Out of the Pound Loney

Ronan Bennett

  • Man of War, Man of Peace?: The Unauthorised Biography of Gerry Adams by David Sharrock and Mark Devenport
    Macmillan, 488 pp, £16.99, November 1997, ISBN 0 333 69883 5

Shortly after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the New Statesman ran a cartoon depicting Gerry Adams as a reptilian protohuman emerging from a primordial sea to take his first trepid step on the long evolutionary walk from terrorist godfather to constitutional politician. To judge from this biography, the Sinn Féin leader still has some way to go. According to David Sharrock and Mark Devenport, Adams is a ruthless, scheming hypocrite who talks peace in front of the cameras, but in private continues to plot death and misery. He speaks of ‘inclusion’ and publicly condemns sectarianism, but has boasted that he would ‘wade up to my knees in Protestant blood’ to achieve a united Ireland. He is a physical and moral coward, ‘aloof’, a poseur, who for all his ‘studied image as a man of letters and an intellectual’, has a second-rate brain. He is treacherous – the authors hint that he even set a rival up for assassination. Sources quoted in Man of War, Man of Peace? describe Adams as ‘akin to a Nazi’, a racketeering criminal thug’, ‘a fundamentalist’. No misdemeanour is overlooked: he was an indifferent student, enjoys the occasional lie-in with his wife and may have dyed his beard.

If Sharrock and Devenport are right, what justification can there be for dealing with Gerry Adams? Morally, it’s repugnant; politically, it’s worthless. The peace process is premised on the belief that all sides – and above all, the Republican side – are at last genuinely interested in finding an acceptable compromise. Since Adams is without doubt the dominant figure within Sinn Féin – ‘the most important Irish Republican since Michael Collins’, as Sharrock and Devenport put it – his character, history and intentions are crucially important. What we need to know is what the authors ask in their title: is he a peacemaker or a warmonger?

Gerry Adams was born in West Belfast in October 1948, the son of Gerard, a young IRA man less than two years out of jail – he had been imprisoned for wounding an RUC officer in a gunfight in which he, too, had been hit. Adams’s mother was Annie Hannaway, whose three brothers had been interned during the same IRA campaign. At the time of his birth, the young couple were living with Gerard’s mother in a tiny house in the overcrowded Catholic slum – since demolished – known as the Pound Loney. Adam’s books – Falls Memories (1982); The Street (1992), a collection of short stories; and his autobiography Before the Dawn (1996) – contain large dollops of sentimentality and folksiness (the first two in particular), but make clear the great affection their author feels for this world: Adams has the profound sense of belonging, both to community and to place, characteristic of people who grow up in poverty. However, unlike many who subsequently rise out of the ghetto, Adams’s links with his community are more than notional. He now lives a little further up the Falls Road, in a larger house, and he earned a reasonable sum for his autobiography (he does not take his MP’s salary, and, until Before the Dawn, the money from his writings went to Sinn Féin). In his habits, manners, speech and outlook, however, he remains the working-class Belfastman he was born.

Antecedents of this kind can be as much a cause for wariness as for admiration: they can imply a romanticised proletarian stoicism, or, alternatively, small-mindedness, cultural introspection and political bigotry. They certainly do not impress Sharrock or Devenport, whose Adams is ‘blinkered’ and so well fastened by the ghetto’s mental and physical boundaries as to be practically its prisoner. In their view, Adams’s formation was doubly unfortunate. Not only did he come from a particularly squalid environment, but he inherited the poisoned political genes of his parents. The ‘Adamses and the Hannaways’, it appears, ‘had emerald green blood running through their veins’: the ‘IRA had been deep in the family’s blood for generations.’ When a British army officer tells the authors that Adams’s father harboured ‘an irrational hatred of the British’ and ‘longed for a reason to take up arms’, they see no grounds for questioning his judgment, nor do they consider the possibility that Adams senior and those like him might have had other, more concrete motivations. For Sharrock and Devenport, former correspondents for the Guardian and the BBC, Republicanism is all about irrational loyalties and hatreds.

At the outset of the conflict, the reasons for taking up arms seemed to many – both inside and outside Ireland – all too evident. Adams first became involved in the autumn of 1964, when Ian Paisley, then an obscure young rabble-rouser, goaded the RUC into an assault on the election headquarters in Divis Street, Belfast, of Liam McMillen, the Republican candidate in the General Election. The object of this quasi-military operation, which involved the use of sledgehammers, armoured cars, water cannon and hundreds of riot police, was to remove an Irish tricolour from the window of McMillen’s office. Adams says in Before the Dawn that he played no part in the rioting, the worst Belfast had seen for many years, but was left wondering why it needed to be ‘so illegal to fly a flag’, and got involved with McMillen’s campaign.

Some years younger than Adams, I have only the dimmest recollection of the Divis Street riots, but I remember very clearly the events of August 1969, when RUC men, B-Specials and Loyalist civilians attacked the Falls Road and Ardoyne, leaving five Catholics dead, including a nine-year-old boy shot by an RUC machine-gun. Thousands of Catholic families fled their homes in terror; and although I wasn’t there to see for myself what was happening, the impact was hard to avoid. The blood in my veins is decidedly mixed: I have Republicans and Communists on both sides of my half-Catholic, half-Protestant family, but I also had a former RUC sergeant for a grandfather. I do not believe, however, that my response was governed by anything other than a sense that something profoundly wrong had occurred. It had nothing to do with the Republican ‘myths’ or ‘imagined injustices’ that ‘revisionist’ historians so often speak of; nothing to do with romantic ideals of Ireland; nothing to do with the Plantation, the Penal Laws, 1798, the Famine or the Rising. It was very simple: the state and its agents had acted brutally and wrongly, and should not be allowed to do so again. The atmosphere was fervid, there was endless talk, endless speculation and impossible ambitions. Soldiers were billeted at my school in Barrack Street – the same one Adams had attended until he was 17; there were barricades and barbed-wire check-points everywhere; there were burned-out houses and mills, vigilantes, clandestine leaflets and papers and Radio Free Belfast Later, there was the Falls Road curfew, there were raids and explosions – dozens of them – night after night. On the Falls Road a British Army APC deliberately knocked down and killed a man; nearby, a few days later, soldiers shot dead a 62-year-old man near his house. And when internment came, in August 1971, things got worse. The raids became more frequent and more brutal. The Adams house was one of those ‘trashed during the internment swoop’, Sharrock and Devenport report. ‘Ornaments and furniture were smashed, the beds soaked in urine and shit.’ Men were tortured during interrogation; schoolboys were lifted and interned. A classmate of mine from primary school was shot dead by an army sniper on the New Lodge Road: he had joined the IRA. And then in Derry there was Bloody Sunday. They were extraordinary days.

‘Republicans have done wrong things too,’ I once heard Adams tell a gathering of Republican activists. But in those early days it seemed the violence was headed mainly in one direction: at the Catholic population. That is why I went on anti-internment demonstrations, chanting for the release of political prisoners and the abolition of Stormont. Thousands did the same, marching, picketing, striking, rioting. And thousands went further, especially after Bloody Sunday, and took up the gun. Even with hindsight, I cannot say that Republicans who resorted to arms were acting ‘irrationally’: their response bore a clear relation to the actions of the state against their communities.

Looking through newspaper articles of the time, I was interested to see that a large number of commentators and journalists thought that Republican violence had its own clearly defined rationale. However, as the killings continued and the atrocities worsened, the violence began to be described as ‘mindless’ and ‘psychopathic’, and Republican violence became conflated with killings by Loyalist paramilitaries. The participants, we were told, were so addicted to murder and mayhem, so morally squalid, they would never be able to give up their terrorist ways.

Gerry Adams now denies it, but he was one of those who responded by taking up the gun. Sharrock and Devenport say that he joined Fianna Eireann, the junior IRA, soon after the Divis Street riots of 1964. By 1969 he had graduated into the IRA proper, and in 1970, after a bitter split in the movement, he sided with the militant ‘Provisional’ wing against the old Marxist-influenced ‘Officials’. Sharrock and Devenport repeat claims that he was variously ‘the IRA’s brigade commander in Belfast’; the ‘Provisionals’ 2nd Belfast Battalion’ commander between May 1971 and March 1972; either ‘adjutant or the chief of staff’ of the Northern Command in 1977; and, soon afterwards, a member of the IRA’s seven-strong Army Council. They say they do not believe he ever resigned from the IRA, but seem unable to decide whether he controls the organisation or is its prisoner. We have no way of knowing how much of this is true, though there is evidence to suggest that Adams’s present relationship with the IRA is not as intimate as the authors claim: Adams – as his series of urgent telephone calls to Washington seemed to show – appeared genuinely not to have known until a few hours before the Docklands bombing that the IRA was about to go back to war after their first ceasefire. And even if Adams is still in the IRA, how significant would this be for the peace process?

Not very, I would argue. Last summer, I attended a wedding at which several longtime Republican activists and ex-prisoners were present. One of them, a man who, in 1970, fired some of the first shots of the IRA’s campaign against the British Army, told me that he knew that the peace process was ‘not going to get us a united Ireland, but what we’re looking for is something we can build on, something that’ll take us that bit closer’. The speaker once had a fearsome military reputation, yet now he was saying that the Republicans were engaged in a process which they recognised would not deliver what they had fought for within the foreseeable future. Martin McGuinness, who was once portrayed as the ‘hawk’ to Adams’s ‘dove’ and whispered to be his deadly rival – in fact the two men enjoy a close and easy-going friendship – has said the same thing in recent interviews. There seems little reason to doubt that these private and public statements represent the current Republican position. In other words, more important than the question of Adams’s membership or otherwise of the IRA, is the Republican leadership’s view of the situation, and by the early Nineties the leadership seemed to have decided that the time had come to make compromises, given certain guarantees and provided the Unionists and Loyalists were prepared to do the same. The failure of the first ceasefire, David Trimble’s refusal to address Sinn Féin in the present multi-party talks, the recent Loyalist killings of Catholics in retaliation for the killing of Billy Wright by the INLA, and the recent IRA killings of a drug dealer and a Loyalist paramilitary in Belfast have all raised questions about the viability of the peace process. Nevertheless, the fact remains that had Adams and the Republican leadership not encouraged the movement to attempt a political strategy, there would have been no peace process in the first place.

Sharrock and Devenport, however, aren’t very interested in trying to place Adams in this context. Their version of the following anecdote will give some idea of the general tone of the book. In February 1984, Adams and Colette, his wife, were in Clones in County Monaghan, just south of the border, when three men with machine-guns burst into the bedroom where the couple were sleeping late. The men turned out to be Irish police officers. Adams complained about the incident, but, the authors report, the local Garda Chief Superintendent was having none of it. ‘It was a routine search,’ the Chief Superintendent said. ‘When they went into a bedroom they found Mr Adams and his wife in bed. They searched a suitcase and looked around the house before leaving and did not harass anyone, unless Mr Adams doesn’t like being disturbed at 11 o’clock in the morning.’ Sharrock and Devenport reprove Adams for not seeing ‘the funny side of the incident’.

No story, no matter how petty, is passed up if it shows Adams in a poor light. His personal life, an early intelligence file concluded, appears to be blameless, so those excited by the index entry ‘Adams: voyeurism’ are going to feel cruelly short-changed. Many of the graver allegations are familiar, borrowed, for example, from John Ware’s 1983 documentary, The Honourable Member for West Belfast, which relied heavily on the evidence of Peter McMullen, an army deserter who joined the IRA and was at that time fighting extradition from the US (we aren’t told that McMullen later said that he had embellished his account in order to curry favour with the authorities). They repeat the allegation made by Kevin Myers, the Irish Times and Spectator columnist, who claims to have been present in a Belfast bar on an unspecified occasion in the Seventies when Adams casually ordered a man’s kneecapping. Myers, described here as ‘one of the most courageous correspondents covering Northern Ireland in its darkest hour’, has long been a trenchant and colourful critic of Adams and the Republican movement, but he has so far failed to furnish any further details about this incident – when and where it happened, the identity of the victim – or to explain why he sat on such a damaging story for so long.

As well as using information from other journalists, Sharrock and Devenport have talked to unnamed ‘security sources’, who are said to be ‘reliable’, though we are not told how this reliability was assessed. They use the evidence of British officials and former ministers like Sir John Wheeler and Michael Ancram; retired and serving army officers; disgruntled former members of the IRA; informers; and Adams’s old rivals in the Official IRA, who fought and lost the contest for the leadership of the Republican movement: to take at face value the word of Dessie O’Hagan – a leading member of the Officials and sole source for the ‘Protestant blood’ story – is like reporting without a health warning the opinions of Derek Hatton on Neil Kinnock.

Over the years I have read a great deal by British journalists about Gerry Adams. I have read that ‘Gerry Adams’ are ‘the two most disgusting words in the English language’ that he is ‘grisly’, ‘gruesome’, ‘a pedantic little psychopath’ who personifies ‘intransigence, bigotry and extremism’ that he ‘has no business at Number Ten’ and that Tony Blair should remember to have a sick bag at the ready. He has been written off a thousand times, told that if Sinn Féin doesn’t repudiate the IRA he’ll be finished, warned that his supporters are fed up and about to desert him. Sharrock and Devenport are following a well-trodden path, and all they have proved is that no one brings out the Brit in the British journalist quite like Gerry Adams.