The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Gerry Adams Man Of War and Man Of Peace?

Academic lecture given at Manchester Metropolitan University Multicultural Studies Seminar: Irish Lives: Shapers of Ireland

[This series of lectures and discussions aims to consider the lives of significant Irish people as a way of increasing our understanding of some of the main elements that have shaped Irish history and culture. The range is wide, both in terms of time and activity; however, the overriding historical and cultural themes of continuity and change are well illustrated by this selection of Irish lives.
- MMU MS Website]

Anthony McIntyre • Delivered 28 April 2004

In a review of Enda Staunton’s well-researched book, The Nationalists of Northern Ireland 1918-1973, I made the following tentative observation:

A large portion of this book addresses itself to the career of Joe Devlin who wins sympathetic treatment from the author. Looking through the window that this work constitutes it emerges that no figure within Northern nationalism in the 65 year period covered looms as largely as this man, although the events of the last thirty years may allow historians to ease him out from that pole position. So one wonders just how definitively the focus will transfer from Devlin to Gerry Adams when a book covering the hundred years from 1918-2018 comes out, as it most likely will.

Such a suggestion prior to the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s would have seemed preposterous, the sort of propagandist cant put out by PR people on behalf of the politicians they serve. That it could be written in 2003 without as much as raising an eyebrow underlines the prominence that the indisputably capable Sinn Fein leader has established for himself. Frequently, opinion polls in the Republic of Ireland place him as the most popular political leader in the country ahead even of the nation’s leader, Bertie Ahern. This is made all the more remarkable given that during one of Mr Adams’ earlier terms as MP for West Belfast, the then Taoiseach, Dr Garret Fitzgerald, could in public arrogantly refuse to acknowledge his existence when confronted by him on a Dublin street.

In today’s political climate ignoring the leader of Sinn Fein comes with a strong health warning. The Irish business class demonstrated that it understood this all too well when a matter of days ago it convened to listen to Gerry Adams outline his party’s plans for the future. A radical might well observe that the business class sat James Connolly on a chair and shot him but placed Adams on a seat at the top of the table and sat at his feet. But to emphasize the lack of radical threat posed by Sinn Fein to the establishment is tantamount to devaluing the growing importance of both Gerry Adams and the party he leads within Irish political life. There is a surfeit of politicians posing no threat, but none whose star is on the rise as rapidly as that of the Sinn Fein leader.

When discussing with a friend what I should write for tonight’s short biography - which no matter how detailed is restricted by brevity to a number of small still shots - he suggested that I work on themes already developed in Hope And History, the latest book by Gerry Adams. This seemed a strange suggestion. I felt, borrowing from Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, that the main problem with his book was that its covers were too far apart. The totality of Adams was not going to appear in its pages. Despite being hot of the printing press Adams’s second autobiography trailed quite some distance behind A Secret History Of The IRA by the investigative journalist Ed Moloney which had already been on the bookshelves a year. Those who wanted the genuine article voted with their money and bypassed the ersatz account offered by Adams. Evidence of a kind for Samuel Goldwyn’s assertion that no one should write their autobiography until after they are dead. I readily admit to not having read the book. I suppose I would like to credit the late anarchist writer John McGuffin for this choice. While eulogising the acerbic scribe at his cremation in Belfast Eamonn McCann informed us that McGuffin had once told him about having so many books to get through ‘and still there’s bastards writing more.’ Being waylaid by skewed self-serving tomes is something I prefer to avoid. Although, in fairness to Adams, not to read what he has himself written inhibits a more rounded understanding. Part two of his life outside the IRA might be a best seller amongst members of the Sinn Fein cumann in Outer Mongolia or the bars of New York but it was just not for me.

By now it may be apparent to the audience that I am making no attempt to pass myself off in equally counterfeit fashion as a detached or neutral observer. Indeed, many would feel with some justification that my contribution over the past decade to the discourse on republicanism and the strategy devised and developed in the main by Gerry Adams has been that of a hostile witness. Those gracious enough to have turned up this evening can reach their own conclusions as to whether that hostility colours my presentation to the point of mere bias or groundless prejudice.

A particular myth I would like to put to rest is one I only recently discovered. Because it was a plug by a friend I shall graciously refrain from being over zealous in my refutation of it. I found myself described as 'an acknowledged international expert on Irish Republicanism.' It was a description with strong shades of the Life of Brian to it. My discomfort on learning this was in anticipation of other people reading it and actually believing it. I no longer study Irish republicanism with the academic rigour or commitment employed during the years of writing a PhD thesis where the researcher volunteers to lead the existence of a walking footnote. Small wonder that Michael Bywater could write in the Observer a number of years ago, ‘now you have to be really stupid to get a doctorate.’ These days I restrict myself to providing a running, but limited commentary, on the state of play within Provisional republicanism. And I readily subscribe to the view of Donald R. Gannon that 'where facts are few, experts are many.' It is not, therefore, my intention to persuade those who listen that my account is definitive or short on weaknesses. All history is representation. The authoritative account is definitive to the degree that it has managed to suppress other versions. Much of my work, in both academia and political journalism has concerned itself with rupturing the metanarrative, filling in the holes with the voices of those the regime of silence has imposed the rule of hush on. I am persuaded by Ryzsard Ryszard Kapuscinski who writes

Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet … How many victims of silence there are, and at what cost! Silence has its laws and its demands. Silence demands that concentration camps be built in uninhabited areas. Silence demands an enormous police apparatus with an army of informers. Silence demands that its enemies disappear suddenly and without a trace. Silence prefers that no voice -- of complaint or protest or indignation -- disturb its calm. And where such a voice is heard, silence strikes with all its might to restore the status quo ante - the state of silence ... Today one hears about noise pollution, but silence pollution is worse. Noise pollution affects the nerves; silence pollution is a matter of human lives. No one defends the maker of a loud noise, whereas those who establish silence in their own states are protected by an apparatus of repression. That is why the battle against silence is so difficult.

But like that which it seeks to deconstruct, my own narrative can hardly claim critic’s privilege and seek to recoil in silence at the first hint of challenge.

What is important is that I outline to the audience the context which leads me to make the observations that I do. Mindful of how Foucault described and dismissed the old notion of truth as being one whereby thought conforms to things, I readily concede that context is often alibi.

There are two planks to the context I offer. The first is rooted in structuralism and the second in a form of power politics pursued by exceptionally adept political actors. On the first aspect, I have throughout my work, in seeking to better comprehend Provisional republicanism, sought to ground it in certain structural phenomena as distinct from tradition spawned ideological factors. Provisional republicanism is for the most part a post-1969 phenomenon. It was born out of conjunctural protest rather than being the reigniting of some long dormant flame. It truly arose from the ashes of Belfast’s Bombay Street in 1969 and not the rubble of Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 1916.

In some ways this helps explain the ease with which the Provisionals both settled for and celebrated an internal Northern Ireland solution in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which bore no resemblance to the concerns that absorbed those rebels in the GPO almost a century ago and whom, ironically, the Provisionals still gather annually at Easter to commemorate. While the gap between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a matter of two days, trying to bridge the ideological distance that separates the two would be akin to attempting to walk to the moon. How many sets of two days would that take?

Without seeking to labour the point, Provisional republicanism mushroomed in response to the manner in which the British behaved while they were in the North of Ireland. For traditional republicanism, the British being in Ireland at all was a sufficient raison d’etre to wage war. This dichotomy, while certainly blurred in the opening years of the conflict as different discourses, interpellations, ideologies, legitimisations, competed with and often complemented one another, was nevertheless evident to those who engaged in some archaeological digging and sifting, and who rather than impose some linear order on what they found were willing to look at the discontinuities which subvert otherwise neat rounded conceptualisations.

Those who see in Provisional republicanism a discontinuity with the republicanism that went before can readily understand that the Provisional Republican Movement’s acceptance of the internal solution contained within the Good Friday Agreement was not the act of treachery on the national question that more traditional republicans like to allege. Yet, Ed Moloney is undoubtedly correct to contend:

the future of the Good Friday Agreement now rests with a party which began its existence dedicated to the destruction of the government of Northern Ireland and the partition settlement that underlay it, but the same party has ended up, utterly and absolutely dependent on them.

Nevertheless, the GFA did address in substantive ways the very problems that because they went unsolved themselves conjured into being a problem-solving agent - the Provisional IRA. Once the problem that brought it into being showed serious signs of receding, it is not to be marvelled at that the Provisional IRA too began its own process of recession.

As for the aspect of power politics pursued by ambitious political actors, political scientists and historians seem reluctant to explain Provisional republicanism in terms of power and expansionism or account for this in any way by recourse to the psychology and appetites of certain key players. There is a tendency to stay on the terra firma of ideology and tradition. Where a divergence does occur it is to be found in the nonsense churned out by the academic terrorism industry; or alternatively in the more persuasive conceptualisations of protest movement theory. There is an understandable tendency to baulk at the prominence given to outstanding leaders. The great man or woman of history perspective that ignores broader social phenomena and political forces lends itself to a very slanted explanatory narrative. In fact it could be argued that from an extreme structuralist perspective why bother with political biography at all? After all, are such biographies not mere dust covers that tell us virtually nothing of what lies within?

But in trying to construct a biography of Gerry Adams, it seems much too mechanistic, deterministic and reductionist to explain this particular political actor as only the product of wider societal structures and forces and not as a powerful political agent in his own right.

As Moloney argues, one of the reasons for the IRA ultimately giving up on the objectives for which it had fought its war was:

the influence of Gerry Adams, even though this will annoy, and already has annoyed, those who say it relies too much on the Great Man theory of history. I make no apology because while I do believe that societal forces shape history, I also believe that individuals shape it as well. Would we have had Stalinism without Stalin, Nazism without Hitler, Marxism without Marx or Paisleyism without Paisley? Would we have the Treaty without Michael Collins or Fianna Fail without DeValera? Possibly, but all these things would have been very different phenomena without their influence. I believe that Gerry Adams has had a similar impact on the development of the Provisionals and the peace process and I suspect that the real motive of those who make this criticism is their wish to deflect attention away from some of the unflattering light shed on Adams’s history.

The same structural factors that produced Provisional republicanism without doubt also created its leader, Gerry Adams. But his agency which involved a keen strategic mind, a tenacious will to lead and control, a manipulative intellect that marginalised opponents while at the same time interpellating obedient followers and allies, helped, as one commentator put it, to turn the Titanic in a bath tub. People might be excused for feeling that Adams hailed from the Clausewitzean school with his firm grasp of the latter’s ‘wonderful trinity’ - summed up elsewhere as an ‘ability to think things through, to proceed to formulate a set of limited goals, and to then methodically achieve them by using a combination of violence, opportunism, and rational calculation.’

The main thrust of the critique I have mounted for a number of years is not powered by any ideological or emotional attachment to the glorious Irish republic. I no longer believe that nationalism any more than Catholicism should have a totalising call on our allegiances. Even less so does my critique arise from any hankering for the physical force tradition. Rather I have found myself seriously out of sync with the Orwellian world that republicanism has descended into, one where ‘subtlety, ambiguity and dissembling have become the principal features of the peace process.’ Orwell made the point that in a time of universal deceit the one revolutionary act was to tell the truth. I feel an acute embarrassment and sense of discomfort when Sinn Fein leaders behave in television studios like Comical Ali. This is not proffered in a self-righteous moralistic sense. Rather, it is said in the context of critique. Truth is indeed, as Foucault claimed, the product of multiple constraints. But if we are to better understand a world characterised by major power disparities then comprehension, clarity, certainty and accuracy are weapons we are ill-advised to discard. Otherwise, we should become writers of fiction rather than political analysts. Would the audience here tonight bother to attend if they were to be told in advance that I was only a visitor to prisons rather than having served 18 years in prison for IRA activity? It may well be a truism but it seems to me that totalitarianism does its work in the dark. It is aided by secrecy and silence. And the disparity in power that plagues the world does so, as Foucault asserts, because ‘power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.’ The question of accuracy and openness is therefore inextricably linked to the democratisation of society and the pursuit of social justice, and can only be supported through the existence of structures of transparency and dissent which function to monitor the centres of power.

A major blockage hindering movement towards such openness is the manner in which republicanism under the leadership of Gerry Adams has become what I have termed elsewhere a corporate lie. Indeed in Sinn Fein’s more unguarded moments traces of uncharacteristic frankness seep through. Leading party member and Adams aide, Jim Gibney, puts it as follows:

If there is one big lesson coming out of the peace process over the last ten years, it is words like 'certainty' and 'clarity' are not part of the creative lexicon that conflict resolution requires if it is to be successful. Can anyone point to a period over the last ten years when such words were used and they helped the peace process here? Words like 'clarity' and 'certainty' are part of the fundamentalist's political dictionary. They derive from an arrogant mentality, which assumes legitimacy and moral superiority. Demanding such words causes crisis and paralysis. They clog the peace process engine up with gunge. They box people into a corner. Pursuit of such words or their equivalent encourages intransigence by those seeking their use and by those burdened to produce them. Give me the language of ambiguity. It has served the people of this country well over the last ten years. It has oiled the engine of the peace process. Long may it continue to do so.

Protest as he might, no serious appraisal of the role of Gerry Adams can avoid the nature of his relationship with the Provisional IRA. His continuous denials that he has ever been a member of the organisation have few takers. Many are of the view that his anger at public discussion of his purported links with the IRA is a recent phenomenon, something which coincided with the emergence and progress of the peace process. But as far back as 1983 when ‘peace process’ was a term yet to enter Irish political lexicon, Adams could be found publicly and vociferously protesting his non-involvement. In response to an article in the Irish Times which described him as ‘Provisional IRA vice-president’, instead of ‘Provisional Sinn Fein vice-president’, his solicitors objected on the grounds that to associate Adams with the Provisional IRA amounted to a ‘monstrous libel.’

Among the population at large in Northern Ireland ... [the article] has rendered our client's prestige and integrity in doubt and diminished the pristine temper of his political character … Not only has his character thus been ravaged but in the tumultuous cauldron of Northern Ireland, as it is, our client, being a prominent political figure, has his very life and limb, and of those about him, endangered as a result of this libel …(the article) has rendered our client in his political business and private life, among his friends and acquaintances and political allies, subject to suspicion and disaffection and among his political foes, disapprobation, contempt and an aggrandisement of derision.

The forcefulness of the accusation has if anything strengthened over time. 21 years after the complaint to the Irish Times Adams resorted to claiming he was flabbergasted when confronted with the current Taoiseach’s expressed assumption that he indeed had been an IRA member. Nor has the derision his solicitors complained about diminished. Even many of his own colleagues just laugh when they hear the denials. They laugh even more when he sends loyal gofer Richard McAuley to pretend he was the author of the Brownie article in which Adams made that sole public admission of IRA membership. McAuley of course overlooked the fact that in the article Adams had referred to his wife and child. McAuley was not married at the time and had no children. Why am I prompted to think of Mark Twain here? Was it he who said if the world only thinks you are an idiot you should refrain from opening your mouth and confirming it. Nevertheless, while it is true to say that I have met Adams in the course of my republican activity at no time did I meet him in an IRA capacity, either his or my own. On the few occasions that such meetings did take place, they were strictly in a Sinn Fein capacity.

Yet it is remarkable that in all the books written on Irish republicanism and the IRA, apart from Mr Adams’s own, no one has ever defended him against the charge of IRA membership. And while I have no first hand knowledge of his involvement in the IRA, to assert that he should be given the benefit of the doubt, if it is permissible to use such a term in present circumstances, would be to fly in the face of all that has been written by journalists, academics, historians and students of republican politics.

This biography will, like the Irish Taoiseach, assume that Mr Adams and membership of the IRA have by no means been mutually exclusive. While it is fashionable within Sinn Fein today to label securocrats or mischievous journalists those who insist on accusing him of IRA membership, a celebrated book by a Ballymurphy community activist, Ciaran de Baroid, stated unambiguously that Adams was O/C of the Provisional IRA’s Belfast Brigade.

By the time he had ascended to this position, according to Moloney:

Adams’ list of military achievements was already a lengthy and impressive one: he had made his home Ballymurphy the strongest IRA area in the city; as commander of the Second Battalion in Belfast, his IRA units had pioneered the use of the car bomb and had forced the British to introduce internment before their intelligence on the IRA was complete, with the result that internment was a military and political disaster. He had ordered the importation of the Armalite rifle from America, which for a while made the IRA in Belfast better armed than the British Army. With the destruction of an undercover British spy ring in West Belfast, he made a name as a counter-intelligence genius on a par with Collins and he had also made a reputation for ruthlessness, as the disappearance of Jean McConville and others would also bear grim witness … After promotion to the top IRA job in Belfast, the IRA bombed London for the first time and valuable links were made, via his old ally Joe Cahill, with the Libyan regime of Col Gaddafi.

Born in 1948 Gerry Adams spent the best part of his developmental and formative years in West Belfast. By his own account he joined the Republican Movement in the mid 1960s. His father was a former Belfast IRA volunteer who had served some time in prison for his part in an ambush on the RUC in the 1940s. His early republican involvement predated the forming of the Provisionals in 1969, but as he says himself in that era Belfast republicanism was an incestuous affair, with the movement based around a number of older republican families which had passed the flame down over the years.

The pogroms against nationalists in 1969 changed the fortunes of republicanism but in doing so it also changed the nature of republicanism. Even prior to this a considerable sea change had been in train under the Dublin based leadership of Cathal Goulding and Tomas McGiolla. Their task was to take republicanism out of its isolation which they put down to its incorrigible attachment to the tradition of physical force which even when not activated always sat as an army in waiting, watching patiently for the right opportunity to strike at the old enemy – Britain.

Goulding and McGiolla wanted to take the gun out of politics and, certainly without the sophistication of Adams, it is true to say that they embarked upon a peace process of their own. They saw the unification of Ireland taking place in three stages which won the opprobrium of the Provisionals who broke away from their erstwhile comrades. The label Stalinist was oft used to describe both the Officials and the stages theory. Stage one was democratisation of the Northern state; stage two was unification, and stage three was socialism. In order to get the strategy off the ground the armed dimension of republicanism had to be jettisoned otherwise the input of the unionist working class considered so necessary for the democratisation to occur would not be forthcoming.

Belfast was at the centre of opposition to the new departure within republicanism and Adams often waxed critical of the stages strategy. But the Belfast stance was not in any deep sense ideological. Although the Provisional IRA officially formed in December 1969, the embryonic structure of the new organisation was already in place as a result of the defence committees which had sprang up in response to the loyalist and state violence of 1969. While the leadership strata of these committees largely comprised people with a republican history, those who provided the body of defence had no previous republican involvement. When these become subsumed into the Provisional IRA, they provided the dynamic and character for the organisation. It has been noted that early Provisional IRA leaders in Belfast were both amazed and dismayed at the influx into the ranks. Amazed because it was evidence of a popular insurrection which they had never before experienced, and dismayed because the republican pedigree of the new recruits was non-existent. Even today the more ideological republican discourses are replete with pejorative references to sixty-niners, i.e. those who joined the Republican Movement for conjunctural reasons and not because it was in their blood.

Some may claim ‘he would wouldn’t he’ in response to a claim by the British agent Freddie Scappaticci aka Stakeknife that during his imprisonment he did not have the attitude that ‘I'm doing this for Ireland.' But Scappaticci’s imprisonment predated his recruitment by the British military as an agent, and research bears out that only a minority of Provisionals were steeped in a strong sense of ideology or history. Bernard Fox, a republican activist of three decades, provides a revealing insight into the mindset of those flocking to the ranks of the Provisional IRA. When he first approached one of the organisation’s leaders seeking a gun for the purposes of protecting his family and friends he was asked ‘could you shoot a British soldier?’ Fox was shocked. ‘At that time I hadn’t the idea that it was the British Government’s fault.’ Something no traditionalist would admit to.

Subsequently, Belfast republicans were responsible for organising the Provisional IRA in its formative stages throughout the North of Ireland. This gave Belfast a centrality to republicanism which it has retained ever since. But their organisational skills and sense of fidelity to republicanism would never have caused the explosion of Provisional IRA activism had it not have been fuelled by the strategies of the British state. Reluctantly forced to commit itself to greater interventionism, which ran counter to its governing instincts, the British state’s initial strategic objective was to defend the status quo. As the status quo was unionist the state found itself in opposition to those opposed to the unionist system of government - nationalists. In its efforts to quell rebellious disquiet the British state through three crucial measures produced insurrection. The Falls Curfew of July 1970; Internment of August 1971, and Bloody Sunday of January 1972. It was against this background of widespread nationalist working class insurrection that Gerry Adams first came to prominence.

Moloney credits Adams with being the strategic mind behind the building of an infrastructure of a resistance community in West Belfast’s Ballymurphy where he was the local IRA leader prior to internment. From there he is said to have progressed to lead the IRA’s second battalion which was responsible for most of the organisation's successful strikes against the British military. Although keen to stress that he was a member of Sinn Fein, there is little in the public record that outlines his role within the party other than the occasional letter to the papers. But at that time it was common practice for the local IRA leader to pen a statement and claim it was the work of the non-existent Sinn Fein PRO. Significantly, others in the party at the time do not recall Adams as having any party profile.

The Provisional IRA which, somewhat inaccurately, claimed to have started an offensive campaign in February to secure a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland, nevertheless set itself an interim demand which was achieved in March 1972 with the suspension of the Stormont parliament. It was the first major political concession by the British since the outbreak of violence. Adams was arrested the same month in Belfast and held in both the Maidstone prison ship and Long Kesh internment camp.

In his absence the IRA prosecuted its war aggressively as it pushed for the final objective. Now that the Stormont parliament was out of the way the conflict was, in the discourse of the Provisionals indisputably one between Irish republicanism and British imperialism. By the summer of 1972 faced with a campaign of unprecedented ferocity the British agreed to a truce with the IRA. Prior to the truce the leaders of the Belfast Brigade informed the organisation’s chief of staff, Sean MacStiofain, that there would be no truce unless Adams was first freed from internment. According to the Provisional IRA’s own book, Freedom Struggle, the British acceded to the demand and released a senior officer of the Belfast Brigade.

At the talks in London in July 1972, the British were confronted by a delegation which the chief of staff later stated was exclusively IRA - no Sinn Fein. The British were clearly impressed with Adams. He did not strike them as the streetwise young thug they expected to meet. The impression was one that did not melt quickly. General Sir James Glover, who is credited with having played a key role in shaping security policy in Northern Ireland later identified Gerry Adams as a ‘man with whom we can do business.’

The British were not alone in viewing Adams as the man to do business with. A former SDLP politician revealed in the 1990s that as far back as 1972 John Hume had decided that Adams was the power behind the IRA throne. While there was much speculation in the early 1970s that Hume was focussing his attention on a senior IRA leader, Daithi O’Conaill who had accompanied Adams to preliminary talks with the British upon his release from internment, Hume felt that the Belfast republican rather than O’Conaill was where the main energy should be concentrated. How much such thinking was behind the discussions between the Belfast Brigade and the Church linked Central Citizens Defence Committee in 1973, is something that has not yet been adequately assessed. As we know the Church would be central to the facilitation of the later peace process and Adams was its point of contact.

Although MacStiofain favoured a continuation of the truce, Republican Forum summed up the prevailing attitude within republicanism. It was nowhere more pronounced than amongst the Belfast delegates, three of whom attended the London talks:

The temporary negotiations broke down and amounted to nothing more than an attempt by the British government to entrap the IRA in a prolonged truce, assess the probability of a cease-fire and evaluate the then IRA leadership.

According to Moloney, ‘it was one of the reasons why those leaders, including Gerry Adams, brought it to an end after only a fortnight or so.’

It is claimed that Adams upon release became the adjutant of the Belfast Brigade. Although frequently alluded to in the press as the man primarily responsible for the Bloody Friday bombings towards the end of July 1972, people who were in senior leadership positions within the IRA at the time and who are today critical of Adams, nevertheless claim that the day’s events had been planned while he was interned and were put on hold to permit the truce to take hold. Once Seamus Twomey, the leader of the Belfast Brigade moved South in the autumn of 1972 to take up a position on the GHQ staff, Adams is alleged to have taken over the organisation in the Northern capital, a position he is said to have retained up until his arrest in July of the following year.

During that period the IRA maintained its offensive war against the British. It was also an era which witnessed the emergence of one of the most unsavoury aspects of the IRA campaign, the disappeared. This came to haunt Adams during the years of the peace process when he had to ward off accusations - but never quite managed to suppress them - that he had in fact been responsible for introducing the policy.

During the period that the IRA was pursuing its military campaign, the British were devising a strategy which is best summed up as an alternative to republicanism. This came to light at the Darlington conference in 1972 when the outline of British proposal was presented. The two central planks of the proposal were a cross border body and some form of power sharing in the North. The British aim was simply to defeat republicanism by excluding republicans and republicanism. The jewel in the crown of this strategic objective came in 1974 when the Sunningdale Agreement came into effect. Adams was scathing of the outcome and accused the SDLP, because it had endorsed the arrangement, of being the first Catholic partitionist party.

Imprisoned from 1973 to 1977 first as an internee and then as a sentenced prisoner, a status he attained as a result of trying to escape from prison while interned, he observed the movement as it was drawn into a ceasefire and also a campaign of sectarian assassination. Both these events post-dated the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement. Although Des O’Hagan of the Worker’s Party would later claim that Adams had once said to him that he would wade up to his knees through Protestant blood to achieve a united Ireland, the volume of evidence, both documented and anecdotal, indicates that Adams harboured no sectarian animosity towards Protestants. While the IRA had flirted with sectarian killings during the summer of 1972, members of the organisation in North Belfast testify to his unremitting anger at such developments. Moreover, throughout 1975 and 1976 along with Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes, two key leaders in the Belfast IRA but now imprisoned, he was at the forefront of opposition within Long Kesh to the IRA’s descent into sectarian warfare.

Within the cages of Long Kesh Adams developed a strong reputation as a formidable opponent of the truce of 1975. Those close to him point to his ability to discern that the British had in fact no intention to withdraw but were merely using the truce in which to carve out new strategic space in which they could introduce the three pronged offensive of Ulsterisation, normalisation and criminalisation in a bid to secure their alternative to republicanism. His ability to outline a strategic alternative, which became known as the long war, proved the effective catalyst to his being propelled to a position of national leadership.

Upon release in 1977, according to Colm Keena, Adams quickly moved into ‘a powerful position within the Republican Movement.’ This, according to Moloney, is a euphemism for having a seat on the IRA’s army council. Prior to his release a Northern Command had been set up within the Provisional IRA with responsibility for the day-to-day management of the war. Although the leadership that had negotiated the truce were responsible for introducing the measure it reflected the balance of forces on the republican ground. Throughout the year Adams began a process of descaling the eyes of these within the movement who had believed that the British could be truced out of Ireland. This was an extension of the arguments he had put forward in the Brownie Columns from his prison cell and which appeared in the Republican News from 1975 until his release. A seminal moment came in June 1977 when Jimmy Drumm, much against his will but as a sort of punishment for having been part of the current which had both encouraged and engaged in preliminary talks with British approved representatives, read out the address which indicated a shift in policy. In essence Drumm was declaring that the British were not going while simultaneously announcing the beginning of a long war to secure British withdrawal. There would be no more truces with the British until they had publicly stated their intention to withdraw.

According to Keena:

Adams wanted to publicise the new analysis of the way forward. It was time to build those aspects of the movement which had been lost following the split with the Officials and, as Adams saw it, reap the benefits of a lot of the political work which had been done in the 1960s. Now it was time for the Provisionals to join the vanguard of anti-imperialism north and south of the border. He wanted to introduce republicans to a more sophisticated struggle not just a militant ‘Brits out’ one but a campaign to rout British control in its many forms from the entire Ireland …The British, the assembled crowd was told, were not about to leave; in fact they were intent on stabilising the North. The war of liberation could not be fought successfully ‘on the backs of the oppressed in the six counties, nor around the physical presence of the British Army.’ Socialist republicans had been isolated round the armed struggle and this was dangerous. They were calling for the development of a strong political movement in the entire island, committed to anti-imperialism. Republicans were to forge links with the workers and radical trade unionists, to create an irrepressible mass movement which would ensure mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the six counties and make for a competent force in the event of a serious conflict.

While his dichotomy is not entirely accurate MLR Smith has described this as a move away from a mono-military strategy to one which he termed a total strategy. Adams seemed to be pursuing the ideas he had developed in Cage 11 when he wrote an unpublished booklet, Ireland’s British Problem. Many of his colleagues in the prison viewed this work as a form of strategic bible. Much of it was addressed to building Sinn Fein and using the party as a revolutionary tool which would become immersed in the community and forming alternative democratic structures. The IRA was expected to benefit immensely from this type of relationship. Meanwhile, as Republican Forum put it:

the IRA underwent a radical internal reorganisation. Throughout the vast majority of the country the old companies and battalion system was abandoned and the cell structure model of organisation was adopted.

After the arrest of Seamus Twomey, by now the organisation’s chief of staff, Adams, according to Moloney and supported by Smith, moved into the IRA’s number one spot. He was also to assume the vice-presidency of Sinn Fein. It was on his watch that the La Mon bombing took place in February which saw twelve innocent people lose their lives in an incendiary operation that went disastrously wrong. Arrested the following morning and remanded to prison on a charge of IRA membership, Adams’s tenure as chief of staff was the shortest in the history of the Provisional IRA.

Upon his acquittal and release in the autumn of 1978, Adams once again reengaged with the ‘total strategy.’ The IRA was soon to have its finest hour when on one single day in August 1979 it killed 18 British soldiers and in a separate operation killed Lord Mountbatten. The Northern Command which was responsible for the day’s events was proving its capability as well as demonstrating its control.

Nevertheless, despite its success against the British the Adams strategy had internal opponents who had to be outmanoeuvred and much of this was accomplished when in the words of Republican Forum, after a prolonged period of internal debate, Sinn Fein rejected the Eire Nua policy document. This policy rejection represented a major blow to the O' Bradaigh-O'Conaill faction, who were responsible for the introduction and promotion of Eire Nua. The main thrust of the critique from Adams was that Eire Nua was a sop to unionists. Adams was moving towards a hegemonic position within republicanism by appearing more militant than his opponents.

The hunger strikes of 1981 gave the Provisionals the attention they had only previously dreamed of and were the catalyst for the electoral rise of Sinn Fein. Like the defence structures that were absorbed into and formed the backbone of the Provisional IRA, the Relatives Actions Committees that arose in response to the prison protest, too were absorbed into the body of the Republican Movement, only the beneficiary this time was the party rather than the army. Adams effectively managed the hunger strike from outside the prison, maintaining regular contact with the prisoners’ leader Brendan McFarlane and on occasion visiting dying hunger strikers. But the plans for building Sinn Fein had been developed long before the hunger strikes and in the estimation of Joe Austin, a former Sinn Fein councillor, the hunger strikes expedited the strategy by only three years.

But it not only expedited the strategy it transformed it. Rather than providing an alternative structure to the state as Adams had earlier envisaged in his jail writings, Sinn Fein was now set, under the armalite and ballot box, to become an electoral force, and susceptible to cooption by the state.

By 1983 Adams strengthened his position immeasurably within the Provisional Movement when he became the MP for West Belfast. Six months earlier, still capitalising on the alienation produced within the nationalist community by the Thatcher governments handling of the hunger strike he had won a West Belfast assembly seat; a feat emulated elsewhere by four of his colleagues including Martin McGuinness. Flushed with this success he effortlessly assumed the presidency of Sinn. It was a major achievement for both him and the forces behind the long war strategy. Northern republicanism had been the force behind the Provisional IRA. Now that presence was being formalised in leadership structures. It was the culmination of an approach that had seen the establishment of the Northern Command, the toughening up of a position which was identifiably northern driven which rejected the O’Bradaigh leadership’s federalist position in favour of a unitary state, and the amalgamation of An Phoblacht, the official organ of the movement with Republican News which was largely viewed as the organ of Northerners, in particular the Belfast Brigade.

The first half of the 1980s were characterised by a move to the left which was more perceived than real. While many left wing activists who had worked in the relatives Actions Committees and were absorbed into Sinn Fein brought their own influence to bear, a more plausible explanation of the leftward shift was a calculation on the part of the Adams leadership that the Thatcher government might not survive the next election and that it was useful to appeal to a sizeable section of left wing Labour MPs who might be members of the governing party. Adams was at best a cautious socialist, maintaining in 1979 that he knew no one in Sinn Fein who was a Marxist. How easily he forgot Brian Keenan. While in 1985 Adams had suggested that it might not be a good idea for Sinn Fein to overtake the SDLP electorally, as it would result in a dilution of social radicalism, by November 1986 he was telling Irish Times that socialism was not on the agenda.

Within two years of his assuming the leadership of Sinn Fein the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. Primarily its purpose was to undermine the growth of the Republican Movement in the wake of the hunger strikes which had rendered redundant the British three pronged strategy under the rubric of Ulsterisation. The British were still into the business of marginalising republicans and republicanism and were again, as in 1974, seeking to coopt the Dublin government into its strategic framework. Adams dismissed the Agreement as a security initiative that would only copperfasten partition. Yet it did have a certain desired impact and Sinn Fein saw its vote begin to decline.

In 1986 under the leadership of Adams the Provisionals dropped their previous policy of abstentionism in relation to the parliament on the Republic of Ireland. For many traditional republicans this was a heresy. And headed by O’Bradaigh and O’Conaill this group left to form Republican Sinn Fein. It was the second shedding of major strategic opponents in two years. But unlike the first Provisionals who walked out of the 1970 ard fheis this body did not have an army in waiting. The Adams leadership had successfully won the approval of the IRA at the first IRA general army convention in 16 years. Blame for running down the war and for engaging in a disastrous ceasefire was firmly placed in the lap of Adams’ old opponents. What this demonstrated was that ideological concerns were of secondary importance to fighting units in the North.

In the view of Republican Forum:

In order to guarantee the smooth endorsement of key motions, the Adams-McGuinness faction packed the Convention with delegates representing 'paper units'. Despite widespread unease, the convention lifted the ban on taking seats in Leinster House. Many volunteers, while disagreeing with the policy change, saw the need to maintain unity at a time when an escalation of the campaign was being promised.

Republican Forum argues that the real strategic significance of the move was:

Adams and McGuinness signalled their acceptance of the legitimacy of the 26 county state and indicated a desire to normalise relations as a prelude to any possible "pan-nationalist" approach towards the north.

The following year a Scenario For Peace came out. What followed it on the surface seemed anything but peaceful. The IRA prosecuted its war unabated but because of the rate at which it was inflicting civilian casualties which was having a deleterious effect on the Sinn Fein vote and completely grounding the party as an electoral force in the Republic, the military body found itself being warned by Adams to be careful and careful again. In 1992 Towards A Lasting Peace was issued. Despite documents coming out with peace as a central theme, accompanied by a shift in stress from a British declaration of intent to withdraw to one of Britain accepting national self-determination, the political antennae of the membership seemed dulled. But peace had always figured in Provisional discourse even from the supposedly militarist days of MacStiofain. And national self-determination was the first demand presented to the British at the 1972 London truce talks. So members were quite prepared to ignore suggestions in the press that the Provisional leadership might be considering suing for peace. They were reinforced in this belief by the arms shipments of the late 1980s from Libya. Those of us within the prison who stated that a ceasefire was on the cards were told to go and boil our heads. It was something we would hear ad infinitum over the coming years as we predicted the slaughtering of one sacred cow after another.

But there was a clear sea change going on within the Provisionals. According to Moloney, the first indications that Adams was considering a move away from armed struggle came with dialogue he engaged in towards the end of 1982 with Fr Alex Reid. At a 2003 Galway Lecture Moloney claimed that ‘Gerry Adams and the small group of allies and advisers he has gathered around him have been working to end the IRA’s war and to replace it with a political alternative for almost exactly twenty years.’ Anecdotal evidence also indicates that around the time of the 1982 Assembly elections at least one of Adams’s aides was floating the proposal for a struggle that was not armed. Critics of Adams believed at the time that the aide in question was incapable of formulating the plan and their suspicions began to fall on Adams.

These suspicions mushroomed but before they could take the form of internal organisational opposition Adams moved against his critics, resulting in the 1985 expulsion from the movement of a number of people including one close colleague and a former chief of staff, Ivor Bell, who along with Adams had attended the truce talks of 1972, and was widely credited with having drawn up the plans from prison that would lead to a serious restructuring of the IRA. Opposition from those opposed to any unarmed strategy was further attenuated in 1987 with the effective loss of the East Tyrone Brigade when it was ambushed by the SAS and RUC. That brigade had been considering breaking from the Provisional IRA because it suspected the Adams leadership was not as committed to the armed campaign as it proclaimed internally.

It is significant that in a recent RTE interview the former British Army Force Research Unit operative, named Martin Ingram, claimed that when he returned to Northern Ireland from Germany in the second half of the 1980s, the situation was different from what it had been during his earlier tour of duty. He claims to have been aware of a secret peace process. In Ingram’s account the IRA would hit the British hard and sue for peace.

This dovetails with Moloney’s account:

Subtlety, ambiguity and dissembling became the principal features of the peace process project. When finally unveiled it came in two forms. In its first one, the one the Army Council believed to be the real peace process, its central feature was a pan-Nationalist alliance involving Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, the SDLP and Irish-America whose combined strength would wring from the British a date for withdrawal, possibly decades hence and with full Unionist input into the new set-up, in return for which the IRA would end its campaign. That was the version that the Army Council signed on for, a peace process that was consistent with the long-standing goal of Irish republicanism, which was independence and unity. But the peace process that the Irish and British governments had signed up for, as long before as the mid-1980s, was one which was to be something very different indeed. Far from the British naming a date for withdrawal, the end would be Sinn Fein accepting the principle of consent and accepting involvement in a political settlement on terms somewhat less ambitious than Sunningdale. This was the message that Fr Reid brought from Gerry Adams. The pay off for that would be political respectability and electoral success for Sinn Fein. The attraction for both governments, of course, was that this was the endgame that would bring the IRA’s violence to a definitive end and create the conditions for stability in relations between and within these two islands.

Although the smoke signals were billowing indicating that a series of moves between the British and republicans were in train, the bulk of the membership refused to believe anything other than that the leadership was on the right track. There would be no end to the war without a clear declaration of intent to withdraw from the British. Nor would there be an internal solution. Ceasefires and Sunningdales would never be repeated.

But Moloney alleges:

Adams kept his diplomacy a tightly guarded secret from all in the IRA leadership save those whom he could trust. There was never a chance that Adams could have gone to an Army Council upon which figures like Slab Murphy, Kevin McKenna or Michael McKevitt sat and say, ‘Listen lads I have an idea; how about we recognise Northern Ireland and agree that we won’t get Irish unity until the Prods say so, well cut a deal with the Unionists to share power, Martin here can become a minister - and Barbara - meanwhile you guys will call a permanent ceasefire, give up all those Libyan guns, recognise a new re-named police force and eventually we’ll wind down the IRA and disband it. If we do that, then Sinn Fein, under my leadership of course, will become the new SDLP and Fianna Fails of Ireland.’

Despite the gainsaying, in 1994 the IRA engaged in its first official ceasefire since 1975. Adams claimed to have constructed a nationalist alliance between republicans, the SDLP and the Dublin government. Reinforced by a strong Irish American lobby, this alliance could force the British to become persuaders for Irish unity. Before the ceasefire kicked in, Martin McGuinness in January 1994 told the Sunday Business Post that the movement would accept a seven-year delay between the conclusion of negotiations and eventual British withdrawal. The guff that Moloney pointed out was being spoon fed to the army council had now become the main meal for the rank and file as well.

As part of the tight centralised control exercised under Adam’s leadership IRA volunteers were briefed about the ceasefire but were denied any input into the decision to go for it. This was in spite of repeated promises over the years that only a general army convention of the IRA would be in a position to call one. Unlike the Provisional Movement in its earlier years the degree of centralisation and control exercised over the movement by the leadership was now considerable.

In a series of moves from the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, The Framework Document of 1995, the Heads of Agreement Document in 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement of the same year it was becoming clear that out of the two protagonists the British alone had not lost sight of their strategic objectives outlined as far back as 1972. Unlike then, they decided to go for the defeat of Provisional republicanism by including republicans but excluding republicanism. For that reason the longstanding Provisional demands were never serious runners for all party talks. And none of them appeared in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Provisionals have accepted the partition of Ireland, the return of the northern parliament, a reformed police service, and the consent principle. Republican Forum stress the point:

It is worth pausing for one moment to reflect upon the many political characteristics that are common to both Sunningdale and the subsequent 1998 Belfast Agreement. Both Agreements were founded upon the unionist veto and both sought to establish power sharing executives within the six-county state which were designed to co-exist alongside minimalist cross-border institutions

All of this leads to a conclusion that Republicanism under Gerry Adams was the only thing that was defeated. While it is difficult not to marvel at his organisational skill and sense of strategic direction, nor breathe a sense of relief that he brought the war to an end, Adams has merely brought his movement full circle to the point from which it made its departure from the Official Republican Movement 35 years ago. He now promotes unity only by consent – the central demand the British made of the Provisionals; he has brought back the northern parliament, and calls for a reformed police service and the ultimate dissolution of the IRA.

Small wonder that the author Tim Pat Coogan could comment:

The reality is that, just as we in the Republic did over Articles 2 and 3, so did the IRA make historic compromise: It agreed to partition, the British presence and the continuation, in effect, of the unionist veto. As a historian of the physical force movement, I never thought I would live to see the like.

In some respects the role of Adams has not differed greatly from others in similar conflict situations. Former Fatah Leader in the Hebron region, Ahmad Dudin, referred to ‘the Palestinian Authority has always been a one-man operation.’ Moreover, the result of this autocracy was, according to one Palestinian human rights activist, ‘a police state without a state.’ Consequently, in order to suppress dissent the Provisional leadership has resorted to threats, intimidation, marginalisation, and on occasion murder.

Today the Provisional Republican Movement under the leadership of Adams inhabits an ideological vacuum. It’s strategic compass goes only where power lies. Left or right does not matter. Expansionism is the only show in town. Adams is not to be criticised for bringing to a conclusion the futile campaign of the IRA. In some respects it can be said that he faced up to the reality that the Provisional movement had articulated impossibilist and totalising demands onto a struggle that was much more limited in terms of what was needed to bring it to a conclusion. Coogan, while, somewhat open to the charge of revisionism, nevertheless has a point in claiming that

the struggle by Nationalists in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years, and continuing today, was not about territory or flags or even driving the British out of Northern Ireland. What motivated most people was human rights. It still does.

But observers will feel justified in pondering the purpose in waging a long war which in essence only achieved what was on offer prior to the long war being initiated. Moreover, the lurching of the Provisionals to the right, their attempts to become a catch all party, their dalliance with the White House and their attendance at the World Economic Forums in contrast to their absence from World Social Forums all point towards the existence of a hegemonic force devoid of any principles and characterised by unalloyed opportunism which has completely deideologised Provisional republicanism in its pursuit of power. A force still prepared to use violence to further its own sectional objectives without wider regard for the society it is meant to bring peace to.

Ultimately the question of whether Gerry Adams is a man of war or a man of peace, is best answered by concluding that he is a man of neither but is ultimately someone who is prepared to use war or peace in pursuit of enhanced influence and prestige. A man of power is perhaps a more apt description.

Perhaps the sheer absence of an ideological core to the Adams strategy was summed up when at a meeting of the elite of the Irish business world, according to last Saturday’s Irish Times, Adams's background message was that his party understands the need for pragmatism.

Asked about public-private partnerships, he acknowledged that Martin McGuinness had reluctantly accepted the need for private investment while in power in Northern Ireland. "Well, we are against them," he said. "Having said that, Martin McGuinness, as education minister, faced with the reality that he would either have no schools or an involvement in a qualified way with private finance, went for it. So I suppose you could argue that that is the emergence of pragmatic politics." Equally, Sinn Féin's acceptance of service charges in Sligo was justified by Adams, despite all of the party's railings nationally against such bills. "Sinn Féin councillors in Sligo, rather than seeing the service go entirely over to privatisation, and seeing the aged, or people on low incomes, suffering, then went for a more pragmatic approach. The same thing has happened in Monaghan. Our position is against it. But in terms of the actual practicalities of working out these matters, as part of local government, the party made compromises on it," he told the gathering. On taxation, Adams offered soothing words that meant little: "I am reluctant to say that we would do A or we would do B. We are not in principle against tax increases, but we have no plans to introduce them. We just think that there should be a far, far better way of doing business."

In reading this I recall what a friend, Tommy Gorman, often says to me. Why vote – sure the government always gets in?





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All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

11 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Palestine Greater than Arafat
Sam Bahour

Gerry Adams: Man of War and Man of Peace?
Anthony McIntyre

From IRA to OCA?
Dr. John Coulter

The Orange Order: Go Forward by Going Back
Rev. Brian Kennaway

Choosing to Ignore the Facts: Not the Fault of the Left
Tara LaFreniere

Onward Christian soldiers
Tyrone Gottlieb

7 November 2004

How We Progressives Helped Elect G.W. Bush
Fred A. Wilcox

No Escape from the Anthill
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Talking With... Áine Gribbon

Meeting Hugh Orde
Anthony McIntyre

A Woman's Right to Choose
Mick Hall

A Single Palestine
Peter Urban

Turkey Day
Brian Mór



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