Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How Gerry Adams knew he had to change

As Sinn Féin’s president retires, we should remember that only the SDLP drove the progressive case for civil rights in Northern Ireland – Gerry Adams’ conversion to the peace process was out of necessity, not belief, writes Adrian McMenamin

Late 60s, bearded, first elected to the Commons in 1983 and a grammar school boy who left with some qualifications but never made it on to university, the similarities between Gerry Adams and Jeremy Corbyn seem strong.

But it would be a mistake to see them as living parallel lives and not just because Adams has actually decided that 69 – the age Corbyn reaches later this spring – is time to quit.

Adams is a dedicated revolutionary who made a profound impact on his country’s history through his role as a participant in, and organiser of, violence. Corbyn has been a passive cheerleader all his life and while that means he, unlike Adams, has never been accused of killing anyone, it also means he has never had to face up to the profound failure of his politics and set a new course.

Adams – who stood down as Sinn Féin president last week – can trace his family’s involvement in the armed struggle against British sovereignty in Ireland back four generations. Adams’s great grandfather was ‘blattering away’ against the British 150 years ago.

So when, in 1969 and 1970, the IRA split between those who favoured a mixture of Marxist politics and violence and those who wanted to rely on force alone, Adams was more than just a supporter of the latter. The then 21-year-old was a key figure in routing the Marxists and establishing a ‘provisional’ army council in opposition to what then became known as the ‘official’ IRA.

The provisionals’ contempt for politics was profound and they declared military victory to be imminent. But the failure of the gun alone to succeed created the move a decade later – again forced by Adams – towards the ‘ballot box and the Armalite’ and the need to win political support in the United Kingdom for British withdrawal.

And here is where Corbyn first enters the story. While the Labour mainstream worked with the Social Democratic and Labour party that had come out of the late 1960s drive for civil rights – the very politics the provos dismissed as pointless – Corbyn and a small number of others worked with Sinn Féin and promoted their idea that Northern Ireland was just another colonial outpost that would – like Kenya, Cyprus and Aden – eventually have to be abandoned in the face of native revolt. Ignoring the SDLP’s point that there were many more ‘natives’ with guns who would oppose than support such a move, those on the far left dressed up their politics as pro-peace.

The problem for Adams was, of course, that the SDLP was right all along. Right that violence made Irish reunification less, not more likely, right that co-operation and consent would deliver more for the people of Ireland – of whatever politics, location or background – than any Armalite ever could. By the mid 1990s Adams was in the business not of seeking a military victory, but of ending an unwinnable and recognisably counter-productive war.

So my disgust at Adams’s record as a militant is tempered, at least a little, by respect for his ability to recognise that things had to change and his skill as a leader in delivering that change: taking republicans to the negotiating table and signing the Good Friday Agreement and going on to secure the standing down of the IRA itself.

None of this was ever foreseen by, urged on by or actively supported by Corbyn. It is not that he opposed any of it either (though John McDonnell record here is more chequered). He simply failed to offer any leadership at all, because doing so would have required him to leave the universe of moral simplicities in which he had placed the Irish conflict.

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Adrian McMenamin is a Progress columnist and is the former chief press and broadcasting officer for the Labour party. He tweets at @adrianmcmenamin

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