Possibly the swiftest route to your roots.

Adams: From IRA Pariah To A-List Celebrity, The Sunday Times


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A recent issue of VIP magazine had the usual mix on the cover: a TV presenter, a model, an aristocrat. The main picture, however, was devoted to a smiling man in an open-necked shirt, with a neat beard and a well-groomed sweep of grey hair. The blurb was: “Gerry Adams the charismatic leader reveals the man that few people know.”

The revelations inside were, of course, insipid. Readers learnt that Adams’s teeth were “a credit to a top-class orthodontist”. He could be moved to tears by “good music or a happy memory”, had given up Guinness for red wine, and loved trees. Adams appeared as an avuncular figure, assured but in touch with his inner child.

Trivial as all of this undoubtedly was, it had its own significance. The final absorption of Adams into the world of celebrity journalism marked the astonishing success of his political strategy. Until quite recently Adams was an international pariah. He was not allowed to enter the United States until President Clinton granted him a special visa in January 1994. In Britain it is not so long ago that interviews with him had to be dubbed by an actor speaking his words.

Adams was reviled because he was regarded by the Irish, British, and US governments as a terrorist. Though he operated in public as the leader of a legal political party, Sinn Féin, and had never been convicted of a terrorist crime, no serious observer of the Northern Ireland conflict questioned his private status as a senior figure in the IRA.

That status had been confirmed as early as July 1972, when Adams was just 23 years old. The British government arranged talks with the IRA leadership in London. The IRA insisted that Adams should be released from custody to join its negotiating team. In January 1973 the US embassy in Dublin reported to Washington that the IRA was led by a “troika”, namely Daithi O Conaill, Joe Cahill, and Gerry Adams, “who is still an active Belfast military commander”.

Recently, Dolours Price, who was convicted of involvement in the planting of four IRA car bombs in London in March 1973, described Adams as “my commanding officer” at the time.

As leader of Sinn Féin, he consistently and explicitly supported the use of violence to further the goal of forcing Britain to leave Northern Ireland. In his first address as party president he called the IRA’s campaign a “necessary and morally correct form of resistance”. Directly or indirectly, Adams had blood on his hands.

With the development of the peace process in the mid-1990s, however, the public image of Adams began to change. He was engaged in an epic task: trying to get the IRA, an undefeated and highly effective terrorist organisation, to abandon violence and adopt a fully political strategy. He needed a large measure of tolerance from governments and the press.

The ambiguity of his position was one of the great assets of the peace process. If Adams were not accepted as a democratic politician, he could not be brought into negotiations. If, on the other hand, he did have at least a significant degree of control over the terrorists, he could deliver the desired end product — an end to the IRA’s sordid campaign.

Thus Gerry Adams the godfather of terrorism was replaced by Gerry Adams the celebrity politician. In 1996 he published an autobiography, Before the Dawn, which glossed over his career in the IRA. In promotional interviews he claimed he had never been a member of the organisation or engaged in any act of violence. These incredible assertions were allowed to pass with no more than mild scepticism.

As a result, Adams acquired so much glamour that, at a Sinn Féin fundraising dinner in New York last November, he was introduced with the suggestion that if Ian Fleming were alive and looking for a new James Bond “he wouldn’t need a script and he wouldn’t need to do anything other than read about the life of Gerry Adams”.

There is a surreal absurdity in the transformation of one of the leaders of an anti-British terror campaign into the mythic hero of the British secret service. There is, though, a serious side to the reconstruction of Adams’s image.

The danger has always been that the tacit agreement to ignore the IRA past of the Sinn Féin leader would encourage a larger and more profound act of denial. If Adams did not have to account for his involvement with the IRA, then perhaps the IRA itself could remain unaccountable.

Sinn Féin would share power in the democratic institutions established under the Belfast agreement of 1998 and present itself as a normal political party with no paramilitary connections. The IRA, meanwhile, could continue, not as an active terrorist force, but as another centre of political power — raising money, enforcing social control in its own Catholic strongholds, giving the party extra leverage at the negotiating table.

Both Adams and the IRA have reached a crisis point over the past few months. The IRA’s continuing presence has provoked the collapse of the local political institutions established under the Belfast agreement; and Ed Moloney’s book A Secret History of the IRA has challenged more deeply than ever before Adams’s carefully constructed new image.

Taken together, these events signal the end of a period in which creative ambiguity was a useful instrument of the peace process. Where once a certain vagueness about the IRA was the oil that kept the process in motion, now it has become the glue that has brought it to a stop.

Adams’s decision to rethink what the IRA calls the “armed struggle” had its origins as early as October 1982. The IRA kidnapped and murdered a Protestant man, Tommy Cochrane, a part-time soldier with the Ulster Defence Regiment; but before the murder was confirmed, a Belfast Catholic priest, Father Alec Reid, approached Adams and asked him to intervene with the IRA to secure his release.

From this stemmed a series of meetings, suggesting that Adams was willing to discuss an alternative to violence. By 1986 or 1987 Reid was acting as an intermediary between Adams and the British government.

This tentative breakthrough was kept secret, not just from the public at large but from the IRA’s ruling body, the Army Council. A willingness to engage in contact with the enemy was tantamount to treachery; the price of treason was death. According to Maloney, an IRA unit that carried out the execution and secret burial of alleged informers and traitors had been set up with Adams’s knowledge.

Adams commanded the Belfast Brigade of the IRA between November 1972 and his arrest 10 months later. He was almost certainly involved in the infamous atrocity known as Bloody Friday when, in July 1972, the IRA exploded 20 car bombs in the city centre within an hour, killing nine people and injuring 130.

According to Moloney, Adams, as commander, must have known about the executions carried out by the two special IRA cells that focused on the detection and murder of people suspected of passing information to the authorities. If this is true, it places Adams at the centre of what has been one of the most bitter episodes of the peace process in the late 1990s: the question of “the Disappeared”.

A small number of IRA murders stood out as especially cruel because the families of the victims were not allowed to bury their dead. In March 1999 the IRA, under severe political pressure from the Irish and British governments, acknowledged the “killing and secret burial” of 10 people and apologised for the “injustice of prolonging the suffering of victims’ families”. Details of nine secret graves were released, but extensive searches located just three bodies.

Among those still missing are three people who Moloney believes were killed on IRA orders in 1972: IRA members Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright, and the most poignant victim of all, Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10.

The first two, he claims, were buried in secret because their unmasking as British Army informants was an embarrassment to Adams, under whose command they served. McConville was “disappeared” because the IRA did not wish to claim a murder that left 10 children as orphans. Moloney claims it is inconceivable that such an order would have been issued without Adams’s knowledge.

Adams has described this claim as “offensive and outrageous”. The difficulty with his denial is that it is part of his general policy of denying all involvement with the IRA, and is therefore tainted with the same lack of credibility. Adams has placed himself in a position where almost everything he says about his past is regarded as just another evasive exercise.

Moloney also claims that Adams was the IRA’s chief of staff (overall commander) from December 2, 1977, until February 18, 1978, the dates being those of the arrest of his immediate predecessor and, for a second time, of Adams himself. The dates are important because on February 17, 1978, the day before Adams was arrested, the IRA committed one of its most appalling atrocities. Twelve Protestant civilians were killed by a bomb in the restaurant of the La Mon hotel on the outskirts of Belfast.

There is no suggestion that Adams directly ordered the attack, but his position as chief of staff would be enough under international law to make him personally culpable. The IRA itself admitted at the time that the massacre was inexcusable.

In his autobiography, Adams claims he was “deeply shocked” by the La Mon firebombing and that he was “deeply affected by the deaths and injuries”. He suggests that this distress caused him to neglect his usual routine of moving around to avoid surveillance and to stay the night in his family home, where he was arrested the next morning.

Yet there is no evidence that his shock was sufficient to change his mind about the use of violence. According to Moloney, he took up the position of northern commander of the IRA on his release from prison in September 1978, assuming “day-to-day responsibility for running the IRA’s war in Northern Ireland . . . By coincidence or otherwise, Adams’s release from prison signalled an upsurge in IRA violence”.

Even when his day-to-day involvement with the terror campaign ceased as Adams gradually took control of Sinn Féin, he remained a member of the Army Council, a position Moloney suggests he still holds.

How, then, do we explain Adams’s brave decision to respond to Reid’s approaches in 1982? It makes most sense to see what happened as a pragmatic calculation, a change of mind rather than as a change of heart. By the early 1980s it was clear to any rational political activist that the “armed struggle” could not succeed. The IRA could not be defeated; neither could it force the British to leave.

Then Adams glimpsed a new strategy. In 1981 10 prisoners belonging to the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army starved themselves to death in a protest over their demand to be treated differently from ordinary criminals. The protest generated enormous sympathy by changing the image of the IRA from men of violence to martyred victims.

With this extraordinary propaganda coup went successful ventures into electoral politics. The leader of the hunger strike, Bobby Sands, won a by-election for the British parliament in April 1981. The following month two IRA prisoners won seats in the general election in the Republic of Ireland. The message was clear:
militant Irish nationalists could win electoral support provided they were not seeking a mandate for IRA atrocities. The long-term logic was that the atrocities would have to stop.

Precisely because he was not morally repelled by the IRA’s continuing violence, Adams was willing to remain on the inside and play a long, slow game. The very qualities that made him a dangerous terrorist — ruthlessness, duplicity, an ability to think ahead, a willingness to intimidate his enemies — now fitted him for the task of moving the IRA towards a political strategy.

The biggest threat to the new strategy was the possibility of a spectacular IRA offensive that would revive the fantasy that a military victory over the British might after all be possible. This possibility rested largely on the IRA’s links with Colonel Gadaffi, who supplied it with 150 tons of weapons in the mid-1980s.

The plan, however, was foiled by the capture off the coast of France in October 1987 of the trawler Eksund with the most important Libyan arms shipment in its hold.

Moloney suggests that the operation was betrayed to the British by a high-level pro-Adams informant within the IRA: the capture of the Eksund significantly advanced the internal case for a turn to politics.

The IRA is by no means the only active paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland, but it is the only one with electoral support and a real role in the political institutions. Sinn Féin is now the largest party among the Catholic community and is therefore entitled to a place in the administration.

The basic assumption of the peace deal was that a political, democratic Sinn Féin would replace the IRA and that the latter would effectively dissolve itself. This has not happened. The IRA did put some of its weapons “beyond use” in October 2001, but its presence remains all too obvious. While Sinn Féin talks about human rights, the IRA continues to police Catholic communities, beating those whom it labels as criminals.

Last November, for example, in the Catholic village of Camlough in south Armagh, the IRA attacked the owner of a food stall, beating him with iron bars and spiked cudgels, breaking both his arms and one of his legs, and tearing flesh from his back and head. According to the victim, he had refused to pay protection money. Such attacks are now so common that they barely make the headlines, even in Ireland.

Much more attention, however, has been focused on the IRA’s more exotic escapades. Two IRA members and Sinn Féin’s representative in Havana are on trial in Colombia, with the three men facing charges of helping to train members of the Farc rebel movement.

The publicity surrounding these allegations has been especially damaging to the IRA, not least in the US; and the uncovering of an IRA spying operation at the headquarters of the local government in Belfast caused the collapse of the Northern Ireland executive in October.

The IRA responded by cutting off contact with the international group that is supposed to be overseeing the destruction of its weapons and by blaming the British government for trying “to impose unacceptable and untenable ultimatums on the IRA”.

In reality, the IRA’s apparent determination to remain in business has made it impossible for pro-agreement Unionists, already an embattled minority within the Protestant community, to remain in government with Sinn Féin.

In the longer term, however, the present crisis may well be just what Adams needs to push his colleagues into a final decision that the IRA must be dissolved. Adams is a strategist who uses crises to enforce change. He has not so far pushed the IRA to disarm because he has not needed to do so.

The process has now reached a point where it cannot continue unless the IRA accepts its own redundancy. Having spent almost 20 years working with all his ruthlessness toward that point, it is unthinkable that Gerry Adams will pull back from the brink now.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The New York Review of Books.  
Original source
The Sunday Times