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At Last We Know the Human Cost of Gerry Adams

Paul Bew

Today, Gerry Adams presents himself as a folksy, slightly pompous avuncular figure in Irish politics: a moralist who chides the politicians in Dublin for their embarrassingly corrupt ways. The second most popular political leader in Ireland, the "brand image" Adams was crucial to Sinn Fein's success in the Irish general elections this year.

Peter Mandelson has suggested that becoming President of Ireland may be just beyond the reach of the Sinn Fein leader. The fact remains that becoming Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland seems to many to be a real and present possibility.

But Mr Adams emerges from a new book, A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney, smelling like a rotten cabbage. If the author of the book - an award-winning Irish journalist - is to be believed, Mr Adams knew about the killing of Jean McConville, the widowed mother of 10 children who was murdered by the IRA in 1972. Mr Adams has since said he thinks the allegation that he knew about or was involved in the murder is outrageous.

There is a frightening element, it would appear, of bogus sincerity in Mr Adams's public persona. Mr Moloney presents a picture of Mr Adams, in his best concerned mode, attempting to placate President Clinton and the families of the disappeared in the 1990s, while retaining an insider's knowledge of what really happened.

But even now, is there any hard proof against the Sinn Fein president? Mr Moloney relies heavily on a range of interviews with republican activists, many of whom, it will be said, have an axe to grind against the leader who brilliantly manipulated them to the point where the IRA campaign ended without achieving its stated objective of British withdrawal from Ireland. All that could be said here with certainty is that Mr Moloney presents the evidence by means of relentless accumulation of precise detail that may convince many readers.

From a broader historical perspective, it is possible to draw more definite conclusions. It seems certain that, as far as the "peace process" is concerned, history does repeat itself. There are no surprise stops on this journey. In 1920-21, Britain hit on a carrot-and-stick policy to deal with Sinn Fein/IRA.

Having identified a pro-compromise faction around Michael Collins, the British protected this faction while hitting hard at those republicans who wanted to fight on. Up to his death, Collins lied about the date of his first contact with British intermediaries; these discussions took place much earlier than he ever admitted to his revolutionary colleagues.

From Mr Moloney's book, it is clear, too, that Mr Adams opened the dialogue with the British, in the unlikely shape of Tom King, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as early as 1986, long before he shared this news with the movement he led. The underlying assumption of this dialogue was not British withdrawal - to which the Adams leadership was then publicly wedded.

What, then, are the political implications? Some of the naive liberals who got on the Adams bandwagon in recent years will be shocked. American readers may be particularly disturbed by the account of Mr Adams's switch to the Left in the late 1970s and the murder campaign against business leaders that followed. Ulster Unionists will be less shocked. They have never believed anything other than that Mr Adams is a bad man, and a bad man who compounds his badness by endless displays of slippery hypocrisy.

David Trimble will, however, add that, while Mr Moloney's book proves that Mr Adams is a troublesome and dishonest adversary, there is little alternative to dealing with him as the leader of a formidable section of Northern nationalist opinion. Indeed, Mr Trimble might well add that this book vindicates his analysis of Mr Adams as the republican leader who realised a very long time ago that the traditional republican project in Ireland was unattainable and had to be quietly buried.

Many British people reading Mr Moloney's account of the cunning with which Mr Adams guided IRA militants towards peace - calming them one moment, allowing them their heads the next - will feel a sneaking sense of gratitude. Irish republicans, or rather those Irish republicans who sincerely believed in the project of the "Republic", will be appalled.

For such people, the moral price of this squalid war was only worth paying if the end result was the triumph of their particular political vision. Instead, they have witnessed a new ethnic bargain, one available in most essentials since the mid-1970s, which has revised Stormont, albeit along power-sharing and Irish dimension lines.

Such people will be made very uneasy by the long catalogue of military reversals suffered by the militant IRA since 1986, which, whatever their cause - and Mr Moloney leaves the matter open - contributed to the success of the Adams strategy.

But these political calculations are not the sum total of the story. Mr Moloney's real achievement is to remind us of the human cost of the "Troubles" and the policy of human sacrifice pursued for so long by Mr Adams and his colleagues at surprisingly little risk to their own lives - republicans inflicted almost 60 per cent of the deaths during the Troubles, while suffering 13 per cent themselves.

The human beings who suffer in this book are real human beings with a right to life, not chips in a cynical political game. It remains for someone to tell the appalling story of loyalist terror gangs, but it is unlikely there will be a more intimate book on the IRA.

It serves as a salutary corrective to those in the British and Irish establishments who apparently believe that Ulster Unionist accommodation with Sinn Fein ought to be a painless and easy process. The truth is that it is not surprising that the Belfast Agreement faces serious difficulties today - it is more surprising that it has lasted so long and got so far.

Paul Bew is the Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. This article first ran in the Daily Telegraph and is carried here with permission from the author.






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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

4 October 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Revealing Secrets


At Last We Know the Human Cost of Gerry Adams

Paul Bew


The Boys of the Old Brigade Are Not Happy
Brian Mór


Segregation in Oldham
Mark Hayes


Common Denominators

Aine Fox


SF - Stormont First
Anthony McIntyre


Dispatches from the U.S. Anti-War Movement
Julie Brown


Preventing the Bush Turkey Shoot
Steve McWilliams


29 September 2002


Landlordism and the Housing Question
Liam O Ruairc


No Rest Days

Anthony McIntyre


The Meeting
Davy Carlin


It Shall All Come Tumbling Down
Sam Bahour




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