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.

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