Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams addressed an enthusiastic crowd last night at the Hot House Cafe on Church Street, as part of what organizers billed as a “Summer Celebration” of the Irish peace process. Adams is on a speaking tour of North America to thank supporters of Friends of Sinn Fein, a non-profit fundraising group whose Canadian chapter, located in Toronto, was launched by Adams in 2001. Adams was one of the principle negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, which saw the beginning of stabilized relations among Northern Ireland, Britain and the Irish Republic.
In attendance were NDP leader Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow, who shared Adams’ table alongside CUPE Ontario chief Sid Ryan. Given Sinn Fein’s historical link with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (better known as the IRA), hobnobbing with a figure like Adams would have been unthinkable for Canadian politicians a few years ago. Despite the relative success of the peace process and the decommissioning of the IRA, the association with terrorism still clings to Adams in the eyes of many. But the Sinn Fein party also carries considerable prestige in labour union circles, and the touchiness that surrounds Irish affairs was nowhere in evidence—it was more a love-in among underdogs than a political rally.
Ryan, who was born in Dublin, and Layton both made introductory remarks. In a skillful bit of politicking, Layton reminded the audience of the huge number of Irish refugees who arrived in Toronto during the Great Famine, while paying tribute to Chow, whose efforts as a city councillor helped establish the Toronto Irish Famine Memorial (pictured), which opened in June.
But the evening belonged to Adams, and he was clearly in his element. In a measured and witty speech, he touched on the current problems facing the ongoing peace process, emphasizing Sinn Fein’s goal of a united Ireland free of British interference, which he blamed directly for Ireland’s political woes. Adams was effectively preaching to the choir, and the speech drew numerous rounds of applause. When asked if he thought Irish unity was possible “in our lifetime,” Adams was cautiously optimistic. “Absolutely,” he said. “But we have to work on it.”
Photo by stefike13.