Have you seen the state of Gerry Adams’ hair? Have you seen that picture of him smiling with the caption “I am not now and never have been a member of the Bee Gees”. In his semi-retirement the Big Effort has grown his flowing locks, left the suits behind and, from the look of it, looks like he is having a ball.
The general election in the south brings to an end his direct contribution to electoral politics on this island. It’s a moment to be marked as there are few living who can boast of affecting the political arena in such fundamental ways as Gerry Adams has on this island North and South.
At the time Gerry Adams became president of his party he led from the front modernising, changing Sinn Féin’s position on abstentionism from local political assemblies and from Leinster House. He put the ballot box into the struggle for Irish Freedom. And while we can possibly take that for granted now with Sinn Féin holding the joint First Ministry in Stormont, and potentially on the cusp of negotiating as coalition partners in the Dublin, it needs to be appreciated for what it is – nothing short of remarkable.
Sinn Féin was not a political force in 1981 when IRA prisoners entered elections as a tactic to highlight the most vicious of British state policies, the violent criminalisation of political prisoners and the subsequent hunger strikes. The H-Block Armagh Campaign coupled with the associated electoral tactics, demonstrated that political tactics had reach and effect that a military campaign could not achieve. Sinn Féin subsequently entering into electoral politics was seminal for politics on this island. It did it while it was censored across the island, its candidates and activists were targeted and assassinated on both sides of the border and while a military war was waged. And Gerry Adams steered it through all of that, without the devastating splits witnessed in the 1970s.
Gerry Adams’ leadership was defined in the moments of demonisation of his community. It’s easy to watch familiar pictures of the man standing up while bombs are thrown at him and mourners in Milltown, or shouldering the coffin of an IRA volunteer who the world is condemning and forget the strength he gave or the context they were in. Gerry Adams articulated a republican analysis of the long war and the pathways out of conflict while representing a community enduring the hard grinding realities of military occupation.
Siting Sinn Féin with international arenas of struggle was a hallmark of his era. Close international relationships, particularly with the ANC, meant that when the time for peace arrived, it chimed with the era international peace accords, including South Africa’s. Gerry Adams, standing as part of Nelson Mandela’s guard of honour tells us of the depth of that relationship. It wasn’t window dressing. Adams never did window dressing.
During our long peace process his emphasis was on peace with justice as the key to lasting peace. That opened the door to our unfinished, imperfect yet unendingly valuable peace accord and what has flowed from it.
It is of course a complex political career, but in this moment, for now, he is entitled to wear his hair long and let the inner hippie flow. He has had to suppress the tree hugger for long enough. Go néirí an bóthar leis.