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Vincent Browne: The scale of hatred for Gerry Adams is unfair

As the Sinn Féin leader prepares to step down, it is important to recall his many achievements

Three thousand, three hundred and thirty six people were killed during the course of the Northern Ireland conflict from 1966 to 1999. Close to half of these were killed by the Provisional IRA. Thousands more were mutilated for life.

As perhaps the most powerful person in the IRA during most of this conflict – certainly from 1978 to 1994 – Gerry Adams must assume a significant part of the responsibility for this carnage.

It is hardly surprising then that Adams, who officially steps down as Sinn Féin leader next week, is so loathed and distrusted by the unionist population in Northern Ireland, by a large number of people in the South, and by many others elsewhere.

But the scale of such loathing is unfair, for it fails to take into account the crucial, indeed central, part Gerry Adams played in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

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There's reason to think he did not have a happy childhood in Divismore Park, in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast – contrary to the charmed upbringing described in his book, Before the Dawn. Gerry Adams's father was a paedophile who abused at least one of Gerry's siblings and who seems to have been violent and an alcoholic.

The young Gerry Adams was moved out of the family home to live with his paternal grandparents in the Lower Falls Road, perhaps prompted by the arrival of more brothers and sisters in the Divismore Park house, or perhaps to remove him from harm.

Gerry Adams had a stutter in his early years and fared poorly academically – he failed the 11 Plus exam at the first time of trying. For somebody who has been so obviously very clever in his adulthood, there’s something strange here. He quit secondary school prematurely to become the family’s main breadwinner, a role he abandoned within four years when he became a full-time republican “activist”.

Having dithered about which side to join when the IRA split at the end of 1969, he joined the Provisionals.

Significant figure

Though Adams has always denied he was in the IRA, it is believed he quickly became a significant figure in the Provisionals, at first officer commanding (O/C) in Ballymurphy, his home area, and later, O/C of the Belfast brigade. From then until his internment in 1972 (interrupted for few months to enable him partake in negotiations with the British government as part of an IRA delegation) he acquired a reputation as a ruthlessly effective IRA commander.

He was involved in the decisions to execute suspected informers, including the wrongly accused Jean McConville, although, I understand, it was not he who ordered that their bodies be “disappeared”. He has consistently denied any role in the killing of Jean McConville.

During his time as Brigade O/C, an ingenious British secret service operation – Four Square Laundry – was discovered and destroyed. It was also in this period that the bombing of London started – at his direction, though he has also denied this.

Following further spells in prison, he was co-opted to the IRA army council, a position he held almost until the end of the conflict.

He became chief of staff in 1977. He held the position for only 78 days. He was arrested again, this time following one of the most horrific atrocities of the Northern Ireland conflict: the bombing of the La Mon House hotel in Castlereagh, Belfast, on February 17th, 1978.

Though he has many disreputable legacies, Gerry Adams deserves credit for a number of achievements

The IRA attached a device described a blast incendiary to the grill of a window at the hotel’s restaurant. The blast produced a massive fireball, killing 12 people. Their bodies were so badly burnt that when they were discovered it was thought at first they were the bodies of children. All were Protestants. Another 30 people were injured.

In the wake of the atrocity Gerry Adams was arrested. He was not prosecuted in connection with the La Mon conflagration – he has also denied any role in that attack – but was charged with membership of the IRA.

When it was ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support a charge of IRA membership, Adams returned to the IRA fold, this time as chief strategist.

The IRA hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 were fiercely opposed by Adams, who believed they could not succeed in ameliorating prisoners' conditions. He also believed that the failure of the hunger strikes would damage the morale and capacity of the IRA. He was wrong on the latter point. The second hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands, won massive popular support for – and recruits to – the IRA.

Bobby Sands’s byelection victory in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in April 1981 upended one of the foundational principles of the Provisional IRA, which until then had opposed participation in electoral politics, and propelled the movement into the political arena.

Adams himself was elected to Westminster in 1983. He lost his seat to the SDLP in 1992 and recovered it in 1997, but it was obvious the party could not build a significant political base while IRA violence persisted. This was one of the considerations that persuaded Adams to seek a way out of the armed conflict. He was encouraged from an early stage by the Redemptorist priest Alec Reid.

In May 1987, based on his conversations with Adams, Reid wrote to then taoiseach Charles Haughey, outlining a path towards peace in Northern Ireland. Haughey got Dermot Ahern and Martin Mansergh to engage in exploratory talks and about the same time John Hume became involved at the instigation of Reid. It was the start of the peace process.

These contacts were made, it seems, unbeknownst to other members of the IRA army council, perhaps with the exception of Martin McGuinness. Had it become generally known within the republican movement what Adams was about, he certainly would not have survived as a member of the army council – and he might not have survived at all.

At some stage around then Martin McGuinness established contact with Michael Oatley of the British secret service – this was done via the Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy, and an associate, Denis Bradley.

Meanwhile the list of IRA atrocities lengthened. The worst of these was the Enniskillen bombingon November 8th, 1987 when 11 people were killed and 63 people injured. A 12th victim, Ronnie Hill, died after 13 years in a coma.

On August 31st, 1994, the IRA announced a ceasefire. There is suspicion that Adams got the IRA army council to agree to this by leading members to believe it would be short.

It was always unlikely to have lasted, but the British refusal to allow the republican movement into talks made it almost impossible. On Friday, February 9th 1996, the IRA announced an end to the ceasefire. An hour later a bomb was detonated in London docks, killing two people and injuring 40 others.

Between then and July 19th, 1997, Adams’s position within the IRA was precarious. That he managed to prevail over an IRA convention that was seemingly hostile to him and achieved agreement to another ceasefire would probably have overawed Machiavelli. But he did.

Violence continued for some years on a more minor scale, although still involving a number of murders, punishment beatings, robberies (notably the Northern Bank robbery) and other criminality.

There were other embarrassments for him – not least the revelation that his brother, Liam, had sexually abused his own daughter in her childhood. Adams knew about this long before the police did. He also knew his paedophile brother had had access to children in Dundalk and in the Clonard area of Belfast and had done nothing about it. He has acknowledged his culpability on this.

His repeated denial of IRA membership has also done him damage but, I assume he has felt he had to persist with this. Otherwise, he would almost certainly be convicted for membership and would probably be inundated with civil actions by those harmed in the conflict by the IRA.

Southern politics

His entry into Southern politics has caused Sinn Féin to improve radically its electoral performance in the South – or at least his entry coincided with that. In the 2007 general election Sinn Féin won 6.9 per cent of the vote. This increased to 9.9 per cent in 2011, and to 13.8 per cent in 2016.

But to some this success has been accompanied by dismay, as Adams has abandoned a radical socialist manifesto he had a large part in drafting for Sinn Féin in 1979. It proclaimed: “The means of production, distribution and exchange must be controlled by the people . . . The state will have complete control over the import and export of capital . . . No person should have the means economically to exploit his fellow man.”

Now, with Sinn Féin’s programme hardly different from those of the establishment parties, its drive for public office seems insatiable.

Though he has many disreputable legacies, Gerry Adams deserves credit for bringing about the IRA ceasefire in 1994; for persuading the IRA to call a second ceasefire – this time durable – in 1997; for getting the republican movement to accept the Belfast Agreement of 1998, even though it involved the abandonment of its central aim, British withdrawal; and – perhaps most crucially – by bringing about the decommissioning of IRA arms and the eventual disbandment of the IRA.

Vincent Browne’s Gerry Adams: War, Peace and Politics is on TV3 at 9pm on Wednesday and Thursday