A meeting of two men, but not of minds
Stuck in the past, Gerry Adams has no enemies left to fight except the ghosts in his own head, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
Nothing made the murder of Lord Mountbatten seem so distant in time as hearing a recording on radio of veteran RTE newsreader Don Cockburn reporting the former Viceroy of India's death, and that of three others, on that August day in 1979. It was the sound of another era.
Nothing, in turn, made that terrible day feel more real and immediate than watching the victims and bereaved make a pilgrimage to the site in Co Sligo where it happened.
Speaking to Sean O'Rourke on radio last week, Irishwoman Elizabeth Wood-Martin, who was out in Mullaghmore harbour that day in a different boat, recalled how she and her husband, Richard, rescued 14-year-old Timothy Knatchbull after the explosion, hoping as they did so that he wouldn't be too badly injured. She described her thought process as they pulled the boy from the water: "He has a head. He has arms. He has a body. Will he have legs? Yes, he did."
Had their boat been faster, she and her husband, Richard, would have been alongside Mountbatten's vessel when the bomb went off. However terrible a terrorist atrocity, it could always have been worse.
Timothy Knatchbull was there again last week to welcome Prince Charles when he arrived in Mullaghmore. His twin brother, of course, was not. Nor was Paul Maxwell, the Co Fermanagh teenager who died that day because he was spending that summer earning some money as a boat boy. Paul's father, John, was there in his place. Most attention was naturally focussed that day, and since, on Mountbatten; but the other victims should never be forgotten.
For the day that was in it, it's almost obscene that anyone else would attempt to shoehorn their own sense of glorified victimhood into the occasion; but that, unfortunately, is to reckon without Gerry Adams. Last week, the Sinn Fein president surpassed himself in crassness by purporting to believe that his own shaking of Charles's hand was as magnanimous a gesture on his part as shaking Adams's was on the prince's.
"It obviously was a big thing for him to do and it was a big thing for us to do," as he put it, clearly forgetting the old adage about self praise being no praise at all. Sinn Fein ruthlessly peddled the same line, and some elements of the media, to their discredit, dutifully fell into line.
In what possible way are the two acts comparable?
Gerry Adams was a senior member of an organisation which murdered Prince Charles's great uncle. It's very likely that fellow members of the republican leadership knew of, and indeed authorised, that attack in advance. Adams also defended it vigorously after it happened, notwithstanding the deaths of two teenage boys and an elderly woman, 83-year-old Baroness Brabourne, none of whom could be considered legitimate targets under any civilised rules of conflict.
Adams was, what's more, still head of the republican movement when the IRA plotted to murder Charles and Princess Diana at a theatre in London, an operation that was only thwarted because of a double agent in the ranks. All that makes the meeting deeply personal for Charles. He shook Gerry's hand anyway.
That is in no way parallel to Adams's own feelings about Prince Charles. Charles holds a ceremonial title as head of the Parachute Regiment, which was responsible for the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy massacres, but only a halfwit blinded by republican fairy tales would pretend to believe that he holds any responsibility for what the British army did in Northern Ireland, any more than President Higgins would be responsible for acts committed by the Irish Army.
Charles is a figurehead. He was not on the streets of Belfast. He made no operational decisions. He didn't publicly excuse or cheer what the Parachute Regiment did. He didn't condemn it either, but then that's not his role. The royals stay outside of politics.
Yet SF's twisted view of Charles's position was reported with a straight face last week, as if the two men held equivalent roles within the conflict. As if they were two old soldiers from opposite sides meeting up after the battle had ended to share memories, make amends.
Adams's problem is that there is no one left on the British side that he can seriously claim played a similarly intimate role to his own during the darkest days of the Troubles. Lt Col Derek Wilford, CO of 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment in 1972, and known by republicans as the "Butcher of the Bogside", retired from the army a decade later, and the present day COs of the Parachute Regiment battalions are much younger men.
Those at the political helm in Britain during the Troubles are all gone too. The late Ted Heath, who was prime minister at the time of Bloody Sunday, left office 40 years ago. Willie Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, has been dead for 15 years. Margaret Thatcher, who presided over the Hunger Strikes, played no direct role in politics after 1990, and she's gone now too.
Who does Adams have left from the ranks of old enemies to rail against? David Cameron? The current Tory prime minister was five years old when the Ballymurphy Massacre happened. Theresa Villiers, current Secretary of State in the North, was three.
Adams is fighting ghosts these days. All he has left to play his old foes is some token symbol of Britishness. Charles is a stand-in for an enemy that doesn't exist anymore except in Gerry's head. Adams is the one stuck in the past. What he proved again last week is his own inability to come to terms with the evolving relationship between Ireland and Britain. It's simply not in his character to make the sort of expansive acts of reconciliation which Prince Charles undertook last week without begrudgery.
It seemed to me that Adams approached last week's handshake in the spirit of political opportunism, not healing, and the result was a meeting quite different in tone from Martin McGuinness's encounter with the queen.
The Deputy First Minister got the tone largely right on that day. He was open about being an Irish republican, but didn't make a fool of himself by purporting to regard her personally as a player in the Troubles. Former SF Lord Mayor Martin O Muilleoir was similarly magnanimous when he attended an Armistice Day commemoration in Belfast, just as the queen respectfully paid her respects to Ireland's dead at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in 2011.
Adams is incapable of making these gestures without injecting a note of sourness into the proceedings, or tempering them with a secret smirk.
His instinct is to pay lip service to reconciliation, to go through the motions and garner the attendant brownie points, before immediately trying to claw back some of his radical chic by distancing himself from the true meaning of the event in hindsight.
Adams had the perfect opportunity last week to strike the right note when he was asked to revisit his former blood and thunder comments about Mountbatten's death.
Instead, he replied: "I stand over what I said back then."
He could have found the words. New words. Better words. He chose not to.
Some Mandela he turned out to be. That was the thing about the former ANC leader. Privately, those who knew Nelson Mandela spoke of a man who harboured huge bitterness about the past, but he never let it show. He knew what needed to be done. One might even say that he knew his duty, as does Prince Charles. Adams isn't capable of that bigness of spirit.
Last week, refusing to temper his ugly words of 1979, he actually added insult to injury with a comment so staggering in its disconnect from reality that it's hard to believe everyone who heard it did not burst into appalled laughter: "I'm not one of those people who engages in revisionism."
The entire SF project right now is about revisionism. It's about retrospectively justifying the IRA's squalid campaign by false equivalence. Last week's stage management was another example of its desire to control the narrative through a mixture of self pity and bad history.
If Gerry Adams had a theme tune, it would be Frank Sinatra's My Way. Regrets? He's had a few. But then again, too few to mention. Certainly far fewer than he should have.
Not for nothing is that song the chosen anthem of the maudlin and self-obsessed everywhere. It's what little men listen to, alone, late at night over another whiskey.
Prince Charles showed last week that he is, in every way, the bigger man. He may be figurative head of the Parachute Regiment, but at least he hasn't spent the last 40 years pretending that he isn't.