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Up hill and down dail for Gerry Adams to unite Ireland

18 June 2011 835 views No Comment

AT the February 26 Irish general election this year, after controversial Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams resigned from both the Westminster and Stormont parliaments to enter politics south of the border, he topped the poll in the constituency of Louth, to secure a seat in the Irish Dail, the lower house of the country’s national parliament.

As befits a political party that fervently believes in a united Ireland, Adams’s presidency of Sinn Fein covers both the Irish republic and Northern Ireland, which Adams always refers to as “the north of Ireland”.

Sinn Fein more than trebled its number of seats in the Dail from five to 17.

During the week, Adams lives either in Dublin or with a friend in Ravensdale, north of Dundalk which is less than 2km on the republican side of the border. On the weekend he lives with his wife and family in Belfast, where he first won a seat in Westminster in 1983 as an abstentionist member for West Belfast.

On Tuesday at his parliamentary offices at Leinster House in Dublin, the energetic Adams, who is now 62, told me: “Helping negotiate a way out of the troubles in the north of Ireland has been my biggest political achievement so far. But it was a truly collectivist achievement which involved a great deal of work on the republican side from the likes of Martin McGuinness, plus the input of international figures including Bill Clinton.”

Adams continued: “The peace process is going well, despite a small number of rogue elements and extremist groups, including dissident fundamentalist Unionists and republican splinter groups like the so-called Real IRA.

“Although they can still occasionally kill people, these numerically insignificant groups will not derail the power-sharing arrangements in the north.”

But Adams concedes that “the peace process needs to be continually worked at and nurtured. This requires diligent commitment by all sides that were, and are, involved in achieving peace”.

Prior to this year tackling parliamentary politics in the Republic of Ireland, as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly Adams was active in negotiating the “peace process”, which involved power-sharing with long-term ideological enemies, including the fiery and extremist Protestant the Reverend Ian Paisley, who was the first minister of Northern Ireland from May 8, 2007, to June 5, 2008.

Adams, who also had to deal with the Social Democratic and Labour Party led by John Hume and with the British and Irish governments, was crucial in guiding Sinn Fein and the Unionists to participate in a historic political arrangement in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Adams is magnanimous when he speaks about Ian Paisley: “When Paisley actually decided that dialogue about power-sharing was needed, he negotiated with commitment and considerable good humour.”

The oldest of 10 children, Gerry Adams was born on October 6, 1948, in the working-class area of West Belfast where his wife and son still live.

In 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army indicated that its armed campaign was over and that it was now committed to peaceful democratic politics. However, Adams, who for years has denied ever being a member of the IRA, still has to deal with the fallout from the past actions of extremist groups, including the Real IRA.

In this year’s election campaign he was subjected to vociferous protest from the family of Jean McConville, who was kidnapped from Northern Ireland, murdered and secretly buried by radical republicans. Her body was found years later in the republic.

Some of his opponents also argued that, while Adams might understand the economy of Northern Ireland, he was nowhere near as strong on economic issues facing the republic. Despite this, Adams was easily elected to the Irish Dail.

Counterpointed against Sinn Fein’s significant improvement at the polls, Fianna Fail the ruling party in the republic for 60 of the past 80 years bore the brunt of electoral anger at the devastating economic downturn.

Fianna Fail experienced historic losses, including a number of high-profile ministers who were voted out of parliament.

Adams makes it clear that “Sinn Fein will not enter into coalition with other parties in the republic”.

During our meeting at Leinster House, Adams explained that “Sinn Fein opposes economic austerity as a way of dealing with the troubled Irish economy”. “Spending cuts to education, health and hospitals can only increase the economic woes of Ireland, which needs to foster small businesses and increase employment opportunities, not the reverse,” he said.

“Austerity makes no economic sense at all.”

To Adams, what has happened recently in the north can apply elsewhere in the world. “The peace process in Ireland is a symbol of hope around the world. It can be used as an example for other trouble spots. Remarkable things can be achieved by hard work and goodwill,” he said.

When asked what lessons might be learnt from the peace process in Northern Ireland and how it might be “exported” to other trouble spots around the world, Adams said: ” Our peace process can be a blueprint for other places – in as much as if we could succeed in establishing meaningful power sharing in the north of Ireland then solutions can surely be found to seemingly intractable problems elsewhere.

“The key to peace is dialogue, and peace processes everywhere need commitment, patience, and often magnanimity from all sides to the dispute”

While the US was and is the most influential part of the Irish diaspora, Adams was grateful to Australia and to Irish Australians who he said had “contributed to the republican cause and the peace process, mostly by their moral support, plus significant lobbying by influential Australians, including Thomas Keneally and Paul Keating”.

Adams remembered wryly how, during the prime ministership of John Howard, in November 1996, he had been denied a visa to visit Australia on the basis that he was “not of good character”.

“But this was soon overturned,” Adams said. “Although, at the time, I did point out that in Australia’s convict days a great many Irish of supposedly bad character helped make your nation a place of freedom and considerable wealth and opportunity.”

The Sinn Fein president insists “we must never forget that our ultimate objective is One Ireland united, republican and free”.

“But such unity”, Adams made clear, “is an aim to be achieved by peaceful means. This involves turning the hearts and minds of all Irish people to accepting the great reality that an all-Ireland approach (economically, culturally, and politically) is the most meaningful way to move forward in the 21st century.”

The Weekend Australian – June 18-19, 2011