The level of personal hatred expressed by unionists towards Gerry Adams is remarkable. He is accused (without proof) of having been responsible for, inter alia, La Mon, Bloody Friday and every other operation of the IRA's Belfast Brigade during the 1970s. His denial of IRA membership is ridiculed and his affectation as a writer is sneered at. The mention of his name, more than any other, is likely to divert rational discussion into bitter recriminations.
While there may be some justification for the accusations, the ridicule, and perhaps even the sneering, it is important to try to understand why Adams, more than any other republican, attracts this type of dislike, and what it signifies. Some unionists will claim to dislike all republicans equally, but yet Adams still raises their temperature more than the others.
Is Adams merely the lightning rod, upon whom unionists vent their anger at the damage that the IRA did to 'their Ulster'? If so, his existence and his prominence, are both useful and damaging for republicans. Useful because it diverts unionist attention away from others who then can work more discreetly; damaging because his existence is a constant reminder of the past – of the 1970s, of internment, of bombs and bullets.
Or is there something about Adams personally that unionists find so galling? Is it the fact that a man widely believed to have been the IRA's Belfast Brigade commander in 1972-73, and subsequently a member of the Army Council, has never been prosecuted for any IRA attack – and now is feted worldwide as a man of peace and as a statesman?
This blog has previously argued for a realignment in nationalist politics in Ireland, north and south, and Sinn Féin is explicitly included. Republicans must be central to any new political formations, but the new formations must be genuinely republican. This means that they must include and represent the interests of all of the people of Ireland, irrespective of class, creed or colour. If the history – perceived, real or partially real – of one man stands in the way of the creation of such new political formation, then that man must give way.
If the future success of Irish nationalism is being impeded by the perceptions that many people have of Gerry Adams – and perhaps others – and if there is some certainty that the interests of nationalism would be furthered by his departure from active politics, then he must be big enough to recognise this, and to do what is best for his country.
There is no doubt that Gerry Adams was a pillar of the republican movement during some of the recent turbulent times, and helped to bring it through relatively unscathed. But times change and the needs of Irish nationalism are different today to those of 1994, or even 1998. Today the need is to build a wider, deeper, more professional and more European movement, and to include within it people who would not before have joined an all-Ireland political movement.
The need for a lightning rod may even be a false need – perhaps it is the rod that is attracting the lightning? The departure from the scene of the 'big players' from the past – both at individual and at party level – may be necessary in order to allow the growth and widening of all-Ireland politics. Gerry Adams is now 61 – he needs to seriously consider whether his retirement might actually do more for Irish nationalism than his continued active participation. The protagonists on the other side of the fence are also getting old, but many probably remain active out of personal enmity towards Sinn Féin and their bête noire, Gerry Adams. By taking a step back, he could encourage a wave of retirements, as the 'war generation' give way to the new 21st century generation. This might open the way for a new type of politics, one more consistent with the governmental arrangements currently in place, and one that recognises that Northern Ireland is but a small part of several overlapping politico-economic areas.
There is a new confident generation of young nationalists growing up – one that knows that when they are adults they will be in a majority, and able to pursue their ambitions peacefully. They need a leadership that represents them, not one that represents the past of their parents and grandparents. This new generation is educated, it has travelled and worked outside Northern Ireland, it is much more cosmopolitan than its parent's generation. It deserves twenty-first century leadership. If the constant heavy presence of 'troubles-era' leadership stifles the growth of such leadership, then nationalism will suffer. It is incumbent on the current leaders of nationalism – and on its pre-eminent leader, Gerry Adams – to recognise this and to draw the correct conclusions.