- 22 Feb 11
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has been contesting elections since 1981. Now, for the first time, he is running for office in the Republic. Here he discusses the shortcomings of the Celtic Tiger and puts the case for a Sinn Féin vote.
Gerry Adams is obviously taking his first-ever run for public office in the Irish Republic seriously. The Sinn Féin leader has been going hell for leather pounding the streets of his new constituency of County Louth. So much so that the leather has completely worn out. When Hot Press rings his Dundalk campaign office at the appointed hour, it transpires that the Sinn Féin president has gone out to buy a new pair of shoes.
“Well, it was more than just buying a pair of shoes,” Adams laughs down the line an hour or so later. “The whole schedule just went belly-up, so apologies for that. But I did have to buy new shoes!”
Does he enjoy canvassing?
“I do,” he affirms. “I enjoy the door-to-door canvassing more than walking up a street and just getting into people’s space. If you knock at someone’s door and they don’t want to answer, they don’t have to. But I enjoy it for two reasons. One is it gets you out and you get a bit of exercise. But also in a very compressed period of time, you get to meet an awful lot of people and you get to listen to a lot of opinions – and that’s always enlightening.”
What’s the predominant mood on the doorsteps?
“There are three broad categories. One is just anger, sometimes totally incoherent anger, at the way the government have carried on – from allegations of corruption, right through to the bank bailout, on to the IMF/EU dig-out. Then there’s people who are just pissed off, depressed, sceptical and cynical. Then there’s people who are digging their way through it, but just know that it can’t be allowed to continue.”
Adams is standing in Louth following the retirement of Sinn Féin’s Arthur Morgan, after the latter’s eight years as a TD. Although the party had discussed him running in the Republic for many years, the opportunity had never been right. However, with the peace process mostly settled, Morgan retiring, and the perilous economic situation, they concluded that now was the time.
“I’m here without a parachute,” Adams admits. “But with more than 1,000 young Irish people emigrating every week, it seemed the time was right. It used to be that people you met who were unemployed were mostly people without qualifications, but I’m meeting highly skilled graduates from all of the professions who can’t get a job. Self-employed people who can’t get the dole and have to go through all sorts of bureaucratic somersaults. People in negative equity who were persuaded to buy houses at crazy prices. Then you have the people who never had a Celtic Tiger. The biggest cause of their anger is just this sense of indignation at this two-tier republic, where the elites look after themselves.”
When Adams tendered his resignation from the House of Commons in January, he probably didn’t expect to be immediately appointed official ‘Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead’. But thanks to some archaic parliamentary rules, that’s exactly what happened.
“Ach, it’s a total nonsense,” he says, with a guffaw. “I was once a prisoner at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. It’s a silly thing. I am not a bailiff. I am a very proud Irish republican who never had any truck with British rule in this country. It’s up to them – with respect, if that’s the way they want to run their system, fair enough. There may be people, including those that are contesting this election for the other parties, who would love to be barons and bailiffs. But I’m an Irish citizen.”
He’s at pains to point out that Sinn Féin saw this recession coming, and had argued against economic inequality in Irish society for many years.
“Sinn Féin argued for the use of the wealth of the Celtic Tiger for public services and jobs, sustainability and looking after the more vulnerable sectors of society. Of course, the conservatives said there could be no redistribution of the wealth – but now there’s no problem with the redistribution of debt! And that has fed a very righteous indignation.”
Although many of Sinn Féin’s policies have been labelled “economically illiterate” by the other main parties, he has a very straightforward rebuff to them.
“Look, we just can’t afford it,” he sighs. “The last two or three budgets have all been about cuts. The so-called ‘austerity package’ is to be repeated for the next three budgets, and that’s only to service the interest. So if €6billion worth of cuts create the distress that they have created, and if the burden for the greed of the bankers is at such a cost for the citizens, then we need to approach it differently.
“Lots of independent economists have come out in support of Sinn Féin’s position. There are two ways of dealing with a recession. One is austerity, which never works because that’s about cuts. And the other one is stimulus, which does work. And what Sinn Féin’s arguing for is a reform of the tax system, a fairer tax system doing away with wastage and so on. A bit of sacrifice by the elites – you know, cut ministers’ salaries by 40%, cut TDs’ salaries by 20%, cap the wages of senior civil servants and heads of public agencies at €100,000, bring in a wealth tax, and so on. But also create jobs, and sustain jobs.”
Such is the general disgust with the main political parties, chances are that Sinn Féin will be in a relatively strong position after this election. Have they already been in discussions with Labour about coalition?
“No, we haven’t,” he says, sounding irritated by the question. “First of all, we are an independent party. We’re fighting this election on that basis. In response to questions, I have made it clear that we would not put Fine Gael into power, we would not put Fianna Fáil into power. I have argued consistently for a realignment of Irish politics which is more deep-rooted than coalition.”
“And then all of us who have the same general vision – which would include people in some of the other parties as well – need to start to organically build a movement for the re-conquest of Ireland. A movement for a new republic. A real republic, where citizens are valued and cherished, and the economy serves the citizens as opposed to the citizens being treated as subjects who serve the economy.”
What’s Gerry Adams’ position on the impending abortion debate?
“The position is fairly straightforward,” he states. “The European Court of Human Rights judgement requires legislation where it’s legal under the constitution. So that’s what should happen. In terms of the wider issue, Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion, but I have to say that we’re against the criminalisation of women who have abortions. We’re certainly not opting out of the responsibility to address that issue. The fact is that there’s 5,000 Irish women travelling to Britain to have abortions every year. We believe that there needs to be a very, very comprehensive ongoing sex education programme, easy access to safe birth control options, to childcare and to more comprehensive support services. And where a woman’s life is at risk, or in cases of incest or rape, then the decision should rest with the woman.”
What’s Adams’ opinion on marriage and adoption rights for gay couples?
“People, whatever their sexual orientation, are citizens, and they need to be given full rights. I’m a great believer in that very essential element of Irish republicanism which is about equality. Those citizens who do want marriage rights should be accorded those. As for adoption, anybody saying that a gay or lesbian couple shouldn’t be allowed to adopt, that’s absolutely discriminatory.”
While reactions on the doorsteps have been positive, there are two serious clouds hanging over his electoral campaign. Last year, his brother, Liam Adams, was charged with sexually molesting his daughter. Critics alleged that Gerry Adams had been aware that his brother was an abuser and hadn’t dealt with the issue appropriately.
2010 also saw the publication of Ed Maloney’s book, Voices From The Grave, which alleged, through the testimony of the late Brendan ‘Darkie’ Hughes, that Adams was the leader of the IRA for many years, and had personally ordered several murders, including that of Jean McConville. Does Adams feel in any way damaged by these controversies?
“Well, the business about my brother is an issue for the courts so I don’t want to comment on that. But in the course of that, I did reveal with the permission of my family that my father was an abuser. And the fact that we, as a family, were able to do that showed that we’d come through at least one phase of a long and continuing journey. And one of the reasons why I had a very positive attitude to publicising that was because it needed to be out in the open.”
Have you forgiven your (late) father yet? He sounds surprised at the question.
“Probably not yet,” he muses, after a lengthy pause. “It’s a very difficult subject. I’d need a lot more space in my life to go through it all. There’s nothing more central in life than the betrayal of trust, particularly of children. In a child’s life, there are iconic figures – parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, schoolteachers, sports stars, mentors. So I’m engaged in a process of forgiving. I actually believe in forgiving. I think you should give away negative feelings.
“But I also, when we publicised that, had a sense – and I don’t want to be too presumptuous here, I don’t want this to sound wrong – but I have met other victims of child abuse, and there are different forms of child abuse apart from sexual abuse. You know, physical abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse. And part of my motivation was also to let other people know that you can survive this, that there is a life beyond abuse, that you can have a useful life, that you’re not a bad person, that you shouldn’t feel guilty, that it wasn’t your fault. If something happened to you as a child at the hands of an adult, that isn’t your fault.”
What about the allegations in Voices From The Grave?
“I haven’t read the Ed Moloney book,” he says. “I read extracts that were in the public domain. People make their own minds up in all of this. I stood in an election in West Belfast after both those big media fixations and Sinn Féin took something like 73% or 74% of the vote. We increased our percentage. Now obviously there are people opposed to me, and opposed to Sinn Féin, but I find, on issues like that, that people are very kind and they know these are difficult issues to deal with.”
Given the alleged official corruption throughout the Celtic Tiger era, will Adams call for criminal investigations into the murky finances of prominent politicians?
“I’m not going to give you another cheap headline here, so I’ll answer this question in a non-specific way,” he says. “I think anybody who is guilty of white collar crime needs to be subjected to due process. They also need a fair trial. They can’t be tried by the media, and I’ve been a victim of that in the past. But I know if I go into the local store and steal a couple of bags of potatoes, or if I don’t pay my TV licence, or if I fall behind in my mortgage payment, I could end up in jail. So if it’s good enough for the small person then the big person, the white collar criminal, has to be pursued.”
Did he personally intervene when Fianna Fáil were deliberately delaying the Donegal by-election?
“The only reason we got the by-election was because Pearse (Doherty) went to the High Court. There wouldn’t have been a by-election. In fact, arguably there now wouldn’t be a general election if Pearse hadn’t taken that initiative. It’s similar with Maurice Quinlivan. You know, Willie O’Dea launched a scurrilous character assassination on Maurice, and Maurice had to take him to court over that. So this is an outgoing government which didn’t want people to have their democratic say.”
Finally, how does he expect Sinn Féin to perform in this election?
“I never speculate,” Adams laughs. “I want to appeal to people to vote for Sinn Féin, to join Sinn Féin, to be part of a network of support for Sinn Féin, but more importantly to be part of what James Connolly described as the ‘re-conquest of Ireland and the Irish people’. We’re doing good work in the North. We are realigning politics there. Those who think that this situation cannot be straightened out need just to look at what’s happening in the Six Counties. Anything done by one group of human beings can be undone and corrected by others. And Sinn Féin have the strategy, the vision and the determination, if we’re given a mandate, to bring about change.”