precisely to mask the revisionism, or what has been referred to as the “creative ambiguity” of peace process Sinn Féin. The revisionist project gathered pace within Sinn Féin in the 1980s, including the dropping of its abstentionist policy towards Leinster House in 1986, while Martin McGuinness simultaneously declared: “our position is clear and it will never, ever change. The war against Britain must continue until freedom is achieved.” In truth, the ballot and Armalite strategy did not work and it was only in the aftermath of the cessation of violence that Sinn Féin could begin to take off; in the same way in the 1920s, de Valera saw abstention and association with republican violence as a political cul de sac.
Through the 1990s and beyond, Adams’s maintenance of control of Sinn Féin and the IRA was a singular achievement; much of that had to do with what Jonathan Powell referred to as the extent to which he was “supreme master of the distinction between tactics and strategy”, often telling the grassroots not to believe what was being said publicly. As American political scientist Paul Power predicted in 1998, “For reasons of heritage and constituency, the party will not disown its past”, but the party would “effectively finesse constitutional republicanism and become part of greater revisionist nationalism . . . Sinn Féin is on the brink of joining greater revisionism.” The same year, Sinn Féin’s Dublin ardfheis overwhelmingly endorsed the Belfast Agreement; none of the 350 delegates walked out and the party also cancelled its ban on party members taking seats in a Northern Ireland assembly.
Almost 20 years later, Sinn Féin wants to be on the brink of joining a coalition government in the republic with the arch slibhiní, while British politicians demonstrate a cold indifference to the issue of the Irish Border and Sinn Féin attends to constituents in the Republic for whom, in the words of Pearse Doherty in 2015, a united Ireland “is not their burning question”. Power sharing in Northern Ireland is suspended and it cannot it be maintained that North-South relations are anywhere near developed to the extent they might be.
It is almost 30 years since Adams declared that “the failure to develop revolutionary politics” was the republican movement’s “most glaring weakness”. The revolutionary politics has now developed to the point where Sinn Féin is open to being Fine Gael’s junior partner. Many political careers end in failure; some just end in irony.