Taking Adams through the wasteland of IRA atrocities
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Long ago, in Cork, out for a walk of a summer's evening with my friend Fineen O'Driscoll, we would sometimes chant aloud the compulsive cadences of TS Eliot's poetry. Last Monday, these lines kept coming to mind as Miriam O'Callaghan took Gerry Adams through the graveyards of the armed struggle.
Like a patient etherised upon a table
Etherised is how most interviewers end up after Adams has administered the anaesthetic of Adamspeak: a rolling, rumbling monotone, compounded of pious platitudes about the peace process, laced with diversions and digressions – like a taxi driver taking you the long way around through back streets.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
Most interviewers succumb to Adamspeak after a short struggle, like peasant villagers caught in the path of a mudslide. But not Miriam O'Callaghan. Last Monday, she gave a masterclass on how to stay alert, cut through Adamspeak, and insist on an answer – even if the answer was only in the body language of Adams.
But he started out supremely relaxed.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
As always, Adams came prepared with a range of appropriate faces. Statesman face, peace-process face, mourning face. But there was no sign of the face he might have worn for almost 30 years when issuing certain kinds of orders. As always, he looked the picture of health and was dressed immaculately.
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
Adams had agreed in principle to talk to the family and friends of three State officials of the Irish Republic – Garda Michael Clerkin, Garda Samuel Donegan and Chief Prison Officer Brian Stack – who were murdered by the IRA.
He assumed a properly sympathetic expression as he waited for some general question that would allow him to answer in Adamsspeak.
And got a nasty surprise.
MOC: "Lets take the case of Brian Stack. You heard his two sons looking for acknowledgement that the IRA shot their father in the back of the neck and an apology."
As soon as Adams heard the phrase "shot in the back of the neck" a guarded look began to lurk in the back of his eyes. That look never quite left for the rest of the interview.
So let me pause briefly to draw the attention of some amateur interviewers in RTE News to the difference between abstract and concrete questions.
Asking former IRA chiefs generalised questions from which all the blood has been wiped – of the sort Martin McGuinness was asked during the presidential campaign – is like giving them a licence to waffle. By contrast, Miriam O'Callaghan's question used a concrete image that conjured up the chilling reality.
An IRA assassin waited for Brian Stack outside a Dublin boxing stadium, came up close behind him and shot him in the back of the neck. And that assassin was most likely someone who regarded Gerry Adams as his leader. Asked the question in that hard fashion, Adams began to look a lot less comfortable.
And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
As always, Adams offered a general and conditional apology, rather than a specific and absolute apology ("If the IRA killed any of these, or even if republicans acting independently, of course I apologise for that killing").
But almost immediately, he was away down the road of Adamspeak, hoping to reach the cover of the peace process ("because I do recognise as a republican leader I have a responsibility for moving this process on this island to a point where they can get closure").
But Miriam had set up the roadblock.
MOC: "These are fine words – (plaintive calls of "Miriam Miriam") but I'm saying to you, can you after all these years apologise? Because you're almost sitting there like you knew nothing about anything that happened within the republican family – and nobody really believes that."
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
As she continued to press him about Brian Stack, Adams eyes narrowed and his voice took on a edge. "I would like you to be fair. I know nothing about these killings."
He then created a fog of initials as he listed all the other republican groups (Official IRA, INLA, Saor Eire) in Portlaoise who might have killed Brian Stack. But O'Callaghan's clear blue eyes emerged coolly through the mist.
Miriam: "Two Sinn Fein colleagues of yours, Martin Ferris and Dessie Ellis, were in Portlaoise when Brian Stack was there . . . and you're still colleagues and friends of theirs. And in his own autobiography, Martin Ferris spoke about Brian Stack being a very vindictive individual – to the Stack family it looked like in some way he was trying to justify his murder. Like there's no way you couldn't have heard of Brian Stack's murder."
By now Adams was no longer relaxed. He focused that fixed gaze on O'Callaghan which frightens some interviewers. He invoked the sacred name of John Hume. He began to talk about prisoners and the peace process. Again, O'Callaghan cut in.
MOC: "What has that to do with what we're talking about, with respect?
GA: (eyes flashing, voice clipped): "Well, if you let me finish my point, then you might know, but if you keep interrupting me, nobody will know. A mark of our interviews over a number of decades has been perpetual interruptions while I'm trying to elaborate on a point."
Again and again, Adams attempted to get away from specific questions about Brian Stack, seeking refuge in abstractions about the peace process. Again and again, O'Callaghan cut him off in a way that showed she is not one of those interviewers who is a prisoner of her clipboard.
Her next question showed how closely she had been listening.
MOC: "But you were talking to me about the cruel regime in Portlaoise, which almost sounds – and I'm not saying you're saying this – which almost sounds like you'd be justifying the murder of Brian Stack."
Adams rejected that angrily. And was about to embark on another round of Adamspeak when O'Callaghan suddenly conjured up the grim ghost of Tom Oliver, a farmer from the Cooley Peninsula, whom the IRA tortured to death.
MOC: "He was taken by the IRA, murdered horrendously. In fact, the local priest said it looked as if concrete blocks had been dropped on every bone of his body."
After that, it was all over. Time we started teaching history the way O'Callaghan conducted that interview. Without evasion or euphemism.
Time we brought on the grim ghosts of the IRA's victims to cure our children of any romanticism about the Recurring IRA.
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"