Why disillusioned republicans breached IRA’s code of secrecy

The contradiction that ran through the Provisional movement explains the anger of Gerry Adams’s accusers

Gerry Adams says that former colleagues who accuse him of having ordered the death of Jean McConville are driven by hostility to the peace process, by a conviction that he personally sold out the republican struggle and by the fact that they have had "their own demons" to deal with.

He is right that many of his accusers, including the two most prominent among them, Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, both now dead, saw the Good Friday agreement as a betrayal of republicanism and regarded him as the man who had led the movement into acceptance of the shameful deal. He is right that both had been distraught toward the end of their lives at the way the IRA campaign had ended and, at a personal level, had been damagingly affected by the thought that their own armed actions had turned out to have been for nothing – or at least for nothing that came close to the objective the struggle had been aimed at. And he is right that these were the factors which prompted them to put their accusations on the record.

Telling the truth
But he isn't obviously right in suggesting that these feelings caused them to concoct wicked lies to discredit him.

It is at least as likely that they broke the IRA’s code of secrecy because they believed it had been rendered meaningless by the strategy adopted by Adams and his close associates. On this reading, what they’d been driven to do was not to tell lies but to tell the truth.

The republican movement differed from groups involved in armed struggles elsewhere which are commonly likened to the IRA campaign in that republicans saw themselves not as fighting to achieve a political goal but as a legitimate army defending an actually existing republic.


In this perspective, a deal which others might regard as a major step towards an honourable peace was seen as a desertion of the battlefield. One of the statements regularly quoted in republican speeches at the height of the Troubles came from the most hallowed figure in the pantheon, Patrick Pearse, in "Ghosts": "The man who in the name of Ireland accepts as a 'final settlement' anything less by one iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation . . . that it were better for that man (as it were certainly better for his country) that he had not been born."

Attached to a conviction that the republic Pearse had in mind and which he was to proclaim on the steps of the GPO and which had thereby acquired a de jure if not a de facto existence, this provided the moral sanction for IRA members to take lives and put their own at risk.

Moral justification was vital for prosecution of the war. Without a belief that the war was just and had been properly declared, many if not most IRA members would have had problems joining the fight, if not immediately on recruitment then soon enough after as the savagery they were involved in, as happens with all wars, bore in on them.

Most of those who joined the IRA did so for decent reasons. They had experienced their communities being brutalised by the forces of the state.

Fr Denis Faul, chaplain in Long Kesh and a fierce opponent of political violence, cited, for example, a young man who had seen his mother abused and humiliated in her own home by an RUC or British army raiding party.

Joining the IRA did not betoken a propensity for violence but was an understandable reaction to personal experience.

The former republican hunger striker Tommy McKearney once explained that it was only after some time in prison, when he had space to discuss the struggle with a sizeable number of other volunteers, that he realised that not only were republicans in a minority in the Catholic community but they appeared to be a minority in the IRA. The intransigent ideology of republicanism matched the mood of potential IRA members and of many in the communities they came from. But mood falls far short of embrace of an ideology.

Herein lies the contradiction which ran through the Provisional movement and which Adams was among the first to recognise and acknowledge.

On the basis of this understanding, his embarkation on the road to the 1998 agreement did not represent a betrayal of the movement but an attempt to bring the movement into alignment with the consciousness of the people in whose name the struggle was being conducted.

There was nothing inherently ignoble about this. But it required a break with the ideas which had powered the struggle.

His problem was that he couldn’t spell this out, not at the time anyway, to those who had embraced traditional republicanism and in many cases had suffered mightily in its name.

Hence the rage against him of those members and former members of the movement who still held hard to the old ideals.

This doesn’t mean that they have told lies against him. Rather, it explains why they have told the truth.