It’s time for Gerry Adams to bow out, and take his fictional counterpart with him
Opinion: Sinn Féin is now a significant, and in many ways constructive, part of the democratic process
Gerry Adams has had ample opportunity to end this corrosive fiction. There is now little hope that he will ever do so. He should withdraw gracefully and take Joe McGuigan with him. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
One of the main political leaders in Ireland is Joe McGuigan. In March 1972, when Gerry Adams was arrested and interrogated at Palace barracks in Belfast, he insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity. As he recounted in his autobiography, Before the Dawn, “I had seized upon the device of refusing to admit I was Gerry Adams as a means of combating my interrogation. By continuing to assert that I was Joe McGuigan, I reasoned that I would thwart the interrogation by bogging it down on this issue”.
More than 40 years later, Sinn Féin is still led by a man who refuses to admit he is Gerry Adams. Joe McGuigan is a remarkable man. He may, indeed, be unique. In the maelstrom of west Belfast in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Joe stood out as a young man of infinite patience and pacific resolve. While pretty much every other young man was drawn into some act of affray, Joe, as they might put it Belfast, never done nothing.
As he told Gay Byrne on the old Late Late Show, he not alone did not join the IRA, he never took part in a riot or threw a stone at the police or the army.
This pacifism was all the more remarkable because he came from a family that had, on both sides, long links with the IRA, links that it retained even when the organisation seemed moribund before the Troubles.
From that background, one might have expected Joe McGuigan to be a bit more like the man who looked and spoke exactly like him, Gerry Adams. Gerry did not have Joe’s Gandhian principles. Gerry not only joined the IRA but quickly became, in effect, its commander in Belfast.
This was not a secret. Gerry appeared in his beret as part of the guard of honour at IRA funerals. He wrote articles about IRA strategy when he was interned in Long Kesh. He was such an important figure that when, in July 1972, the IRA met the British government’s Northern Ireland secretary Willie Whitelaw for secret talks, it did so only on the precondition that Gerry Adams be released from Long Kesh to take part. He continued to defend the “legitimacy” of the IRA’s violence over the next three decades.
Gerry Adams, unlike the strangely passive Joe McGuigan, is a complex, genuinely enigmatic figure. No one really doubts that he did hideous things: he was a leading figure in an organisation whose sole purpose was to kill people.
Equally, almost no one doubts that he showed remarkable political skill and personal courage both in recognising the futility of these murders and in getting the IRA to stop. And when he was in the process of executing that highly delicate manoeuvre, many people were prepared to accept Joe McGuigan as a necessary fiction, a way to “thwart the interrogation” of a past that needed to remain, at that time, unspoken.