‘They wouldn’t let you say a bad word about Gerry Adams’

Ballymurphy, in west Belfast, is where the outgoing Sinn Féin leader grew up

Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy looks at the life and career of Gerry Adams and his journey from Ballymurphy to Dáil Éireann.

 

“See this area? It’s staunch. They wouldn’t let you say a bad word about Gerry Adams. He’s one of our own, a top-notcher. There’s ones from his family still living here. He made his mistakes, but he’s laid out a path for the young ones to follow. It’s up to them now.” In the week that Adams formally retires as Sinn Féin’s president, that’s the view of former IRA man Rockie, real name Brian Morgan, and it seems to be almost universally held in Ballymurphy, in west Belfast, where Adams grew up. “He should have retired a long time ago,” says Rockie. “We’re carrying a lot of dead weight. The young generation has brains to burn. Used to be the university was 85 per cent Protestant. You got put out of the door once they knew you were a Catholic. Now it’s the opposite.”

Rockie joined the IRA as a teenager in the 1970s and was on the prison ship Maidstone and in Long Kesh with Adams. “I was one of the ground hogs, street boys – Adams was a senior Shinner, a studious sort of fellow with a beard and a pipe.” Now in the ex-prisoners’ organisation, Coiste, Rockie leads guided tours of “the Murph” high on the slopes of the Black Mountain, Sliabh Dubh. He is accompanied by his dog, a miniature schnauzer called Saoirse. “Do you know what that means?” asks Rockie, as Saoirse noses about in the garden of remembrance to the dead generations.

The murals on the gable walls have been preserved 'for history', Rockie says. They commemorate the noble IRA and the slaughter of local people by the Brits

The murals on the gable walls have been preserved “for history”, Rockie says. They commemorate the noble IRA and the slaughter of local people by the Brits, going right back to the “genocide” that was the Irish Famine. Rockie points out the spots on which some of the 11 victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971 died when paratroopers went on a murderous rampage. He speaks of Danny Teggart, one of the dead, emphasising that he, like the others, was an innocent civilian. (He does not mention the fact that two years later, the IRA would murder Teggart’s 15-year-old son, Bernard, who was said to have a mental age of eight, leaving his body on the roadside with a cardboard sign round his neck labelled “Tout”.)

‘Animal instinct’

Rockie points out on the horizon the Springfield stretch of the Peaceline. “It’s 60-foot high even to this day,” he says. “It’s to protect us from the Protestants. Around the 12th of July their blood starts to boil and the animal instinct comes out.” Coiste co-operates with loyalist ex-prisoner groups, but there is no agreed historical narrative. “We tell our version and then bring them to the Peaceline and hand them over to the other side to say what we done to them ones,” says Rockie.

Snow billows down from the mountains and the wind is sharp with ice. We retreat to a large, dark bar. The owner greets us. “His brother was a gun runner,” says Rockie. “That’s not loose talk – he was done for it. It’s like a wee mafiosa round here.” Behind the bar a sign offers “Ballymurphy ex-prisoners’ coats for sale £25”. The horseracing is on TV, but the handful of solitary older men sitting around are not watching. One of them approaches unsteadily and greets Rockie. He is incoherent. “This is what you get,” says Rockie. “A lot of old volunteers living in the past, drinking themselves to death.” However, he is upbeat. “Our generation’s day is gone. The people are in a good place. This is the first time from 1916 the Irish people is uniting.”

Ballymurphy was built in the 1970s to rehouse people from the cramped slums of Belfast’s inner city. The late human rights campaigner and trade union leader Inez McCormack recalled being sent there as a young social worker, instructed by her bosses that there would be human excrement on the stairs of her office, that the people were like animals. Instead, exposure to what she saw as massive discrimination, enforced poverty and oppressive military occupation, politicised her. Today, a new generation is working to transform Ballymurphy. Some reject an emphasis on the past: “The story of martyrdom and the armed struggle is holding us back,” said one of them.

False dichotomy

Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit first stood unsuccessfully for election to Westminster when Adams stood down in 2011. He was elected as a councillor in 2014 and topped the poll in the assembly elections in 2016. “Adams is revered locally but there is also a section of the community that is angry because Sinn Féin set up a false dichotomy which said you had to choose either armed struggle or joining the establishment,” he says. “Sinn Féin has compromised. They’ve moved to the right, accepting privatisation and austerity.” He says his office is “inundated” by people who don’t know how they will cope with the forthcoming welfare reforms which will see substantial cuts to family incomes. “It will be like throwing a breeze-block on to thin ice,” he says.

The Irish language movement is 'a core of radicalism' which is putting pressure on Sinn Féin

His own party’s breakthrough shows, he says, that change is possible “even in the heartlands”. He sees in the Irish language movement “a core of radicalism” which is putting pressure on Sinn Féin.

Niall Enright is a youth work co-ordinator, based in a fine modern building at the top of the estate. His family is well-known – his parents were community leaders and trade unionists. His brother, Terry, was killed by loyalists in 1998. He says there is a “deep seated loyalty” to Adams in the area. “When the British and Irish establishments are against him it riles the base up here and the people rally behind him,” he says. “It’s to do with what this community came through.”

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams: “He should have retired a long time ago,” says Rockie. “We’re carrying a lot of dead weight.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams: “He should have retired a long time ago,” says Rockie. “We’re carrying a lot of dead weight.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

He is keen to focus on the present. “This project got set up as the first community and statutory partnership under the Urban Initiative of 1997,” he says. “We got £7 million and the Shankill Partnership got the same. “We invested ours in tackling the hood phenomenon, the anti-social behaviour that was rife. Now the area is well-served with a good social infrastructure. I’m raising my own family in the street I was raised on. My kids have exponentially better lives than mine. My parents were unemployed – I graduated and my partner and I both have professional jobs. My kids want for nothing.” However, Ballymurphy has by no means become middle class: “The paradox is socio-economic deprivation side-by-side with transformative community action.

Drug dealers shot

“There is a massive housing waiting list – you can be four to seven years waiting. There is a huge problem of prescription drug addiction, and a growing problem with illegal drugs, including cocaine and heroin. There were three alleged drug dealers shot here last week – we live in a quite right-wing community – people think it’s fine if a drug dealer gets shot.” (It is widely believed that the so-called dissident republicans who carry out these “punishment” attacks are actually punishing dealers for failing to pay them a cut of the profits.)

This was always a tight-knit area with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants culture of getting by. That has yielded to a sort of post-conflict meaninglessness

“We need a food bank,” says Enright. “When Stormont was up and running, the politicians didn’t want that because it looked bad. This was always a tight-knit area with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants culture of getting by. That has yielded to a sort of post-conflict meaninglessness.”

Enright’s brother, Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh is a leading Irish language activist. We meet at Feirste, where, on a dark and rainswept pitch, he is instructing a young male GAA team, in Irish. On the next pitch, the young women are being put through their paces. All leave the grounds chatting in Irish. The school is the largest post-primary Gaelscoil in Ireland.

Mac Ionnrachtaigh, a student there when there were only 15 pupils, is intensely proud of the achievements of the language movement. “There is a lot of mythology that it is a Sinn Féin front,” he says. “It is much more diverse and powerful than that. Sinn Féin is under pressure from the community to make this a red-line issue, not the other way around. The first time we took Stormont ministers to court, they were from Sinn Féin. We fought them on issues like getting school buses, and we won. It has had a huge politicising effect. We are republicans in the French revolutionary sense – we talk about civic virtue, putting the common good over self-interest, participatory democracy. Ballymurphy was steeped in this long before Sinn Féin was politically organised.”

Caitlín Ní Chathail is a young trade union organiser, youth worker and language activist. She dislikes the fact she is unable to use Irish in dealings with officialdom. “My grandparents moved here when unemployment was massive. Granda was involved in co-ops, and Granny and other women fed the street and made wedding dresses. During internment, women really came to the fore. The young people today are really engaged. We have some brilliant young girls campaigning.” She loves Ballymurphy: “I just don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to live here.”