#GE16: From protests to party President, the path to Election 2016 for Gerry Adams

He has now led Sinn Fein for over 32 years

Gerry Adams may be a relevant newcomer to Dáil Eireann, elected to our parliament for the first time in 2011. But he is still one of the most recognisable and controversial figures in Irish politics, and both he and his party will no doubt play one of the most significant roles here after the election.

Adams has led Sinn Fein now for over 32 years. He has been a Member of the British Parliament (though Sinn Fein has never actually taken a seat in the House of Commons), a member of the Stormont Assembly, and most recently a Dáil deputy for Louth. A native of Belfast, people view him as a peacemaker who helped end the IRA’s violent campaign, but others outside of the movement see him as somewhat of a hate figure, especially as he has justified murders carried out by the Provisionals.

He has always denied being a member of the IRA, while at the same time he refuses to disassociate himself from the organisation. The issue of whether he was in the organisation comes up at regular intervals. Some question why he just doesn’t admit it now, but the reality is that if he were to state that membership was part of his past, he could, and undoubtedly would face arrest and questioning and possibly even be charged.

Gerry Adams is no stranger to the inside of prison cells or police stations. He first became involved in the Republican movement as a teenager and by the late 1960’s was active in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. He took to the streets to protest and in 1972 was interned when special powers were used in the North.

IRA membership?

The IRA’s own leadership at the time wanted Gerry Adams released so that he could take part in peace talks with the British Government. It has been documented that that security sources in the North certainly believed at the time that Gerry Adams was a senior IRA commander, a claim he has always denied. Charged and put on trial for membership of the IRA, he was acquitted in 1977.

In May 2014, he was arrested and questioned about the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. Adams himself has written in the Guardian about this arrest stating that he was served with a ‘pre-interview brief’ and that this accused him of “IRA membership and conspiracy in the murder of Jean McConville”. He claims that over four days of interviews in PSNI custody the point of his arrest was to “get to a point” where he could be charged with membership of the organisation and, therefore, link him to the McConville case.

Adams says the case against him is effectively one of ‘guilt by association’. No charges have followed his arrest and questioning.

During the 1981 Hunger Strikes Adams was central to the election of Bobby Sands as a MP a month before his death. In 1983, he too became an MP for West Belfast, but he continued the abstentionist policy and did not take his seat. In the same year, he became President of Sinn Fein, taking over from Ruairi O Bradaigh.


At the time, Gerry Adams took the helm of Sinn Fein, and despite the party showing an interest in democratic politics in elections, they were still considered ‘pariahs’. Later in the 1980’s there was a serious move away from violence when Adams took part in ‘secret peace talks’ with the SDLP leader at the time, John Hume. There is no doubt that this resulted in Sinn Fein being treated as a political force, and it paved the way for the eventual peace process.

Not everyone in the Republican movement was in favour of this strategy though and it led to a number of assassination attempts on Gerry Adams. But he stuck with the project to try and find peace. By 1994, an IRA ceasefire was brokered, which eventually led to the 1988 Good Friday Agreement.

Adams steered the party to this point. In the 1997 UK general election campaign, the party used a “no return to Stormont” slogan. But just a year later Sinn Fein members supported the party taking seats in a new Stormont Assembly. Adams himself took a back-seat role in the Assembly and it was Martin McGuinness who became a minister in the executive.

When the power-sharing government for the North collapsed in 2003, Gerry Adams was again a key player and three years later there were scenes that no-one ever thought possible – Adams and the DUP leader Ian Paisley sat together in front of the media and declared they were going to effectively lead a government from Stormont. One of the key issues in this deal would see Sinn Fein declare support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland – a position Adams again secured from the backing of members of Sinn Fein at a special Ard Fheis.

Dáil Eireann

Within a few years of taking over as President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams ended the party’s abstentionist policy from the Dáil. However, the party had an image of being somewhat Northern Ireland based and in 2010 as the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green government became apparent, Adams announced his resignation as an MLA and his intention to contest the general election in the Republic.

He won a seat in Louth in 2011, and led Sinn Fein’s biggest ever number of Dáil seats, at 14. Opinion polls since then have suggested a substantial swing to the party and that at the next election they will increase their seat numbers substantially. However with a resurgent Fianna Fáil, it is only likely that Sinn Fein will take third place in Irish politics.

Many have questioned if Sinn Fein could do better with a different leader, such as deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald or finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty. Some strategists and number crunchers have suggested that the leadership of Gerry Adams will probably result in between six and 10 fewer seats for the party at the election. While Adams comes under attack from virtually all other political leaders in the Dáil, the reality is that they all would rather see him as the leader than someone else. His ‘baggage of the past’ allows the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader especially to constantly jibe him and criticise him.

He still is somewhat of a ‘rock star’ with the public who often demand ‘selfies’ with him. I saw this recently within Leinster House itself. An ambulance crew had treated someone who had sustained an injury while on a tour of the Dáil. Gerry Adams was on his way into the chamber for Leaders Questions and the paramedic asked him if he would pose for a photograph. Gerry Adams duly obliged and posed for the photograph.

Sex Abuse allegations

Liam Adams, Gerry’s brother was publicly accused of rape and child sex abuse. The allegations were made by Liam Adams’ now adult daughter Aine. In 2013, Liam Adams was given a 16-year prison sentence. Gerry Adams publicly named his own father as child sex abuser, and it emerged during the investigation and trial of Liam Adams that Aine Adams had told Gerry of the abuse. Gerry Adams admitted his brother had confessed the abuse to him in the year 2000 and that he had gone to the PSNI about the allegations in 2007.

Mairia Cahill came to public attention when she revealed she was raped by a leading Republican at the age of 16 in 1997. She also detailed how she was subjected to an IRA ‘kangaroo court’. She also went on to say that Gerry Adams knew about her situation, but failed to report it to the authorities. Gerry Adams refuted some of her claims, especially those of a cover up, and insisted he told Mairia Cahill’s family to advise her to go to the RUC, and that he did co-operate with the investigation.

Adams did admit that the IRA “had made mistakes” in what he described as “a policing vacuum” in the North, adding that IRA personnel were ill-equipped to deal with matters such as allegations of child abuse and rape.

Election 2016

Gerry Adams knows that after the votes are counted in Election 2016 Sinn Fein will play a key role – just what that role will be isn’t yet clear. Publicly Adams has shifted positions on whether they would go into coalition with other parties, initially saying Sinn Fein would only go into Government if they were the largest party, and when asked about Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil he talks about only being in Government with other like-minded parties. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have insisted Sinn Fein is not fit for Government.

But what if? What if after the election the numbers stacked up? I can’t see any situation where a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein coalition would work, or be acceptable to supports of either party right now. But what if Fianna Fáil, Sinn Fein and Labour, and maybe even the People Before Profit –

What if after the election the numbers stacked up? I can’t see any situation where a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein coalition would work, or be acceptable to supports of either party right now. But what if Fianna Fáil, Sinn Fein and Labour, and maybe even the People Before Profit – Anti-Austerity Alliance had close on enough numbers to form a Government? Could it be a runner?

There has also been much talk of a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition. If that was to happen, it would leave Sinn Fein probably leading the Opposition in the Dáil chamber because Labour would have been depleted and other small parties and Independents would not be obvious opponents. Is that where Gerry Adams wants to be? Is that where Mary Lou McDonald and others want the party to be? But more so is that where Fianna Fáil want Sinn Fein to be?

Is that where Gerry Adams wants to be? Is that where Mary Lou McDonald and others want the party to be? But more so is that where Fianna Fáil want Sinn Fein to be?

Live from @ElectionNT