Spending the day with Gerry Adams

Patrick Belton spends the day with Sinn Fein's president and reflects on the possible deals that wil

In a Dublin where no stretch of horizon lacks a crane, Gerry Adams and I pass the day before elections in working-class Northside neighbourhoods whose inhabitants have not all tasted the Celtic Tiger.

He permits me to accompany him on the hustings and we speak in the sluggish moments; we go to city centre where Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Mary Lou McDonald hopes for a seat in Dublin Central, and later to Finglas, where IRA bombmaker turned councillor Dessie Ellis seeks his in Dublin North-West.

This is Sinn Féin’s moment. In all, the party will add five to seven seats to its current set of five; it is projected to poll 10 per cent in today’s count of votes, against 7 in 2002 and 3 in 1997. With the governing Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition locked in close war with the alternative Fine Gael-Labour-Green alliance and neither tipped to command a majority, Sinn Féin could end in government both north and south. Should the Dáil be hung, Sinn Féin is set to be its kingmaker.

Adams its president is respectful, unhurried, generous with his time, listening carefully to what his interlocutors have to say. He wears a fáinne and a breast cancer ribbon, for his assistant Siobhán O’Hanlon who died last April; under his blazer his shirt is open at the neck, and not tucked in.

Unlike the GPO - the building that was HQ to Pearse and Connolly's republican organisations during the 1916 Easter Rising - today’s Sinn Féin is eager to cover up its bullet holes. But why are so many otherwise sane people, in a peaceful nation enjoying the strongest economic growth of the EU-15, disposed to vote now for a party headed by a former member of the IRA's Army Council and a socialist?

The answer lies partly in cultural dislocations caused by a Celtic Tiger economy (where low taxes fuelled an average annual GDP growth of seven per cent over the last decade), in part concern for how this wealth is being spent and not least the support of those feeling left behind.

With its message of social levelling, Sinn Féin’s gains are strongest amongst members of the working classes unmoved by the Tiger. Other parties are in economic policy understandably prescribing more of the same; SF’s manifesto alone calls for redistribution through higher taxes. Amongst the more wealthy, Republicanism finds an elegiac centre for a society which has spawned the new Irishman—represented by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Paddy Power’s Popebetting, cheeky and likely to have made a bundle in property in the 90’s but not necessarily up on his Yeats or his Irish.

There also is the benefit of SF’s ambiguity, a political Rorschach spot riding what Adams acknowledges is an electoral bubble of favourable publicity following formation of a coalition government in the North with Ian Paisley’s loyalist DUP.

There’s little in their manifesto they’ve not pulled back from when pushed; and to the extent Republicanism stands for nothing (apart from 32 counties), everyone can be a Republican. A touch of inscrutability has its privileges, as a taoiseach’s personal financial foibles and misstewardship of the health service weigh him with negatives on the one hand, and the opposition leader’s repute as a policy lightweight does like work on the other.

With Adams by some polls having the highest favourable ratings of any Irish politician, many voters from across the political continuum flirted with Gerry. One is actress Máire Greaney, who with her Maureen O’Hara looks, auburn hair and fluent Irish, is Hollywood’s fantasy of the West of Ireland. The Galway resident is a lifelong Labour voter but like many, she confides, in this election 'I started to ask myself, am I a Republican?'

Yet 90% of Irish voters are not republicans, not of Gerry Adams’s sort anyway. (The Irish system of PR with multiple member districts and a single transferable vote, which in coalition parleys will magnify their influence, dryly dates to the closing days of British Southern Ireland, and a desire to confine the sway of Sinn Féin of a century ago by nurturing smaller parties.) They have at least two decent reasons not to be. First, how long must Bono sing this song. The Good Friday Accords were signed in 1998; the Colombia Three were arrested in 2001, for offering bomb making and urban warfare expertise to the narcotrafficking FARC in return for €25 million. Each of them had Sinn Féin as well as IRA connections.

Niall Connolly was the Latin American representative for the party and had been arranging Gerry Adam’s visit to Havana; Martin McCauley was an election worker in the Upper Bann constituency in 1998, and James Monaghan was voted to the party’s Ard Chomhairle in 1989. A bit rich, then, the party’s manifesto promises a crackdown on drugs.

And whatever allowances can be made for such technology in the confused environment of communal reprisal in the North in 1975-76 and 1987-95, there can be no excuse made for their export outside Northern Ireland, to drug lords in Colombia. This is the lesser reason. More importantly, they’ve not taken the socialism out of (their) Irish politics. The history of nationalism combined with socialism is not a uniformly happy one. Their manifesto likes high corporate and individual taxes, the opposite of the growth recipe Fianna Fáil have been pursuing for the last decade. This is the strongest reason not to put an IRA gun to the Celtic Tiger's head.

I ask Adams whether he is concerned the party’s call for more spending on social services would kill the tiger. He counters that no one with whom he’d spoken on the hustings had shared that concern, that they instead were pressed down on every day by overly dear housing and inadequately managed hospitals if they fell ill.

He also points to the €5.6 billion budget surplus, evidence taxes needn’t be raised and an inculpation against the government for not spending it on the poor. Yet Stormont, financially dependent upon Westminster’s largesse, is meagre as a training pitch for financial prudence. And the solution of the manifesto, repeated over and over, is greater levies against the public purse. (A reading from the book of republican economics manifestoes includes a ‘Combating Low Pay’ portion on page 40 that opens with ‘immediately increase the minimum wage ... and abolish age and experience differentials.’ ‘Raising Household Incomes’, on page 44, counsels the state to ‘double the living alone allowance’ and ‘increase the Family Income Supplement by €68 per week and make it an automatic payment. Ensure all those eligible take it up...’ It continues for 74 pages.)

I ask what Republicanism means today, and whether 32 counties takes precedence over the economics. Adams refuses to subordinate one to the other, and says its presence at local council and national levels means Sinn Féin can move simultaneously towards Irish unity and a more equal, just society. When I note his calls to move water and health to an all-Ireland basis and ask him whether his tests whether to move a service to 32 would include that it could be furnished more cheaply at all-Ireland level, he ducks slightly and remarks the business community has come to view Ireland in island-wide terms, and it facilitates investment accordingly to harmonise jurisdictions, laws and regulations.

I ask him his criteria for joining Fianna Fáil’s coalition, or offering it support from outside in the Dáil as a minority government, if their current junior partner PDs face their expected political annihilation. He says Sinn Féin will not be easily lured, and there would need to be agreed joint steps both towards United Ireland and expanded social protection; he lingers over housing.

Two observations going forward. One is coalition arithmetic. If the Dáil is hung, protracted negotiations lasting in the weeks could precede forming a government; Ahern faces hard sums. Though he and opposition leader Enda Kenny of Fine Gael have both forsworn Sinn Féin as a coalition partner, in political circles the vow is roundly considered false.

Ahern has already cracked a window by stating he couldn’t stop SF deputies from voting to prop up the government if they so chose, though of course there could be no quid pro quo. With its smaller vote harvest, Sinn Féin would require fewer portfolios if insde than would Labour. Yet there are alternatives for Ahern if the costs charged to the Tiger’s economic policies prove too high.

The Greens may be in play. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte has slammed the door to cooperation with Ahern, but his party includes many veterans from the last Labour-FF government, and clientelist rural Irish politics being what it is, Labour’s rural TDs have as close ties to Fianna Fáil as to the international labour movement.

There have been suggestions Ahern would even ponder allowing an FF-Labour government to be led by someone other than himself, in which case De Valera would remain Ireland’s unique threepeating taoiseach a bit longer. How much sway would Sinn Féin exert as a junior partner? If the influence of the PDs is instructive, the junior party’s influence will focus around one issue.

The PDs selected the finance portfolio when they first did business with Bertie; given the party’s free-market line, the presence of a substantial PD closet within Fianna Fáil and the PD’s own origins as an FF breakaway party, focusing their energies on the economy let them boast a success they did not enjoy subsequently, when seeking to widen their appeal they moved into justice and health, a fatal tactical mistake.

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, completing a doctorate at Oxford

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, and is currently completing a doctorate at Oxford.
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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