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.

O’Doherty describes Adams as a self-regarding man who has managed to evade many of the legitimate questions raised by those who lost friends and relatives during the Troubles. A few critics within the IRA even complain that Adams prolonged the hunger strikes against the prisoners’ wishes and at the cost of some lives, because he wanted to sustain the momentum Sinn Féin was gaining from the protest. But this is a balanced book and O’Doherty also records Adams’s skill in shifting the IRA from violence to politics – his greatest achievement. He did this without always making his intentions clear. O’Doherty recounts the experience of Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA member, who, having served a prison sentence for armed robbery, decided his fighting days were over and took a job in the Sinn Féin press office. O’Rawe still believed that the political campaign was a way of winning broader support for the IRA’s military effort. But looking back he believes that, all the while, Adams was intent on the political struggle becoming predominant. ‘I had no idea Gerry was already on the peace quest. Gerry must have realised that there was only one destination and that was an end of armed struggle.’ Adams had good reason to proceed cautiously. As Blair reportedly remarked after a round of unfruitful talks with Adams and Martin McGuinness, ‘you have to remember they are negotiating with at least a modicum of worry someone will come and blow their brains out if they go too far.’

The key factor in Adams’s initial decision to support the use of violence was the 1969 split between the Official and the Provisional IRA. Partly because they now accepted that the IRA’s military capacity was weak, but also because of a growing enthusiasm for Marxist politics, the IRA leadership began to change in the 1960s. The central dispute was between those in what became the Official IRA who emphasised politics and those in the Provisionals, who believed that, without violence, it was impossible to defend Catholics in the North and keep up the struggle against the British with any effectiveness. Another issue was sectarianism. The old IRA leadership had long opposed it. Protestant and Catholic workers, they believed, should unite in a class struggle against the imperialist British state. Intercommunal solidarity was taken so seriously that the Official IRA even downplayed protecting Catholic communities from Protestant violence for fear it would deepen sectarian divisions. The Provisionals, by contrast, believed that once the British left, the powerless Unionists would have no choice but to adjust to their minority status within a united Ireland.

The split posed a dilemma for IRA volunteers. While many of Adams’s Belfast friends stuck with the Officials, he dithered for months trying to maintain relations with both camps before eventually opting for the Provisionals. His father fought for the IRA and was shot and captured during a botched ambush of a British patrol in Belfast in 1942. Imprisoned as a result he went on to establish the Irish Republican Felons’ Association, a political centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast where ex-prisoners gathered throughout the Troubles. Adams married into another well-known Republican family and many of his close relatives took up arms. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said: ‘Most of my immediate family have been in prison.’ But he also experienced different ways of thinking. Belfast may not have been at the heart of the summer of love in 1967, and as a practising Catholic Adams didn’t have much in common with progressive contemporaries in London and Dublin, but his early life did at least expose him to Northern Ireland’s Unionist tradition. His first job was as a barman in a Catholic-owned pub near the Shankill Road in which Protestants drank. Belfast folklore has him singing for the Protestant clientele in a spirit of bonhomie. His next job was at the Duke of York, Belfast’s most intellectually vibrant pub where trade-union leaders, journalists, artists and leftists gathered to exchange ideas. When he joined the Provisionals, Adams rejected more outward-looking possibilities and embraced instead the nationalist and religious stance of his forebears.

So why did he do it? Some of his supporters have argued that the delay in choosing the Provisionals over the Officials reflected Adams’s doubts about strategic questions: how great was the risk that the softer approach of the Southern-based IRA leadership would alienate Belfast’s angry young men? Without the use of arms would it be possible to defend Catholics in the North? Would violence force the Brits out? Adams’s critics take a more jaundiced view, saying that he was waiting to see which side came out on top. And that may not have been his only consideration. Since the Official IRA already had a well-established senior leadership, it didn’t offer Adams much chance to rise through the ranks. He could secure a leadership position with much greater ease in the Provisionals. Disappointingly, O’Doherty gives these questions only brief consideration: ‘The deciding factor in Gerry Adams’s decision to go with the breakaway Provisional movement may have been family,’ he writes. And it’s true this may have been part of his thinking. Although his sister Margaret stuck with the Officials, most of Adams’s close relatives opted for the Provisionals. But a fuller discussion of the various and sometimes contradictory accounts of Adams at this time would have given O’Doherty a chance to discuss one of the key issues in any assessment of Adams’s character: is he more vain and ambitious than principled? Or is it the other way round?

O’Doherty also skips over one of the key relationships in Adams’s life: his relationship with Martin McGuinness. He points out that McGuinness, despite his reputation as a man who had been violent, found it easier than Adams to persuade Unionists of his good intentions, but that is the only occasion on which he compares the two. Yet some of the more telling descriptions of Adams have been made by those who saw him working closely with McGuinness. Alastair Campbell recorded in his diaries that at an early stage of the peace process Blair asked both men whether they would be able to sign up to a settlement that didn’t explicitly commit to a united Ireland. ‘Adams was OK,’ Blair reported, ‘but McGuinness was not.’ Campbell also wrote in his diaries that Adams was both more philosophical than McGuinness and ‘more interested in his own place in the firmament’. According to Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, McGuinness tended to defer to Adams. If McGuinness was ever negotiating alone he would say he needed to discuss a proposal with Adams. Adams, in similar circumstances, sometimes kept his own counsel. In June 2004 Adams ‘very unusually’, according to Powell, asked to see Blair alone and then outlined a plan for the unilateral standing down of the IRA, adding that he had not yet told McGuinness about it. Adams also seemed more willing to say things to his interlocutors that diehard IRA members would have found hard to swallow. Powell records that after Adams and McGuinness’s first meeting inside No 10, Adams told Blair that he could split the IRA any time they wanted him to but his aim was to carry it all along. ‘As time passed the chances of the mainstream IRA going back to violence were reduced,’ Adams told Blair after the Real IRA’s Omagh bomb. ‘People were becoming rusty and getting on with their lives.’

A great deal has already been written about Adams’s role in the peace process, but O’Doherty deals with two issues that have come up more recently: a sex scandal and a murder. In 2009 Adams told RTE that his late father had sexually abused family members. He wasn’t seeking public sympathy: he made the statement after his brother Liam went on the run to avoid police questioning about allegations that he had raped his daughter, Áine Tyrell. Gerry Adams went on air to persuade Liam to hand himself in. He eventually did so and is now serving a 16-year prison sentence. Adams has said he had first become aware of his brother’s sex abuse in 1987 when Áine told him about it. Liam confessed the abuse to him in 2000 but Adams didn’t make his first report to the police about the issue until 2007. He has been accused of a cover-up to avoid damaging his political career. In O’Doherty’s account Adams remained on good terms with Liam long after Áine had told him what had happened, spending time with his brother and sending him affectionate signed photos. Adams’s silence was especially questionable since Sinn Féin had a record of harshly criticising the Catholic Church’s cover-ups of sexual abuse. Adams insists that he was concerned about family members who said they would not welcome publicity. He would probably have been unwilling to talk to the police in 1987, a year in which the IRA killed 16 members of the RUC. He only went to the police after Sinn Féin voted to accept the Police Service of Northern Ireland. But most men who behaved like Liam Adams faced a fate worse than prison: during the Troubles, when the IRA claimed it was running its own justice system, suspected sex abusers were punished, generally by being shot. It seems that the IRA and its leadership may have been more lenient towards Liam Adams than towards less well-connected offenders. In 2015, after reviewing the evidence, the Northern Ireland attorney general decided not to prosecute Gerry Adams for failing to disclose what he knew about the abuse.

There have also been questions about Adams’s role in the murder in 1972 of Jean McConville, whom the IRA suspected of being an informer. Infiltrators and informers posed significant problems for the IRA leadership. The memoir of William Matchett, a former RUC man, stated that at any given time one IRA member in 33 was a Special Branch agent. If one adds agents who were handled by the army and MI5 the total was far higher. Many were never discovered and a few have subsequently written books describing how they got away with it. Handlers too have published books, the most remarkable of which is Stakeknife, written by a former military intelligence operative called Ian Hurst under the pen name Martin Ingram. He claims that the IRA official in charge of identifying and punishing informers was himself a British agent. There have also been claims that Adams’s own driver was in the pay of the British. The IRA grappled with the issue of whether it was acceptable to kill suspected informers and, if so, on the basis of what evidence. The organisation established a formal process whereby the Army Council could approve death sentences for informers who had made a full confession. This was generally obtained through torture and, as the IRA has subsequently acknowledged, it sometimes made mistakes. Then there was the problem that dumping suspected informers’ corpses on the street lowered morale. It was therefore decided that some corpses would be hidden in secret locations. The organisation killed an estimated seventy to eighty suspected informers in the course of the Troubles and the IRA has admitted to disappearing 13 of them.

McConville’s case became headline news in 2014 when detectives arrested Adams for having ordered her murder and disappearance, charges he strongly denied. A widowed mother of ten, McConville was abducted by the IRA from her flat in Belfast, driven across the border to Ireland, murdered and buried at Templetown beach in County Louth. The IRA said she had been an informer. In her official report, published in 2006, the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, wrote that McConville was ‘not recorded as having been an agent at any time’. However, IRA sources continued to insist that she had given information to the British. The case might have lain dormant had it not been for the fact that her body was eventually found in 2003 after someone saw a bit of clothing sticking out of the sand. Rumours then spread that evidence about the murder was contained in a series of interviews conducted for the Boston College Archives in the US. Militants from both the Republican and Loyalist communities gave interviews to the university on the understanding that they would only be published posthumously. After a series of legal wrangles in the American courts, the British authorities forced Boston College to hand over some of the tapes. Exactly what the recordings said is not known but in media statements two of the people who had given interviews accused Adams of having ordered the murder. He denied it, as he always has, and after four days of questioning he was released without charge.

The question even so remains: was his support of violence morally legitimate? Most democratic theorists would agree that there are political circumstances in which the use of violence by those seeking change can be justified – the role of the ANC in South Africa is the prime example. Adams has expressed his admiration for Nelson Mandela and the feeling seems to have been mutual: he was in the guard of honour at Mandela’s funeral. Whether that distinction was granted for his role in peace-making or violent struggle is unclear: it could have been either but was probably for both. While Mandela became best known for his capacity to forgive and reconcile he never abandoned his belief that the ANC had been justified in its use of violence. In his speech at the 1964 Rivonia trial he said that

without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to the principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a situation in which we either had to accept a permanent state of inferiority or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against and the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its polices, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

It could be argued that the Rivonia speech can be applied to the situation of Catholics in Northern Ireland. For those who expressed support for the ANC, the question is whether the conditions for Northern Ireland’s Catholics in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had reached a point in which, other options having been exhausted, the IRA was similarly justified in using force. In fact a comparison between South Africa and Northern Ireland was made around the time of the Rivonia trial by the South African minister of justice and later prime minster John Vorster, who remarked that he would swap all his emergency laws for the clause of the Special Powers Act which allowed the British authorities to arrest and detain without trial, ban meetings, take land and destroy buildings. In Northern Ireland, as in South Africa, the security forces were accused of torturing and murdering some of those who were challenging the state. Apartheid enshrined racial prejudice in law: religious discrimination in Northern Ireland was more covert, but nonetheless real. In the 1960s Catholics faced disadvantage in electoral representation, jobs and housing. In Derry/Londonderry, for example, the Catholics’ demographic majority was never reflected on the city council. In his autobiography Adams complained that 20,000 nationalist voters in the city elected eight city councillors while 10,000 Unionist voters elected 12. He campaigned at the time under the slogan ‘one man, one vote’. Techniques to depress Catholic representation included drawing boundaries so that in some wards the nationalists would have huge majorities, siphoning off enough nationalist votes to allow the Unionists to have narrow wins elsewhere. Housing policy was used to control how many Catholics lived in each ward and other voter suppression techniques were introduced such as removing the vote from non-rate-paying lodgers.

IRA supporters also use the argument of self-defence. Take the events of June 1970 referred to in Republican lore as the Battle of St Matthew’s. With a loyalist East Belfast mob bearing down on the Catholic area of Short Strand, the security forces failed to intervene to keep the two sides apart. The IRA saw itself as the last line of defence, protecting a vulnerable community from murderous attack. A gun battle around St Matthew’s Church went on for several hours and established the IRA as an effective means of Catholic self-defence, while Bloody Sunday demonstrated that when people used peaceful methods to demand their rights they faced brutal state repression. One difficulty with these justifications is that by the late 1970s the IRA’s primary goal was not to end discrimination or even to defend vulnerable Catholics. Its purpose was Irish unity. In this respect the IRA’s campaign of violence always contained a contradiction: had it succeeded, Unionist militants would presumably have been justified in using violence to achieve their desired outcome of union with Britain. The question of whether the IRA’s biggest obstacle was the British state or Northern Ireland’s Protestants was eventually confronted during the peace process when Adams accepted that Irish unity would need Protestant consent. Victims of the conflict could be forgiven for feeling he might have reached that conclusion a little earlier. The final outcome was that Sinn Féin won civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholics but ended up working in British institutions.

Gerry Adams has transformed himself, without the help of a formal education, into a thoughtful and persuasive political leader capable of navigating his way through the competing traditions of Catholicism, Marxism and nationalism. The only time I interviewed him – in the late 1980s – he ended the exchange by giving me a reading list. Today he writes folksy tweets and jokes in the Irish parliament about his pilates classes. All politicians who change their minds risk being called opportunists. But leaders who have a rethink about justifying murder are bound to be subjected to even closer scrutiny and legitimate questions. How come he now sits in the Irish parliament and supports Sinn Féin’s participation in Northern Irish institutions but maintains the policy of abstentionism in relation to Westminster? And more important, does his success in leading the IRA, almost in its entirety, away from violence outweigh his public expression of support for violence despite his realisation that it would not lead to its stated goal of a united Ireland? After all, no one believes that an offer of power-sharing in the early 1970s would have been enough to persuade the IRA to hand in their weapons. Adams may be a substantial figure but he led the Republican movement to a result none of its most ardent supporters was fighting for.

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