Web woven by Adams destructive to politics
The brazen fiction constructed by Gerry Adams about his past weakens any sense of standards in public life, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
HERE IS an inconvenient truth: so long as Gerry Adams remains as the leader of a major Irish political party, no one can demand accountability for anything.
Adams is exempt from the standards that apply to everyone else in public life in Ireland. When Martin McGuinness suggested that Cardinal Seán Brady should resign because of his failure to act on his knowledge of child abuse, it did not occur to RTÉ’s Washington correspondent Charlie Bird to ask whether, by the same standards, Gerry Adams should not also “consider his position”.
While Adams exists on an entirely different plane to every other figure of authority on the island, every demand for accountability is tainted with hypocrisy.
The reason for this special cordon sanitaire around Adams is obvious enough. He was the single most important figure in the dismantling of the IRA’s terror machine – an immense political achievement.
The carpet he has woven is much prettier than the hideous deeds that have been brushed under it. It is better to murmur cliches about how that was then and this is now than to probe the past.
The problem is that Adams has gone much further than simply drawing a veil over his role in the “armed struggle”. He has created the most brazen fiction in contemporary Irish history.
He could have maintained complete silence. He could have adopted McGuinness’s line of acknowledging that he was indeed a senior IRA commander while refusing to talk in any detail about what he did.
Instead, Adams has told us again and again that he was never even a member of the IRA. He even told Gay Byrne on the old Late Late Show that he never even threw a stone in a riot, making him perhaps the only young man of his age on the Falls Road not to have done so.
This matters for a number of reasons. The first is that no one at all believes it. There is something innately toxic about a public position that demands of all of us, not simply that we look the other way, but that we actually collude in a known fiction. It means that everyone else who talks about key episodes in the recent history of Ireland has to be regarded as an outrageous liar.
The late Brendan Hughes must be lying when he says in Ed Moloney’s new book, Voices from the Grave, that as early as the Falls riots of 1970 Adams “stuck out as a leader because he was able to control and he was able to direct”. His recollection that “it was Gerry who sent me to America to get Armalites. To escalate the war” cannot be true. His claim that the Belfast Brigade, under the effective command of Adams, planned the Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast, in which nine people, men, women and children, were blown apart and dozens were maimed, must be a malicious fantasy. If Adams is telling the truth, virtually every other account of the conflict becomes a lie.
The second reason why Adams’s denials matter is that they do not merely affect our understanding of the past. There have been real consequences for people with real questions including, literally, where the bodies are buried.
Why did Adams tell the McConville family that he could not have been involved in their mother Jean’s disappearance because he was in prison at the time? This is simply untrue, and the evasion gives substance to Hughes’s claim that it was Adams who insisted that McConville’s body be “disappeared”.
How can Adams demand that other former IRA operatives give information to the families of the disappeared when he is so utterly evasive about his own role?
The third reason why Adams’s blanket denials matter is that they give sustenance to the diehard militarists of the Real IRA. Such patent lack of honesty allows these murderous zealots to claim that the whole peace process is a sham and a conspiracy.
If Adams cannot describe his own journey from militarist to politician, he can’t explain why the Real IRA is wrong.
Paradoxically, the evasions also keep Sinn Féin frozen in its past. Sinn Féin, whether anyone likes it or not, is an established element in Irish democracy. It is not good for that democracy to have a significant party behaving like a cult. There’s a creepy kind of loyalty in any organisation that requires its members to go along with what they know to be a fiction.
No one in Fianna Fáil really believed that Charlie Haughey was an honest man. No one in Sinn Féin really believes that Gerry Adams was the only teenage pacifist on the Falls Road. A party cannot grow up if it continues to collude in the Dear Leader’s fantasies.
Gerry Adams should go, but it would be best if he did not go quietly. He has a story to tell – an ugly and brutal one that is also about taking responsibility for change. Those he has harmed, as well as those he has saved, have a right to hear it.