Will the real Gerry Adams please stand up?
Few individuals in the public eye polarise opinion more than Gerry Adams. In an exclusive extract from his new unauthorised biography of this seemingly indestructible politician, Malachi O'Doherty assesses the man and the myths
Gerry Adams is one of the most successful politicians in the democratic world.
When he took over the presidency of Sinn Féin, Neil Kinnock had just been elected leader of the British Labour Party. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. The Soviet Union appeared impregnable and inflexible under Yuri Andropov. The Ayatollah Khomeini was ruling Iran. Margaret Thatcher was enjoying a boost to her popularity following the war to retrieve the Falkland Islands from Argentine forces.
He has looked David Cameron and Tony Blair in the eye with the knowledge that he knew their predecessors better than they did.
The first British government that he entered negotiations with was led by Edward Heath in 1972. He communicated with the officials of Thatcher in 1981 to try to woo her into talks.
He negotiated also with John Major, Blair, Gordon Brown and Cameron.
Heads of government in three jurisdictions think that Adams is in no position to call them out on failings of integrity or judgment. Sometimes they and the media speak of him as politically naïve and inept, but he goes home after such meetings to open a bottle of red wine and sit contented that he has wrestled with bigger and better politicians than those of this generation and outlasted them all.
He lives with the fact that the police in Northern Ireland still aspire to charging him, having come close to it, and the danger that the stories told about him in the Boston College Archives will spill out in a future trial or inquest. Adams denies that he was ever a member of the Provisional IRA, the movement that sought to break the constitutional link between Britain and Northern Ireland through what he called 'armed struggle', that is, by bombing the commercial infrastructure of several British cities and by killing soldiers and police officers, by running vigilantes on housing estates and kneecapping young hoodlums.
His denial is accepted by those closest to him, formally at least.
It is rejected by the intelligence services of Britain and Ireland, which have briefed that he was the top man. The strongest indication of his decisive influence over the IRA is that he led the republican movement into making peace with Britain and surrendering its armed campaign in return for prisoner releases, thereby creating political opportunities for Sinn Féin.
It is routinely said in the media and in political speeches that Adams was a leader of the IRA. He denies this and frequently impugns the sources of this claim. He is named as an IRA leader in several books, both by journalists and by academics, including J Bowyer Bell, MS Smith, Peter Taylor and Ed Moloney, and he has never challenged any of these and other writers to bring evidence to court and defend an action for defamation.
Yet the sources are chiefly the security services and some of those republicans who have fallen out with him, like Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes and others, people who committed themselves to the IRA campaign and felt that they were betrayed when the centre of gravity in the republican movement shifted to the political wing, Sinn Féin.
It is worth, then, attempting to address through other sources the question of whether Adams was an IRA leader, setting aside those disaffected republicans and the security services, however much their statements are accepted and endorsed by other writers. Adams can always expect derision and accusations from such sources.
On the side of the argument that Adams was an IRA member are several statements in the public domain. There is the story about Liam McParland, regarded as one of the first members of the Provisional IRA, who died before the split. He was killed in a car crash on the M1 into Belfast in 1969.
The IRA's own record of its dead includes him and says he was "on active service".
Adams, by his own account in his books and blogs, was in the car with him. The fact that he was accompanying an IRA man on active service suggests that he was himself party to whatever operation he was engaged in, unless he had been deceived by McParland, but he has written several times about the accident and his admiration for the man, yet without explaining how he came to be accompanying an IRA man on active service.
In 1970, when feuding occurred between the separate wings of the IRA, Adams helped negotiate a truce with the Official IRA.
He also led negotiations with the Officials on several later occasions, eventually succeeding in bringing all hostilities between the groups to an end in 1977.
Further evidence is that he was released from internment to meet British diplomats to negotiate the terms of the 1972 IRA ceasefire. One of those diplomats, in his report to the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, described Adams and his colleague Dáithí Ó Conaill as "prominent leaders" of the IRA campaign.
While it may be plausible that British sources would seek to taint Adams because they disagreed with his politics and his moral endorsement of the IRA, it seems unlikely that they would do so in secret correspondence.
Adams was a member of the IRA delegation that met Whitelaw. If he was not an actual member of the IRA at that time, then he was the only member of that delegation, aside from the lawyer, who was not a member.
While he was in prison, sentenced for attempting to escape from internment, Adams was appointed Officer Commanding Cage 11 in Long Kesh. There he had authority over several men who are acknowledged members of the IRA, including Bobby Sands and Danny Lennon. He could give them orders, discipline them. However, Lord Chief Justice Lowry later ruled that his having been seen there receiving a salute was not sufficient evidence to warrant him even being tried on a charge of IRA membership.
RUC Special Branch clearly thought he was a member of the IRA. That is clear from internal communications cited in the De Silva Report and in the diaries of Ian Phoenix.
During the hunger strikes of 1980-81, Adams was the contact person for the strikers and their leaders. All of them were members of the IRA or the INLA and all of those in the IRA deferred to him, which seems unlikely if he had not held office in the IRA himself. In his book Great Hatred, Little Room, Tony Blair's envoy Jonathan Powell described how he told Adams and Martin McGuinness that he frankly did not believe their claims not to be members of the IRA. Since then, McGuinness has died. His headstone honours him now as an oglach - a soldier - Volunteer McGuinness.
Then there is Adams's own reference to himself as one of the 'generals' who alone can make peace, in a television documentary based on his trip to Jerusalem.
The case in support of his denial that he was in the IRA includes that denial itself. There is also the plausibility of the claim that British and Irish security sources who named him as a member of the IRA army council might have had secret motives for doing so.
And there is also the strange remark of President Bill Clinton in exchanges with Tony Blair that part of the problem was not knowing "what the real deal is between [Adams] and the IRA," suggesting that he did not know whether Adams was or was not in the IRA.
George W Bush also wondered about the Sinn Féin leader and asked Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on St Patrick's Day 2001: "How about this guy Adams, my guy says he's a murdering thief."
More than three-and-a-half thousand people died in 30 years of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. More of them were killed by the IRA than by any other organisation, an army that sought to make governing the region untenable for Britain. That army grew out of the Catholic population that saw itself as more Irish than British.
Defenders of the IRA argue that the war in Northern Ireland was a dirty war in which no one has clean hands, that there is no moral high ground from which anyone with integrity, and above all suspicion, can point the finger at Adams. Some see him as a demon and some see him as divine. He makes a point of reminding his followers, though they don't get it, that he is not personally important.
Father Alec Reid, his emissary to the Irish government at the start of the peace process, said: "I would see Gerry Adams as a man sent by God. In other words, he was part of God's providence for peace in Ireland."
Several people have remarked that Adams is like two different people. One is the family man. This one is excited by the connections with his cousins in Canada. He has visited and partied into the night with them and invited them back to his Donegal home near Gortahork.
Another is the withdrawn thinker who climbs Mount Errigal with his dog, who wants to be alone. One annual family duty now is to attend the Spring Bank Holiday hurling match established to honour Liam and Michael McCorry, the teenage nephews who died in a car crash in 1999.
This brings together the Provo and Sticky wings of the family.
That war at least is over and survives now only as a friendly sporting fixture.
He keeps fit and contends in the Poc Fada every year, a challenge to belt a sliotar further than anyone else, and often he wins it. Cousin Frank now comes over from Canada occasionally to take part.
Contrast with Collins
Adams seems both gregarious and withdrawn. The novelist Edna O'Brien contrasted him with Michael Collins, the IRA leader of the war of independence who similarly settled terms on a compromise and on the prospect of his goals being achieved later by peaceful means.
"Whereas Collins was outgoing and swashbuckling, Gerry Adams is thoughtful and reserved, a lithe, handsome man with a native formality that seems to confirm his remark that he has to be two people, a public and a private one. Given a different incarnation in a different century, one could imagine him as one of those monks transcribing the gospels into Gaelic."
The withdrawn Adams is contemplating his political ambitions that are not yet fulfilled. There is one post that suits a man who sees himself as the embodiment of Irish destiny, who enjoys homage and the company of heads of states, and that is the Irish presidency, which becomes available again in 2018 when he will be 70.
There are huge political hurdles to get over before that.
Having shifted his political focus to building the party in the Republic, he risks splitting it in two when he leaves. Without him the party is partitioned into a northern movement centred on Stormont and a southern one centred on the Dáil and the grasp for the presidency. Were he to stand down, Sinn Féin would ironically divide along the border that it fought to remove.
He has settled some of the anxiety about his IRA past, simply by conceding nothing to the claims made about him. The most appalling charge against him, that he ordered the disappearing of bodies, is at least partly undone by his help in having most of the bodies recovered.
Ironically, his arrest in May 2014, on suspicion of being or having been a member of the IRA, may have eased the pressure on him to explain his past to the media, for it made clear that self- incrimination could land him in jail. The arrest established that he has no immunity. Much less of the blame for the IRA's crimes goes to Martin McGuinness, though McGuinness was, if anything, more of a militarist than Adams through the 1980s and 1990s. McGuinness only admitted to having been a member of the IRA for a short time in the early 1970s. He told the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday that he had been second in command in Derry when British paratroopers opened fire on Civil Rights protesters, killing 14 of them. Saville said McGuinness may have been armed with a Thompson submachine gun that day, though coining the observation so uncertainly that McGuinness could easily rebut it.
Both men and others who led the IRA use the same rhetorical devices to bat back any claims that they are answerable for death and destruction. They say that there was a war on, there was wrong done on all sides; they draw attention to the fact that they brought peace; and they deny any specific knowledge or direct connection to any event, whether the disappearing of Jean McConville, the bombing of Belfast on Bloody Friday or, though this is less often put to them, the lax security that allowed the movement to be infiltrated by informers.
Adams leads republicans in denial of the charge that the IRA was a prime initiator of the Troubles. Good people were caught up in tumultuous events and were left with no choice but to respond as they did.
The army of social media defenders of Adams, which emerged to discredit and tackle Máiría Cahill, acted as if trained, with the same devices and arguments, imputing political motivation to others even when they were the only ones actually serving the interests of a political party.
The litany of predictable media questions have their stock responses.
Did Sinn Féin cover up child abuse?
- What about state-sponsored child abuse? Why do you direct more criticism at Sinn Féin than at the state? You must be biased.
Have you no compassion for a raped woman?
- Yes, but you are using her for political ends, and she is not above being political herself. Addressing party members in Belfast, Adams spoke more as if he was feeding them the approved line of argument rather than addressing possible doubts they might have had about his treatment of Máiría Cahill.
"While I am very mindful of the trauma she has suffered, I and the others she has named reject these allegations," he said. "These allegations have been seized upon in the most cynical, calculated and opportunistic way by our political opponents. Their aim has little to do with helping victims of abuse, but everything to do with furthering their own narrow political agendas."
And the party held its nerve, even as Cahill's rape and the IRA investigation were debated in the Dáil and at Stormont. Adams had had the option of accepting her claim that the IRA had interrogated her and of disavowing responsibility for that.
After all, he was denying still that he had ever been a member of the IRA. But, responding as he did, he instead implicated the wider party in the protection of the IRA.
Adams cannot move around Ireland without meeting people who despise him. He is good at coping with them. Mick Donnelly confronted him at a funeral in Belfast and Adams said he couldn't quite remember who he was.
Gerry Brannigan and Tommy Gorman have met him on Black Mountain on morning walks and he has always had a smile and a kind word for them.
Richard O'Rawe met him coming out of the courthouse with a group of supporters and immediately feared that he was about to be berated for having accused him of betraying the hopes of the hunger strikers. "Risteárd, a chara," said Adams, extending a hand.
Anthony McIntyre met him outside the Dáil when he was in conversation with a TD. "Hello, Mackers." And he was gone before McIntyre composed himself to snarl.
He has blanked Máiría Cahill, she says. Gerard Hodgins says that he thinks he is now impervious to the Adams charm, that he has seen through him and would not be manipulated again. Others pour out their contempt on social media and Adams ignores them. Many, when they try to engage him on his Twitter feed, are blocked.
Adams occasionally retorts against a critic. When Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole reviewed the several obvious occasions on which Adams had been deceitful or contradicted himself, the Big Lad's reply was brief and sharp.
A chara, - I see from his column that Fintan O'Toole is now an expert on me. This on top of his other accomplishments.
- Is mise,
GERRY ADAMS, TD
This is not an answer but a jibe, not just against O'Toole's effort to nail Adams. He is saying, if you sneer at me I will sneer at you, and warning that he might be better at the game.
And he is saying, it took you a thousand words to smother me with blame but I have knifed you with two sentences. I don't have to explain myself to the likes of you. What other politician would get away with such cheek? In Ireland it makes him look clever, and he knows it.
Adams can take a verbal hammering from anyone and come back assertively. There are few people in public life anywhere who have braved so much abuse and criticism and survived as long. He conducts his life in parliament and out and about the towns and villages of Ireland in the knowledge that people have strong feelings about him and with the air of someone who can indulge their failure to appreciate him. Some regard him as a wheedling hypocrite, even a murderer, and others see him as a heroic self-sacrificing peacemaker and a champion of the poor.
Few in Ireland can be indifferent to him. His sense of self-esteem does not rely on political rivals. It relies on his achievements and his fame, and perhaps on more, an indefinable, inexplicable robustness of the ego. You can call Adams a murderer to his face and he will not be surprised and he will not crumble, not if the charge is coming from the toughest broadcast journalist or from the Taoiseach himself.
Sometimes he will seem to wilt a little, or stammer, as he did as a child. Sometimes he will snap in anger, but it is the anger of impatience with those who are distracting him with trivia, that's all. You will never see a flicker of self-doubt cross that face. How are we to explain the confident imperviousness of Gerry Adams?
Part of it relies on the fact that the worst things have already been said about him and he has survived. We can say that he was a leader of a murderous organisation, that he was party to the decisions to kill hundreds of people. But we knew that. There would have been no peace process if the two governments and the American President had not taken that all for granted and still trusted that this man, the Big Lad, was the one who could deliver a deal.
He broke all the political rules and most effectively the rule that says terrorists have nothing to offer and have no place in our political systems. From his own perspective, he is a good man who had no choice but to support the IRA. But he brought the armed campaign to an end and it wasn't easy and he believes he deserves some credit for that.
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life by Malachi O'Doherty is out on Thursday