Noel Whelan: We must resist SF’s efforts to whitewash over its bloodstained past

Adams got caught out while trying to manage the fallout of Austin Stack’s fight for answers

When writing last week about the controversy between Austin Stack and Gerry Adams, I reached to the bookshelf for my 2001 copy of Lost Lives.

Lost Lives is a doorstep-sized chronological catalogue of the 3,600-plus deaths which occurred during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

In an objective but compelling journalistic tone, the authors set out the details of each victim and what was known about each killing.

Every entry makes for grim reading.


To my surprise, there was no entry in the book for Brian Stack. Stack was the chief prison officer at Portlaoise Prison when he was shot in 1983. He died of his injuries 18 months later.

Of course, on reflection, it’s understandable why he wasn’t included. The IRA did not acknowledge responsibility for his death until long after even the third edition of the book was published, in 2008.

While, at the time he was shot, the IRA were among those seen as capable of carrying out the killing – so, too, were the INLA and, indeed, individual criminal gangland figures in Dublin were also included on the suspect list.

Indeed, it would probably only have been in 2013, when Brian Stack’s son Austin began publicly seeking answers, that anyone involved in trying to compile a definitive inventory of the deaths arising from the Troubles would have thought of Brian Stack’s death as one for potential inclusion.

True picture

The reaction to the first publication of Lost Lives in 1998 illustrates the hurt and pain which the violence of the Northern Ireland conflict left in its wake.

David McKittrick later wrote about how the intensity of the reaction was seen in Northern Ireland bookshops where people clustered around the displays of the book, pouring over the pages in search of loved ones or friends.

He wrote of how, in one shop, a book was stained in mascara after a woman had wept on its pages.

The authors also heard from families who had gathered around the kitchen table reading the book and reflecting together – in many cases, for the first time – on the precise circumstances of the death of a loved one.

The book is authored by some of the most careful and informed analysts of the Northern Ireland conflict – David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea.

It took them seven years working together to complete the first edition.

The monumental effort involved in researching, compiling and publishing Lost Lives – and the absence of the Brian Stack case – illustrates the challenge involved in getting a true picture even of what occurred in the Troubles.

Trying to answer the questions of “how”, “why” and “by whom”, which arise about each killing, will always prove impossible.

Still contested

A comprehensive truth and reconciliation process will never really happen in Northern Ireland.

The conflict was so brutal and murky, and the history of the conflict is still so contested, that any such process would bring little truth and threaten rather than assist reconciliation.

We are going to be left instead to deal occasionally with the legacy of individual atrocities.

Because Sinn Féin is, and will continue to be, a prominent feature of our politics, the discourse around those deaths will inevitably be political here in the Republic.

Sinn Féin want to be free to remember some dead, commemorate some killers and invite people to vote for some bombmakers or gunrunners.

They want us to accept that, because they got a portion of the vote in some constituencies, these former IRA activists are somehow cleansed of responsibility for their a part in the violent campaign which directly caused at least half of the deaths recounted in Lost Lives.

Some media commentators insist the rest of us must enable Sinn Féin in this denial “in the interests of peace”.

We should reject this.

We are entitled to resist the effort by Sinn Féin to whitewash over the blood with which the IRA and others stained our politics.

Caught out

Just because the IRA and its political leadership belatedly opted, or were forced, to ceasefire and to engage in peace doesn’t mean the killings they committed or condoned are to be forgotten.

Of course, loyalist killers and those in the British security forces, who colluded in or covered up their atrocities, also carry responsibilities.

They are not, however, on our ballot papers or sitting in our parliament asking us to ignore their violent heritage.

Gerry Adams got himself into his current political difficulty not because he was performing some grand public service by engaging with the Stack family but because he was engaged in political handling.

He was trying to manage the political fallout of Austin Stack’s public fight for answers. When Stack acted up again, during the election last February, Adams tried to give himself a spin line by passing names to the Garda.

He wrongly claimed those names came from Austin Stack. Adams got caught out.