By Frances Davis
The recent arrest and imprisonment of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who was subsequently released without charge, was a clear political intervention, designed to undermine the peace process and to reverse the rise in support across Ireland for Sinn Fein.
The astonishing turn of events saw Ireland’s most popular party leader (polling 33 per cent rating), held for four days on the most spurious, hearsay taped evidence from a project now discredited, questioned for up to 17 hours a day and with some 33 hours of taped interviews and then released without any charge whatsoever.
The objection – and anger – from Sinn Fein at the highly questionable nature and timing of events, given that Gerry Adams had willingly gone to answer police questions, was totally justified. Imagine if this had happened, in similar circumstances, to a leader of a political party in Britain? But in relation to Ireland the political context of these events is everything. Gerry Adams at every turn had forthrightly stated his innocence, explaining in detail the events around the arrest in a recent article. In the same article the Sinn Fein leader asks the key question – what were the motives behind this?
Who stands to gain?
Firstly, conservative, political forces opposed to the peace process and progressive change – both within the unionist leaderships and within the British establishment – have every interest in attempting to shift the focus of the political agenda. Despite denials by the PSNI and British government, as Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney points on in a recent piece, the anti-peace process elements are clearly still active. These elements are desperate to divert attention from their own attempts to block the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
The past period has seen the DUP in particular – but also the UUP – in a permanent negative position, looking over their shoulder to the most rejectionist elements, and minority, who primarily want to stop the process and move backwards on rights and equality. This has included encouraging things like the sectarian and violent flags protests. It has also included their failure to sign up to the Haass proposals at the end of last year – which would have set out a clear and comprehensive framework on many difficult issues, in particular dealing with the past. The unionist leaderships have been in a permanent `election mode’, with a strategy of trying to be the most intransigent in the fight to the bottom.
This has been utterly facilitated by the British government, which has been disengaged on the peace process for virtually its entire term, and has actively allowed unionism to block progress. The most striking example of this is the failure of the British government to back the Haass proposals.
Alongside this is their utter disregard for the principles of the GFA, as shown by the totally one-sided and partial approach to dealing with injustices and the past. Whilst rushing to secure not one, but five, inquiries into the so-called `On the Runs’ (OTR) issue following the John Downey Case, and backing the PSNI over the Gerry Adams arrest, the British government simultaneously announced there would be no inquiry into the killings of 11 civilians during British state forces operations in Ballymurphy. They continue to renege on commitments to hold a full inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane.
The government’s actions on these and other issues and their failure to positively push forward the peace process has only served to encourage the most negative and rejectionist elements, and failed to challenge the opponents of change still embedded in parts of the state. This was clearly seen during Gerry Adams’ arrest.
However this is not proving so successful. Going backwards is not an option, nor something which commands support in the population. Sinn Fein has continued to hold fast and show leadership in their commitment to the peace process. Gerry Adams made this clear in his response following his release.
Sinn Fein have skillfully advanced the peace process through decades of leading the political struggle through the most difficult of times, being able to adapt and develop a political strategy which has build their own political strength, without compromising on core principles.
The Good Friday Agreement represents a clear advance of the Irish national struggle, putting as it does the case for a united Ireland on a level footing with the status quo. Its core principles of equality, rights, tackling discrimination, a new beginning to policing, inclusive mechanisms such as power-sharing and developing an all-Ireland agenda, where implemented, erode the reactionary basis on which the northern state was constructed. Economic developments, which see an opportunity for putting forward the case for a unite Ireland economy and demographic changes underpinning this, all point towards a strong likelihood of a future united Ireland. It is this advancement that is drawing the sharp response from both unionism and from within the British state.
In the southern Irish state, those who most stand to gain from Gerry Adams’ recent arrest are of course the right wing political establishment and parties – who are being challenged by Sinn Fein over their catastrophic austerity policies and the disastrous economic situation. Sinn Fein is the credible, progressive alternative to this, and is also leading the challenge over corrupt political and institutional practices, which most recently saw the resignation of a senior minister.
As a result the party is riding high in opinion polls. Not only was Gerry Adams the most popular leader with 33 per cent rating in the recent opinion poll prior to his arrest – despite a sustained, intense campaign of vilification in the media and by all the major parties – Sinn Fein is now regularly polling around 20 per cent. Labour’s support has utterly collapsed and both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are desperate to stem the tide of Sinn Fein’s growing support. One poll in the highly anti-Sinn Fein Sunday Independent the weekend before Gerry Adams’ arrest, suggested Sinn Fein may even gain a seat in all three European constituencies in the south, adding to the existing seat held by Martina Anderson in the north. The party is standing an unprecedented number of candidates in council elections across the whole of Ireland, in every single ward and area. Again, this is the background to the arrest of Gerry Adams.
Coming out of this, the effect appears to have backfired on Sinn Fein’s detractors. Certainly in the north of Ireland it has only served to galvanise Sinn Fein’s support, with new posters going up, emblazoned with Gerry Adams’ picture. In the south, the arrest comes after a long period of attacks on similar lines, which, up to now, have not dented Sinn Fein’s growth, as people vote on the issues which most affect them and the sharp decline in living standards.
Sinn Fein’s message remains clear. Their party political broadcast for all of the elections north and south, with its range of people across Ireland representing the party’s support and issues, is incredibly strong: forwards with the peace process, for an Ireland of equality and change – and a progressive alternative to the right wing parties of austerity.
Here in Britain, whilst some on the left should be commended for speaking out over Gerry Adams’ arrest, much more can be done, and the issue of Ireland must move up the political agenda. More pressure must be put on the British government for its negative role, and in particular Labour needs to be playing a far more positive and active role in defending the peace process – something which was a positive achievement of the last Labour government. Both the Tories and Labour cannot be let off the hook. Secondly, the left in Britain has to positively identify with Sinn Fein, as one of the most — if not the most — politically advanced and growing political forces in Europe, and do its part in supporting the peace process and, most importantly, the dynamics towards a united Ireland.