The Blanket

The Wily Ways Of A Boy From Ballymurphy

Barry White • Belfast Telegraph

THE title of Ed Moloney's book is A Secret History of the IRA (Allen Lane/Penguin £20), but How Gerry Adams Transformed the IRA would be more appropriate, since at least three-quarters of it concerns his largely successful efforts to make violence pay politically.

Love him or hate him, he is the dominant figure in the making or breaking of the peace process. Without him and his machinations, taking in the British, the Irish, the Americans, the unionists and - especially - his own people, the IRA might have abandoned its campaign long ago, and the Irish question would be a lot further from a resolution than it is.

The conversion of the IRA from armed strugglers to democratic politicians still has a long way to go, and may never be complete, but Moloney makes a good case for arguing that it would not have begun if a master strategist like Adams had not emerged.

Although there may have been better generals, and Michael Collins might have proved a better politician, no one has come close to keeping both wings of republicanism flapping in unison, to such enormous effect.

The book begins with the Libyan connection and the betrayal of the Eksund's 150-ton cargo of weapons in 1987, which is taken as a turning point. The IRA hardliners, who were resisting Adams's electoral strategy, were planning a "Tet offensive", replicating the Vietcong's winning blitzkrieg in Vietnam, but not only was the fifth and biggest shipment followed all the way, but even the explosive charge that was to scuttle the ship had been sabotaged.

There was either a highly-placed informer in the camp - like the well-documented "Stakeknife" - or British or American intelligence had woken up to the IRA's source of supply. The war went on, but it stumbled from one disaster to another, and the politically-minded Sinn Fein leadership began to win the argument.

There were other reasons for the militants' failure. The much-dreaded SAM missiles, which are still in the IRA armoury, were of Sixties vintage, with dead battery units, and the IRA's bullets could not penetrate the Army's new flak jackets. Even the heavy Russian machine guns fired too slowly and needed three men to carry them.

Over-confidence, as well as probable betrayal, was responsible for the convenient destruction of the IRA's East Tyrone brigade at Loughgall. The sheepdogs that normally were let loose to sniff out soldiers were dispensed with, and the likely dissidents of the future were eliminated.

Much of the interest in the book has centred on the "disappeared" and Moloney's assertion that Adams would have known about the killing of suspected informers like Jean McConville, but this is a rare accusation. Other IRA leaders rose because of their record as "operators", but not Adams.

"Although he was to dominate the IRA for the next 30 years," writes Moloney, "there is no evidence that he ever fired a shot in anger against the British or their local allies." An early colleague is quoted as saying he never met anyone who had been on an operation with him - "he was never on a robbery, never on a gun crew, a bombing or anything".

Nevertheless, Moloney does not absolve him from his responsibility, as Belfast commander and briefly as chief of staff, during some of the worst violence. Although he was in jail and had no part in the conception of Bloody Friday, he is accused of being involved in its organisation. Once Adams was convinced that more could be gained by politics than terrorism, he was just as determined and devious in getting his way. The old socialist - who hesitated before joining the Provisionals in 1970 - reappeared, though never so openly as to worry his American supporters.

Ever the charmer, who goes out of his way to make a personal connection with anyone he meets, Adams only occasionally allows a glimpse of his private life or inner feelings. When he reads another book that fails to penetrate his bullet-proof shell, the passage that might offend him most may be an account of his wife's arrival at an army meeting in 1972.

Someone present describes how she burst in, sitting on Adams's lap and going all "kissy-kissy", stroking his hair. What if her husband was unfaithful, she was asked? "This is all I care about," she replied, holding up her ring, and Adams giggled.
The only other tabloid titbit also dates back to the early years, when an informer who was an estate agent used to give the keys of houses for sale to IRA men. They would use them for rendezvous with girlfriends, presumably having their pillow talk recorded by the RUC.

War was Adams's means of getting to a position of influence, but this record shows how he used it, after some prompting, to work for political change. There always was an alternative, through the ballot box, but first the IRA and Sinn Fein had to be convinced that the system could be used to their advantage.
The hunger strikes played their part, opening up new lines of communication with governments and tapping a new vote, but preliminary negotiations on a peace process can be dated back to the kidnap of a UDR man in 1982.

Although Father Alec Reid of Clonard Monastery failed in his attempt to save the hostage - too much security near the scene - he was encouraged to act as go-between with the British and Irish governments. Quietly and without the knowledge of the IRA leadership, the message was conveyed that a ceasefire - and therefore compromise - was possible.

If Moloney can be relied upon - and no book on the troubles has been more deeply researched and cogently argued - the way that Adams was able to manipulate the IRA and Sinn Fein, against all their instincts, was nothing short of masterful. John Hume lent respectability and intellectual weight to the debate, but all manner of people were involved, wheeling and dealing and inserting lines into speeches that only insiders could fully comprehend.

The one conclusion to be drawn from the engrossing saga is that when it comes to ending military stalemates, nothing that anyone says should be taken at face value. People are talking to each other, even without the knowledge of Secretaries of State or the top leadership of paramilitary organisations.

Should we be worried? Not really, so long as eventually the facts are put to us honestly and squarely, without undue ambiguity.

In the case of the Good Friday Agreement, they weren't, which is why the current crisis has arisen. It, too, will be overcome, in time, when someone passes the word to someone else that so-and-so is ready to talk.

Whether Adams foresaw where it would lead, the tactic of converting the IRA from violence to votes, and getting governments to ease the pain, has paid rich dividends.

He has split the unionists asunder, kept the military threat intact, and has advanced the republican cause farther than anyone since partition. Not bad for a boy from Ballymurphy, whom nobody trusts - with good reason.

This article is carried with permission from the author and was first published in the Belfast Telegraph.




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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
- Ayn Rand

Index: Current Articles

20 October 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Dancing on the Graves of Ten Men Dead
Anthony McIntyre


The Wily Ways of a Boy From Ballymurphy

Barry White


SF's Ruse Coloured Glasses
Brian Mór


Historic Shirts of the World
Brian Mór


Liam O Ruairc


From Belfast To Genoa - Now Florence
Davy Carlin


An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee
Jeanie Bauer


The Letters Page has been updated.


17 October 2002


Statement from Republican Prisoners, Maghaberry


Running on Empty
Anthony McIntyre


The Political Treachery at the Heart of the IRA

Toby Harnden


Adams' Ashes
Brian Mór


The Boys of the New Brigade
Brian Mór


The Original 1930's Classic Blue Shirt
Brian Mór


Cherishing the Children of the Nation Equally
Liam O Ruairc


Republicanism and the Crisis Within the Peace Process
Davy Carlin




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