He’s been called a murderer, a terrorist, and an evil ringleader. He’s been banned from travel and speech, and he’s been flown around the world to give speeches. He’s been reviled and celebrated, and has been protected by many even as he is threatened by his own people, in addition to the threats from his enemies. He’s divisive and unifying, a liar and a speaker of truth, a politician and a probable paramilitary leader, although he denies that second part. He’s been labeled as Machiavellian and diabolical, or a man of peace and kindness, depending on who you ask. He’s been a prisoner and now rules as a politician – one who some have compared to Nelson Mandela. Many thought he should have shared the glory of Hume’s Nobel Peace Prize, even as others accuse him (then and now) of atrocities and war crimes. Gerry Adams has been many things to many people and it’s hard to know whose impressions are right, but one thing is apparent to everyone. He is not going away.
Adams was born into a strong Republican family in Belfast, sixty-seven years ago today. Nearly every member of his family was involved in the Irish Republican Army or other Republican and Nationalist organizations. This makes his constant denial of involvement even harder to swallow, since he was raised by soldiers who had followed one another into the Volunteers for generations. He joined Sinn Fein in the early sixties and he was active in the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland shortly thereafter. He was first tossed into the clink in 1972, and it was the first of many stints in prison. He was often accused of being a member of the IRA, and he regularly negotiated for them, but somehow the charges of belonging to a terrorist group were never proven. During the H block hunger strike of 1981, Adams was right in the middle of Sinn Fein as it dramatically rose to power and two years later, he became President of the political party.
He has been the face of Sinn Fein since. His long lasting tenure has taken more than a few direct hits, but somehow he keeps forging on. He has been accused of planning some of the most heinous crimes of the Troubles but so far none of it can been proven and he remains a free man. Former friends and many enemies have claimed he was their leader in the IRA during the height of the conflict, and that he was responsible for multiple actions – including bombings, kidnapping, and murder just to name a few. The police have targeted him for decades, trying to prove any of these claims, but he manages to dodge every time. For how long is a question many have raised, including the New Yorker magazine, especially since there is so much hearsay and circumstantial evidence connecting him to the murder of Jean McConville – a case that has continued to haunt the politician since she was disappeared over forty years ago. But even though he has been held and questioned repeatedly, he always walks free – and that may have more to do with the fragile balance in the North than his guilt or innocence in any crime.
See, Mr. Adams has reinvented himself and gone from radical to peacemaker. He’s one of the most recognized politicians in the world and he is one of the men that brought a fragile peace to the North. That “peace” is relative, and priceless to many in the region. The long Troubles are still too close to risk again – and Adams’ arrest would surely cause a great deal of chaos and a surge of violence. Like him or no, he has made himself an imperative and necessary part of the system and to arrest him during any investigation that isn’t a sure thing, is too much of a risk and one that many are not willing to take.
Over the last few years the hits just keep on coming. The murder of Jean McConville keeps coming back to bite him. The Belfast Project interviews are full of damning allegations, from both old friends and enemies. Many have come forward with revelations about the IRA’s kangaroo courts of the past, and they all agree that Adams knew about and allowed their victimization to continue and/or to go unpunished. His brother is a sexual predator. The Good Friday agreement is shredded and dysfunctional, after the police announced that the Provisional IRA was to blame for a recent murder in the North. Because Adams has maintained control for so many years based on the claim that the Irish Republican Army was fully decommissioned and not a threat, the backlash is hitting him square on. The power-sharing government is on the verge of collapse and opposing politicians refuse to negotiate with him, regurgitating old rumors of paramilitary involvement and blaming him for the resurgence of violence. Being the face of Sinn Fein may have elevated him to superstar status and kept him somewhat safe from prosecution, but it has not been kind to him in recent times, and it is uncertain whether or not he will be able to maintain control in the future.
But as of right now, Gerry Adams continues to beat the odds and is one of the most powerful and recognized politicians in the world. His path from revolutionary to peacemaker is well-known and celebrated. Regardless of how this current debacle plays out, if history is any indication, Adams will remain a free, somewhat slippery, and persuasive man with a whole lot of power and a dream of reunifying Ireland. If nothing else, he still has that to celebrate on his birthday.