Eoghan Harris: Lenihan had what Adams does not: grace under pressure
Published 12/06/2011 | 05:00
By and large, Brian Lenihan flew beneath the political radar until he became Minister for Justice. In one of the first profiles to mark him out as someone special, I wrote here in June 2007, of "a fit-looking Brian Lenihan, the newly appointed Minister for Justice, striding down the ranks of newly graduated gardai in the training centre at Templemore"
But what really caught my attention was Lenihan calling his predecessor, Michael McDowell, "a very great minister". And pondering his words of praise, I made the following accurate prediction about Lenihan's future status as someone special.
"In the millisecond it took to take these words in, Brian Lenihan went straight to the top of my list of leading Irish politicians. And in this I believe I am not alone. Why? Because the new minister's praise for his predecessor means that he belongs to that rarest and most respected of all breeds in Irish public and media life -- a player who is not a begrudger."
Like many men I need a hero. Brian Lenihan became my personal hero -- and I suspect a hero to many -- by showing no fear in the face of death. As Andre Maurois, the French-Jewish writer whom Lenihan much admired, once observed: "Physical courage is the only virtue which precludes hypocrisy."
Looking at Lenihan, speaking without notes in Seanad Eireann, dying on his feet, a smile on his face, I could only think of Cathal Brugha after 1916, his body so full of bullets the British could not be bothered to court martial him, still doing his duty as he saw it.
Brian Lenihan was a republican aristocrat. Like the great Romans he lived and died for the "public thing", the res publica which is the root of the word "republic". In Irish terms he was the noblest Roman of them all.
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Brian Lenihan paid tribute to Michael McDowell as follows: "When history is written it will be shown how strong he was in protecting the institutions of the State and ensuring that the settlement of the difficulties in Northern Ireland would not in any way compromise what we have built up in the Republic of Ireland."
But last Tuesday, Prime Time's report on the harrowing search for the bodies of IRA victims showed that Northern Ireland did indeed comp-romise what we built up in the Republic of Ireland. Bec-ause most of the IRA vic-tims are buried in our bogs.
Titled Missing Link, the report was remarkable for two reasons. First, because RTE seldom raises past IRA atrocities, presumably because it mistakenly believes it is bad for the peace process. Second, because it was the first time I saw Gerry Adams on the ropes.
As far back as 1987, in a document I circulated in RTE called Television and Terrorism, I expressed scepticism that RTE reporters could -- as they regularly promised -- make bits of Gerry Adams if Section 31 were abolished. "Gerry Adams appears regularly on the BBC and UTV and nobody has yet made bits of him."
Today RTE reporters avoid asking Adams questions for one of two reasons: (a) They are afraid of him; (b) They admire him and think asking him hard questions is a form of bad manners. As a result, Adams was not asked about Jean McConville in any of the RTE interviews I heard during the recent general election.
So when I sat down to watch Prime Time's Missing Link I expected to see the usual bleeding hearts film report followed by the usual evasions in studio by Adams. But Edel McAllister's report, against the background of bleak Meath bogland, challenged southern smugness from the start, by pointing out that most of the victims were buried in the Republic with local help.
So while the film began with black and white photographs of the faces of young men from Northern Ireland, festooned with the long hair, moustaches and Afro hair styles of the 1970s, Oliver McVeigh, brother of Columba McVeigh, challenged the notion that it was a northern thing.
"It's very much a southern thing because all but one of the bodies is buried in the south."
From the black bogs of Meath we moved back to the Prime Time studio where Gerry Adams loomed over the slight figure of Prime Time reporter Donagh Diamond. Adams's confident body language made it clear he had come on Prime Time to pontificate piously, make sympathetic noises, and generally make himself look good. But he soon found himself with a fight on his hands.
Diamond let him waffle on for a while and then hit him hard. "But there's an important point here Gerry Adams, people will say that you're entirely compromised in this matter because one of your own closest associates [Brendan Hughes] says that you personally ordered the killing of Jean McConville."
Adams looked slightly taken aback. But he has rolled over reporters before. So he gave Diamond the steely stare that usually turns RTE presenters into pussycats, and resumed his pious rumblings. But Diamond stayed snapping at his heels on the same two subjects: was Adams the IRA boss in Belfast when Jean McConville was abducted and was her murder a war crime?
Adams's guard was now up, but Diamond bore in. "You were a central figure in the leadership of the Belfast IRA at the time."
Adams: "No I wasn't."
Diamond (disbelievingly): "There is nobody with even a passing knowledge of the Troubles in the North over the last 25 years who does not believe that. So if you deny that, it undermines your denial about Jean McConville."
Having opened the cut, Diamond worked on it. Diamond: "Do you think it was a war crime?"
Adams: "I think it was certainly a huge mistake."
Diamond: (interrupts): "That's a very general..."
Adams: "Are you going to let me speak?"
Diamond: "Of course." And then Adams lost it.
Struggling to control his anger at the effrontery of anyone expecting him to answer a hard question, he fixed Diamond with a glittering eye and made the following strange and strangulated statement: "I think you have as much interest in the plight of these families as, as, as ... you do on any other issue."
Clearly Adams was going to say something else after these three "as's". He fought hard to bring himself under control. But he was too angry to keep the mask in place. And his next sentence -- given through gritted teeth, with its chilling use of the word "friend" -- gave us a rare glimpse of the real Gerry Adams: "Everybody who has any information whatsoever, even secondary information, should bring that forward, bring it forward to me [looks hard at Diamond], bring it forward to you friend and you go and investigate it."
The Prime Time programme was transmitted on the 15th anniversary of the murder in Adare, on June 7, 1996, of Det Garda Jerry McCabe. I hear his widow, Ann, was watching. If so she saw the chief apologist for the IRA which broke her heart, and the hearts of so many others, showing absolutely no grace under pressure.