Questions about Gerry Adams’s motivation remain
Opinion: Why did civil rights movement in North become so violent?
‘It may well be that Gerry Adams came to the view that violent nationalism was a virus that needed to be isolated and killed before it infected coming generations, and that this in part explains his role in guiding the republican movement towards peaceful means while striving to prevent a catastrophic split.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES
Back in the late 1980s, when I was starting out as a Dublin-based journalist, I had the idea of writing a biography of Gerry Adams. My motive for doing so was the difficulty I had with squaring how this pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing man who sounded so reasonable could be a leading light in an organisation responsible for a campaign of ongoing killing and mayhem.
What struck me while working on the book, and still seems to me to be a key observation, is the way the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland, encouraged as it was by other such movements around the world targeting oppression, became so particularly violent.
The reason for this, I decided, lay in the fact that Adams, and others like him steeped in the culture of Irish republicanism, were of the view from the start that the civil rights question in Northern Ireland would quickly become the national question. And he and other republican true believers were convinced that the national question could be resolved only through violence: the Brits would have to be driven out. Because they held this view, republicans saw the eruption of violence in the North (which they encouraged) as an opportunity. If the scale of the violence and killing could be increased and maintained, the British would tire and leave.
Virus of militant nationalism
One of the real terrors in the room was this tradition that gave such a central role to, and so embraced, violence. Militant nationalism could be imagined as a virus that was passed from generation to generation, ready whenever the conditions were favourable to emerge from its slumbers and wreak more havoc.
A bewildering aspect of researching Adams was reading newspaper reports about the truly awful deaths and maiming suffered by the victims of IRA atrocities – for instance the shoppers slaughtered and maimed on Bloody Friday, in 1972, when the IRA set off 26 bombs within 80 minutes in central Belfast – and contrasting this with Adams’s fictional writing.
One short story concerned an IRA volunteer (you have to believe it is Adams) who goes out after curfew in Belfast to help an injured hedgehog. The story is enormously sentimental and it seemed generally that when Adams sat down to write fiction he found himself inescapably drawn to romantic depictions of life in the IRA. Maybe in real life he lay in bed at night in Belfast safe houses while around him in the city people mourned their maimed and their dead, and young British soldiers patrolled the streets, and he thought the whole scenario romantic. This seemed to me then, and still seems to me, to be at least plausible. How else could the stories be explained?
It may well be that Adams came to the view that violent nationalism was a virus that needed to be isolated and killed before it infected coming generations, and that this in part explains his role in guiding the republican movement towards peaceful means while striving to prevent a catastrophic split.
It may also be that he decided, long before the ceasefires, the IRA’s campaign should end because it was a hindrance, rather than a contribution, to its stated purpose.
We don’t know exactly what thought processes he went through, and given the dangers of the world in which he existed, and exists, it may be that we never will.
But Adams’s principal political motivation remains his dream of a united Ireland. Personally I think that his stated allegiance to democratic politics is subservient to this dream, and that even if this view is wrong, to act on a belief to the contrary is to take a great risk.
Adams is a member of the Dáil, Sinn Féin is in power in Northern Ireland, the party is on the rise in the Republic, and it seems it will hold the position of Dublin Lord Mayor in Easter 2016. Indeed it is possible it will be in power, north and south of the Border, come the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the event that did so much to feed the romantic view of political violence which has so blighted this island. It is not difficult to imagine Sinn Féin wanting to use the anniversary to influence popular views on the legitimacy of the Provisional IRA’s campaign, thereby justifying Adams’s career, and providing a boost to the republican tradition.
People who voted Sinn Féin need to pay serious heed to these dangers. At least part of the energy within Sinn Féin comes from its militant nationalist tradition. That tradition is a menace. We should eradicate it.
Gerry Adams, a Biography, by Colm Keena, was published by Mercier Press in 1990.Vincent Browne is on leave