The career of the politician and republican activist Gerry Adams has shown an almost unerring capacity over the decades to get the important things wrong.
This marked capacity is as true of his time as a leader of a movement committed to the use of killing and destruction in pursuit of its aims, as it is of his more recent phase as a parliamentary politician in pursuit of those same aims.
The overarching mistake that has coloured his contribution to life on these islands was the position he embraced in the late 1960s that the appropriate response to the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland was violent republicanism.
A bizarre aspect of the Irish republican tradition was that it often included a type of scorn for those who didn’t share its views about violence. This in turn could bleed into a sense of moral superiority, and something like contempt for those who opposed its violence and cruelty. It created a type of hierarchy of moral status, at the top of which were the martyred dead.
It seems counterintuitive to think that hardline nationalists could have a powerful sense of dislike for their fellow countrymen and countrywomen, but that is in fact often the case, and it is certainly true of Irish republicanism. There was a sense of this abroad during the recent centenary of the Rising commemorations, when Sinn Féin felt the need to have its own, separate series of events to mark the occasion.
This sense of separatism, superiority, and suspicion of others, is far from being irrelevant to the contribution Adams and his republican colleagues make to life on this island. It allows the party exist within a special type of bubble, and within that bubble the tradition’s undemocratic and violent past is treated as a source of pride.
The public image of contemporary Sinn Féin masks a kind of creepy weirdness. You can see this creepiness if you visit its shop on Dublin’s Parnell Square where, the last time I went, you could buy Loughgall Martyrs hoodies, and fridge magnets of happy republicans waving their Kalashnikovs. The walls were painted with images of the martyred dead.
It’s a troubling place to visit, especially given how sectarianism continues to be a serious problem on this island. On both sides of the Border, Sinn Féin’s insistence on not admitting the lack of legitimacy of the IRA’s decades-long campaign of murder and destruction, is a slow poison being released into Irish public life.
Adams’s belief that a united Ireland could be achieved through violence, and only through violence, was catastrophically mistaken. It took almost three decades, and enormous suffering, for that particular penny to drop. He has never acknowledged the enormity of his error, or the fact that the policy he was so central to for so long was toxic to public morality. It is fair now to suspect that this is because he does not regret those years and all the suffering they involved.