Eamonn Mallie: With Gerry Adams nothing is what it seems

Sinn Féin’s outgoing president is a master strategist who took risks for peace

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams said on Saturday (November 18) he will step down as party leader in 2018.

 

Ascribing the favourable adage “E pluribus unum” – “One out of many” – to Gerry Adams will doubtlessly aggravate some readers. Yet even as a teenager the outgoing president of Sinn Féin was marked out by his elders for higher things. The old Official IRA leader in west Belfast Jim Sullivan once told me, “We always got young Adams to draft the statement to highlight a protest about high-rise flats or whatever.”

Adams very quickly left the Officials behind and in 1969 gravitated towards the Provisional breakaways: the Kellys, Cahills and more militantly minded republicans. To a mother, a wife or a grandmother sitting at home with an empty chair at the table on Saturday night, listening to and watching republicans extol Adams on RTÉ, he will always be the the devil incarnate, regardless of his political feats.

The former Belfast West MP and Louth TD was identified with the IRA, an organisation that took life on both sides of the Border while he held senior positions in republicanism. It was not an accident that he was released from jail to attend secret talks in London with the British government in the early 1970s.

Cheyne Walk talks

On Monday, June 26th, 1972, the IRA declared what it called a bilateral truce as a prelude to talks with William Whitelaw, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The delegation included the Belfast commander Seamus Twomey, Adams, Martin McGuinness, Seán Mac Stíofáin and Dáithí Ó Conaill, who were flown in a military plane to England. The talks took place in the Cheyne Walk house of the Conservative MP Paul Channon, in Chelsea. The British had already spotted Adams as a potential politico with a reading of history and politics. This observation was clearly informed by his educational activities in jail.

without Adams the IRA would probably still be perpetrating a campaign of violence and people would still be losing their lives

It was Gerry Adams more than any other republican who took personal risks to stop the killing at the hands of his colleagues.

That will come as no consolation to the families of the La Mon or Enniskillen bombings, but without Adams the IRA would probably still be perpetrating a campaign of violence and people would still be losing their lives.

The SDLP leader John Hume took huge risks for peace, but he was part of a strictly constitutional structure that at no point would have contemplated doing him any physical harm.

The same could not be said of the situation in which Adams found himself. He was dealing with people with guns to whom killing was no stranger. Leading foot soldiers like these away from militancy is challenging and dangerous. Adams has travelled in the footsteps of many before him who espoused peace and paid the ultimate price at the hands of former colleagues.

Identified with the IRA: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at a republican funeral in 1987. Photograph: AP
Identified with the IRA: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at a republican funeral in 1987. Photograph: AP

Political revolution

Those who spent time in jail with Adams in the 1970s paint a portrait of an educationalist who initiated political discussion, classes and lectures arising out of studies of political revolution around the world.

One insider said Adams used to always urge colleagues to “get to know the wee boggers in your districts”. These were the little children with running noses. They were in the eyes of Adams the next generation, who would be needed to fight what he saw as ongoing nationalist injustices.

Adams always knew the IRA could not of itself defeat the might of the British army. That is why he appealed to the Catholic Church in the early 1980s to “put an alternative in place to criticism of the IRA’s actions”.

Two priests stepped forward, Fr Des Wilson and Fr Alec Reid. Adams persuaded Reid to go to Abbeville, Charles J Haughey’s country house in Kinsealy, in north Co Dublin, to ask Haughey to meet him to discuss how an alternative to “armed struggle” might be brought about. Haughey told me, “With my background and the arms trial that was too risky. I told Fr Reid if John Hume would meet Adams he’d be my proxy.”

That is what happened, and that became the start of the peace process that led to the Sinn Féin-SDLP talks of 1987 – which ended in failure in 1988. Hume told me, “During those talks I spotted in Adams a willingness to examine an alternative to armed struggle.” Hume singled Danny Morrison out as being more difficult. Hume further confirmed to me, “I reserved the right, as party leader, to go on talking to Adams when the party talks broke down.”

Adams and McGuinness – one a barman, the other a butcher – taxed the best brains for more than 30 years in cabinets in Dublin, London and the United States

Unknown to Hume, however, Adams had arranged with Haughey to hold parallel talks in a monastery in Dundalk involving Dermot Ahern, Martin Mansergh and a Fianna Fáil senator. When I put this to Haughey later, during research, Haughey said, “Oh, you know about that – dodgy, dodgy, if that had got out at the time, with my baggage.”

Adams can keep secrets, as the Irish government and John Hume found out. It emerged, parallel to his secret talks with Hume, revealed by Eamonn McCann in April 1993, Sinn Féin and the IRA had a backchannel to the British government.

“Awfullest human being”

Adams was a master strategist. Described to me by Northern Ireland’s former first minister David Trimble as the “awfullest human being I have ever known”, Adams was, and is, always operating with a number of balls in the air. With him nothing is what it seems. He is a complex man of very simple tastes. He is thoughtful but can be mischievous. It is reported at one stage he spotted somewhere it was the birthday of Iris Robinson, the wife of another former first minister, Peter Robinson, and that he sent her a birthday card.

Will we ever know the real Gerry Adams? The answer is no. There are several Gerry Adamses. He and McGuinness – one a barman, the other a butcher – exercised and taxed the best brains from Harvard, Oxford, Trinity College Dublin and elsewhere for more than 30 years in cabinets in Dublin, London and the United States.

This is why doctorates will be written in years to come on Gerry Adams and his journey from militancy to peacemaking.

Eamonn Mallie is a journalist and commentator

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