Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life review – A hard man to get to grips with
Malachi O’Doherty has written better books, writes Susan McKay
Republican leader: a billboard for Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland. Photograph: David Turnley/Corbis via Getty
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life
Faber & Faber
In David Ireland’s dark comedy Cyprus Avenue a loyalist named Eric Miller receives a terrible shock: “Gerry Adams has disguised himself as a newborn baby and successfully infiltrated my family home,” he declares, faced with his five-week-old granddaughter. Everyone thinks Miller has gone mad, but he is able to prove otherwise by placing a pair of glasses on the baby’s face and painting a beard on her chin with a marker. Yes. It is definitely Gerry Adams. Miller was played on the stage by Stephen Rea, the actor who voiced Adams for broadcasters during the period when the Sinn Féin leader’s actual voice was banned from the airwaves. When Adams was let back he sounded like an actor.
He’s a hall of mirrors, Gerry Adams, and a headwrecker. He attracts obsessive loyalty, obsessive enmity. The rest of us have mixed feelings. Malachi O’Doherty is the latest of his detractors to set forth determined that he will, as his publisher promises, “expose the real man behind the myths”. It is a menacing Adams who looks out from the cover. Oddly, he looks hardly less disturbing on the front of his own recent My Little Book of Tweets, posing in dark glasses with a lewd-looking goat apparently about to nibble his beard.
Malachi O’Doherty sets off at a brisk clip down the dead end of trying to establish whether Gerry Adams was ever in the IRA
Although he does note the jarring folksiness of Adams’s memoirs, O’Doherty wastes little time on the phenomenon of the president of Sinn Féin mucking about on social media with rubber ducks and teddy bears and referring to himself as “Silly Billy”. Instead he sets off at a brisk clip down the dead end of trying to establish whether Adams was ever in the IRA. Painstakingly he sets out all the old evidence. He finds no new proof. It is hardly needed. Perhaps the best commentary on this matter is to be found in a BBC documentary that shows Adams on a walkabout in his heartland of west Belfast. He praises the IRA to a group of boys, one of whom then asks him if he was ever in it himself. No, replies Adams. The boy is puzzled: “Why not?” he asks.
Adams has told lies. He led a movement that committed and covered up sectarian atrocities, including multiple murders. He has failed women who have been sexually abused by republicans. Yet the party’s electoral rise on both sides of the Border has been inexorable. A 2014 poll showed that almost 70 per cent of people believed Adams had been in the IRA; a 2017 poll showed that satisfaction with his leadership is growing. His party has replaced Labour as the third biggest in the Dáil. In Northern Ireland it has eclipsed the SDLP and caused unionism to lose its majority at Stormont for the first time.
O’Doherty grew up during the bloodiest years in an area dominated by republicanism, and he is angry. The wish to appear even-handed deadens his prose
O’Doherty has said he rejected the “j’accuse” approach to writing about Adams in favour of being measured and factual. He tries. There are stilted references to those who might admire him as a “creative peacemaker”, occasional gruff acknowledgments that there were other parties to the conflict. But he deplores Adams. He believes that the Provisional IRA ran a squalid sectarian war and intimidated the Catholic community while claiming it was conducting a heroic struggle on that community’s behalf. O’Doherty grew up during the bloodiest years in an area dominated by republicanism, and he is angry. The wish to appear even-handed deadens his prose: it lacks the narrative surge of those who let rip.
He loves macho talk. He has Richard O’Rawe, an IRA man turned author, contradict Adams’s claim that at a certain stage “wonderful desserts” were given to internees on the prison ship Maidstone. O’Doherty quotes him saying there was “no big fucking change in the quality of the grub”. The former hunger striker Gerard Hodgins claims Rita O’Hare, then Sinn Féin’s general secretary, told him she’d “hit me a good boot in the balls, honest to God”. Sometimes this works, as when O’Rawe talks chillingly about how the IRA could have “gone back on the tools” after a ceasefire, putting out “snipes” and putting together “blowies”.
O’Doherty uses a limited range of sources. Mostly men, many of them established critics of Adams, always eager for an outing. Several mad and now dead
His eyes fixed on Adams, O’Doherty often fails to supply the bigger picture, which gives the book a claustrophobic feel. No reference to the Nobel Peace Prize, given to David Trimble and John Hume, and not to Adams. Nor to Adams’s having carried the coffin of Nelson Mandela. No use of material from the PSNI’s historical-inquiries team or Nuala O’Loan’s police ombudsman’s reports. No quotes from Seamus Mallon, one of Adams’s most eloquent and convincing critics. A lot of random details. We are not told that Joe Cahill, the former IRA chief of staff, described the car bomb as a “useful weapon”, but we do learn that his wife always had a pot of soup on the stove.
I can correct or update one such story. O’Doherty quotes one of Adams’s brothers, who wrote that John Gregg, a UDA “brigadier” who attempted to assassinate Adams in 1984, had a tattoo of a rabbit. While I was interviewing the late “Grugg” in 1999 he pulled off his T-shirt to show me his back. The tattoo, which entirely covered this muscular expanse, was of the Grim Reaper as portrayed on the cover of Iron Maiden’s heavy-metal single The Trooper.
Those asked to provide prepublication praise note the author’s fearlessness, his willingness to say things that cannot be said. Yet O’Doherty quotes extensively from powerful people who have hurled allegations in bids to topple Adams. During the Troubles all it took to be labelled an IRA “fellow traveller” was to mention other perpetrators or argue for the inclusion of republicans in dialogue. John Hume was excoriated by the “Get Adams” brigade for talking with Adams during what can now be seen as the beginning of the end of the violence.
O’Doherty uses a limited range of sources. Mostly men, many of them established critics of Adams, always eager for an outing. Several mad and now dead. Some hate him because they saw the peace process as a sell-out, some because of IRA atrocities. There is a curious overlap. O’Doherty has written better books.
- Susan McKay’s books include Bear in Mind These Dead