As Gerry Adams steps down this weekend as party president of Sinn Fein – a post he has held for more than 30 years – the crucial question of his legacy will sparks hours of debate. As he hands over the reins of Northern Ireland’s leading republican party to Southern Irish TD Mary Lou McDonald, the move is probably the most historic event in Sinn Fein’s lifespan since it signed the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, paving the way for a power-sharing Stormont Executive with the late Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists.
Adams will undoubtedly be viewed as the grand architect of the Sinn Fein peace strategy along with colleague and former deputy First Minister at the Stormont partitionist parliament, the late Martin McGuinness. But unlike McGuinness, who made no secret of his IRA past, Adams has consistently and vehemently denied being a member of the Provisional IRA – a claim much ridiculed by Adams’ political opponents, especially in Unionism.
Parking that IRA debate, Adams can be credited with bringing Sinn Fein ‘in from the political cold’ in Ireland north and south. He has transformed the party from being the mere apologist for many IRA acts of terror, to a modern political party capable of attracting considerable middle class Catholic support, while simultaneously maintaining its hold in traditional working class republican heartlands.
Perhaps the Adams peace strategy was a mirror image of the same conclusion which former Irish President Eamon de Valera reached in 1920 during the War of Independence with the British – that a military solution was not the key to Irish unity and a united Ireland could only be achieved by political means.
In this respect, Adams would have been a key player in persuading the IRA to declare its first major ceasefire in 1994, followed four years later by Sinn Fein’s endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement.
Adams similarly devised the electoral strategy which saw Sinn Fein eclipse the moderate nationalist SDLP at the ballot box and has propelled Sinn Fein into becoming the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, just one seat behind the DUP.
Significantly, Adams recognised that the key to Irish unity lay not in Northern Ireland, but through the back door in Leinster House, the home of the Dublin parliament. That recognition led Adams to abandon his ultra safe West Belfast Westminster seat and move south of the border to become a TD for Louth in the Dail. During his time there, he has transformed Sinn Fein from being a fringe party into a position where it could be a minority partner in the next Dail government when the Southern general election takes place later this year.
Given the current stalemate at Stormont, should devolution fail to materialise north of the border, any government of Northern Ireland will most likely involve some level of Dail input – a move which could place Sinn Fein in the driving seat towards Irish unity should the party succeed in becoming a minority partner with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.
Only one elephant remains in the room – Brexit. While there can be no doubt unionists and republicans will have to work more closely to ensure Brexit does not become an economic nightmare for the island of Ireland, there is also the hurdle that Brexit could force the republic into having to work more closely with the UK in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, just as in 1920, republicans had to agree to a 26-county Free State rather than a full-blown 32 county democratic socialist republic.
While Adams will formally retire this weekend to the Sinn Fein back benches, many suspect he will remain in the background pulling the strings of those now in charge of the republican movement. And as legacy issues continue to haunt the Irish peace process, so too, will the questions continue to be asked about Adams’ alleged links to the IRA and moreover, what he allegedly knows – if anything – about unsolved IRA murders. Indeed, the fact that two women with no links to the IRA now run Sinn Fein will not stop those questions. To avoid this scenario, Adams may be forced to assume the mantel of Sinn Fein’s international roving Ambassador.