I only want to keep my hand in

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life by Malachi O’Doherty
    Faber, 356 pp, £14.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 31595 6

Historians of Northern Ireland have plenty of material to work with. A book called Lost Lives (2001) records the lives and deaths of each of the 3720 people who were killed during the Troubles. Fighters, activists, officials and politicians on all sides have spoken to the media and written books themselves. Public inquiries have published hundreds of pages of hitherto secret evidence. Journalists, some of whom managed to get impressively close to the leaders of paramilitary groups, have chronicled what happened. One aspect of the conflict all these sources reveal is the extent of the British state’s confusion about how to deal with Gerry Adams. Police repeatedly raided Adams’s childhood home. When he was 23 the courts interned him for five years, beginning with a spell on a prison ship. A few months later he was released so that the RAF could fly him to London for talks at a house in Cheyne Walk with Willie Whitelaw, the then home secretary. In 1988 Mrs Thatcher banned his voice from being broadcast but a decade later Tony Blair negotiated with him as a key participant in the peace process. Today he has easy access to the top British leadership. But Adams has not been entirely rehabilitated. In 2013 the police questioned him about his failure to disclose his brother’s sex abuse and the next year they held him for four days in connection with the 1972 murder of a Belfast mother of ten, Jean McConville.[*]

Given how much has been published there are a surprisingly large number of unresolved questions about Adams’s personal history. Perhaps the least interesting is whether or not he was ever a member of the IRA. In 1977 he was charged with IRA membership and acquitted. He has consistently – or almost consistently – denied being a member: many people believe that he was the author of an article published by Republican News under the pen name ‘Brownie’ in 1976. ‘Rightly or wrongly,’ Brownie wrote, ‘I am an IRA volunteer … the course I take involves the use of physical force.’ Adams, who has never incriminated himself even in relation to relatively minor matters, has acknowledged that he used that pseudonym but when pressed about this particular passage said that others used it too. Against that, he attended the 1972 talks with the British government on the basis that he was a member of the IRA, and an array of convincing witnesses not just from the British state, but also from the Republican movement as well as journalists in Belfast, have all insisted that he was not only a member of the IRA but sat on the Army Council and, according to some, even presided over it for a brief period. Many have also recorded that he never fired a shot in anger: his interest in politics and strategy meant that from a young age he was directing the struggle rather than participating in it. An anecdote in Malachi O’Doherty’s book has it that, within the IRA, Adams was teased for his lack of fighting experience. ‘A man was giving a lecture on the workings of an AK47 and people were surprised to see Gerry there and asked him why he had come and he said, “Oh, I only want to keep my hand in,” and they laughed even louder at that.’

Even if Adams never resorted to violence himself he repeatedly supported its use. But to what end changed over time. In 2003, to take just one example, Adams wrote that the creation of a united Ireland was inevitable. But this year, by now more of a constitutional nationalist than a freedom fighter, he said a united Ireland was not an inevitability and that Unionists must be persuaded of its merits. Lives had been lost defending positions that Adams now rejects. O’Doherty traces some of these U-turns. As early as the mid-1970s he had reached the conclusion that IRA violence wouldn’t produce an early British withdrawal. But he still advocated the use of violence, arguing that the IRA would have to abandon the 1975 ceasefire and fight a lower-level ‘long war’ to exhaust London. But as that phase of the conflict unfolded, it became clear that a prolonged campaign wouldn’t be any more successful in forcing the Brits out. By the 1980s, when Adams was developing a political strategy to go alongside the military one, he said the two parts of the Republican movement would support each other. In fact the opposite was true. Sinn Féin was damaged by IRA attacks, such as the bombing at Enniskillen, when they resulted in the deaths of civilians. Equally the IRA felt constrained by Sinn Féin in the conduct of its military strategy. Resorting to violence with no expectation of forcing the British out reduced the IRA campaign to little more than a propagandist adjunct to the political struggle.

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[*] Susan McKay wrote about McConville’s murder in the LRB of 19 December 2013.