July 1, 2009
NEW YORK – With three decades of struggle behind them, it must be said that Gerry Adams and his republican supporters are patient and methodical.
And very tactical.
The fruits of their patience and tactics are now on display in Northern Ireland, where peace has replaced violence and where Adams's republican party, Sinn Fein, jointly leads Belfast's power-sharing government.
Having achieved many of their short-term objectives, and understanding that political parties can never sit still, Adams and his Sinn Fein cohort have now decided to put their largest and holiest goal, Irish unification, on the front burner.
And they are doing so in a way that is patient, methodical, and tactical.
The opening of this new chapter has begun with a trans-Atlantic listening tour that will see Adams and Sinn Fein holding unification conferences in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia.
The party's first American conference took place last month in New York, and opened with Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, saying: "I believe the political and economic dynamics in Ireland today make a united Ireland a realizable and realistic objective in a reasonable period of time."
The conference, held at the New York Hilton hotel, attracted about 700 supporters, some Irish, some American, and all seemingly devoted to the cause of Irish unification.
In an interview conducted after the conference concluded, Adams told the Boston Irish Reporter that with peace and political stability now a reality in Northern Ireland, the time was right to open an ambitious new chapter.
"Having got it to the point it's at, we now move on to the next natural part of the journey," Adams said.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish governments are obliged to take the steps needed to bring about unification if voters on both sides of the border vote in favor of a united Ireland.
It is assumed, but by no means totally certain, that voters in the Republic of Ireland would opt for unification. Public opinion surveys indicate a general desire for unification in the South, but that could be different from voters casting actual ballots in favor, particularly if there was a price tag dangling in difficult economic times.
In the North, the nationalist vote seems to have plateaued at about 42 percent, according to conference presenter Brendan O'Leary, which would mean that some number of unionists would have to change their stripes and vote for unification if Ireland were to come together anytime soon.
O'Leary, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said it would be much better if Irish unification were to occur by "consensus" in the North, as opposed to happening as a result of a "50 percent plus one" vote.
O'Leary, an expert on Ireland and on ethnic division, said he saw "nothing inevitable" about Irish unification, but, by the same token, he doesn't believe that there is an inevitability to the preservation of the United Kingdom, given the potential for the departure of Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Adams, in an interview, said a close vote in the North would still be a vote for unification, but acknowledged that, "Unionists have to have ownership. They have to have a sense that this is their Ireland, this is their society, that it reflects their concerns."
To that end, republicans and nationalists in the North need to reach out to unionists and make the case for unification. Adams said he believes that Northern Ireland is changing in a way that makes this conversation more plausible.
"Today, you see these thousands, tens of thousands of little acts of neighborliness and engagement between people, as part of a whole healing and getting to know each other process. I just think it's that which will build a movement back home. Just people being more comfortable with each other. A sense of all of that. It can't be left to the politicians; it's too serious an issue."
Adams also said that he sees a growing sense of Irishness among the unionists of the North, noting: "It was always the case up until the civil rights struggle in Ireland that unionists described themselves as Irish. They always saw themselves as Irish. And then, as part of the too-ing and fro-ing of the situation, this concept of Britishness came into it."
Now, in this new era of peace and stability, unionists are re-embracing their sense of Irishness, Adams said. "You can see it in so many ways, you can see it in obscure little ways, like (unionist) people being proud of Riverdance, you can see it in support for the Irish rugby team, you can see it in Ian Paisley's remarks that of course he's Irish."
Adams added: "I suppose what we have to do is to respect the fact that being Irish is to be diverse. That what all of this is reduced down to is a matter of political allegiances. That some of us have political allegiances to the union but the vast majority of people have a political allegiance ... to Ireland, and that's the one that we have to bridge."
"I do see that as the big historical challenge facing those of us who want an independent Ireland. That we go and engage, we go and talk, we try to make friends, we invite them in."
Adams Recalls '94 Controversy: 'Surreal' ... Historic Policy 'Reversal'
This time, attending a conference in New York was a relatively easy matter for Gerry Adams: book a flight, reserve a hotel room, write a speech. Fifteen years ago, it took the intervention of the president of the United States to get Adams the visa he needed to attend a Manhattan conference for Northern Ireland political leaders.
The visa Adams received in 1994 came with heavy restrictions: he could stay in the United States for only 48 hours, could not travel more than 25 miles from New York City, and couldn't raise money for his Irish republican cause.
In deciding to grant the visa, then-President Bill Clinton ruffled feathers in the State Department, which had long backed Britain's view that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were a British "internal matter" that did not require international intervention. And,the decision was controversial because the Irish Republican Army, closely tied to Adams's Sinn Fein party, was still waging its campaign of violence.
But Clinton took the step to honor a commitment to Irish-American political supporters and to "encourage Mr. Adams to make peace and help bring an end to the tragic cycle of violence that has plagued the people of Northern Ireland for too long."
A decade and a half later, Adams says his recollection of that epic visit to New York – where he attended the conference, conducted wall-to-wall media interviews, and got very little sleep – is a bit blurry.
"The visit was always a bit surreal to me. You know, you nearly have one of those out-of-body experiences, in terms of being at the center of this huge frenzy of media and other attention. But, I suppose essentially what it marked was the beginning of a complete reversal of American-Anglo policy, so I would think of it more in those terms."
The historical record attests to the wisdom of Clinton's decision.
Seven months after Adams's whirlwind trip to New York, the IRA declared a cease-fire, a decision at least partially underpinned by the recognition that American policy had changed and that the old days of the U.S. reflexively supporting Britain, and by extension Northern Ireland unionism, were gone.
The guns went still and the Northern Ireland peace process kicked into a new gear.