Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Machiavellian mind of Adams

Biography: Gerry Adams, An Unauthorised Life, Malachi O'Doherty, Faber, €15.99

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Photo: Tom Burke
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Photo: Tom Burke

JP O'Malley

Gerry Adams first negotiated with the British government, secretly, in 1972. The 23-year-old militant republican was released from Long Kesh prison to attend the talks in Derry. The British delegate, Philip Woodfield, described Adams in a secret memo to the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, as a "prominent leader [of] indiscriminate campaigns of bombing and shooting".

"No assertion from a Prime Minister that [they] would never talk to terrorists need ever concern [Adams] again," writes Belfast author and journalist Malachi O'Doherty, in this unauthorised biography of the Sinn Fein President.

As O'Doherty reminds us here, Adams almost single-handedly dragged Sinn Fein from the political wilderness, into what they are today: a mainstream party of the centre left.

The author also subtly suggests, too, that the party held a Kalashnikov in one hand, and a ballot box in the other: blackmailing its way to political respectability, north and south of the Border.

Adams, of course, has always categorically denied he was ever a member of the IRA. And no court in Britain or Ireland has ever convicted him of this criminal offence.

If - as we're repeatedly told over the course of O'Doherty's engaging biography - the IRA army council controlled Sinn Fein almost entirely throughout the Troubles: what exactly has Adams's role over the last half a century in the republican movement consisted of?

Is the Gerry Adams who tweets about teddy bears at bedtime, also the man that, allegedly, was commander-in-chief of a merciless militant murder machine: who put innocent women and children to early graves in the name of Irish freedom?

This book doesn't claim to give clear-cut definitive answers to these questions. But it does an excellent job of investigating them: with brilliant political insight, measured reasoning, and sound analysis.

Traditionally, the republican movement has operated amid a maelstrom of clandestine activity. But, even by IRA standards, Adams is notoriously Machiavellian.

The general impression we get from this book is that Adams wasn't involved in military operations in the IRA; but that he was - certainly during the 1970s - top of the organisation, "Gerry was up to his balls in it [because] the IRA controlled Sinn Fein. Everything was subject to army authority," Richard O'Rawe - a former IRA prisoner and Sinn Fein press officer - explains in one passage. Several other authors confirm this here. As do reports from the British and Irish intelligence services.

O'Doherty's greatest asset here is adhering to one of journalism's most-sacred principles: maintaining balance and objectivity.

The biographer somehow manages to be critical of Adams, while avoiding the predictable and reductive murdering-IRA-b*****d tone that so many journalists tend to typically adopt when discussing the Sinn Fein leader.

There is a distinct lack of pious moralising in O'Doherty's narrative voice. That said, an attempt is made to hold Adams accountable for the path he has chosen to follow: where violence is deemed a justifiable ends for political expediency.

O'Doherty isn't in awe of Adams. But he does maintain a subtle amount of respect and even sympathy for him. Adams "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", O'Doherty writes in his concluding analysis.

Emotions, naturally enough, always run high on this subject. Accusations thrown against Adams over the last five decades have always gravitated towards severe drama, or life and death scenarios.

These include: that Adams gave the order in 1972, for a mother of 10, Jean McConville, to be abducted from her home in Belfast, shot in the head, and then secretly buried on a Co Louth beach; that he knew for many years about two sexual abuse cases, one in the republican movement, the other within his own family, and that he refused to go to the police about either of them; that he cynically orchestrated the deaths of 10 IRA H-Block hunger strikers, to give Sinn Fein a political platform, and court sympathy from around the globe.

O'Doherty isn't claiming to be unearthing any new fresh material here. Most of this content has been front page news, or prime time television, at one time or another.

The author disagrees with Adams on a number of issues. Fundamentally, though, the book returns to a single argument: that Adams continued to prolong the struggle when he long understood that British withdrawal from the North simply would not happen. Knowing the IRA only had to survive, and the British had to win, Adams used IRA operations - the author convincingly argues - as a propaganda tool to advance his political ambitions for Sinn Fein.

Like him or loathe him, as this book shows, Adams is certainly a political strategist of exceptional talent: dirty politics and white lies notwithstanding.

Compromise and the road to peace would come, eventually. But only, as O'Doherty rightly points out, when Adams could see that bombs and bullets, from the 1980s onwards, would cost Sinn Fein votes in the long term.

Adams became a God-like figure in the republican movement in the mid 1970s, O'Doherty believes. Primarily because he gave it a project and purpose, when most of the organisation was in jail, due to the internment laws the British government had implemented.

If Adams still commands much loyalty in his party today, it's because many Shinners have not forgotten his strong leadership skills when the chips were down, O'Doherty suggests. There are few figures in public life - Irish or globally - with the same stern resilience that Adams possesses.

He's been labelled everything from a murderer, to a hypocrite, to a protector of paedophiles and rapists. But for Adams, the republican cause is a sacrosanct ideal. Where everything gets put before it: even his own family. And yet, in spite of all the drama, name calling, death threats, and libellous slurs, he has survived, almost unscathed. Adams believes he has the will of the people of Ireland behind him. Time will certainly tell. And history, ultimately, will have the last say.

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