The Blanket

How Clever Was Adams?

Henry Patterson • Fortnight, October, 2002

Although Gerry Adams is taking legal advice on claims by Ed Moloney that he was deeply implicated in the killing and 'disappearing' of Jean McConville and others accused of betraying IRA operations to the British, Moloney's portrayal of Adams' role in the peace process is by far the most fulsome that has been produced so far. On one of his media appearances to promote the book the author referred to Adams' 'strategic genius' and advised Unionists to reassess their instinctively hostile attitude to the man who is portrayed as having worked out the basic framework of the deal signed on Good Friday 1998 as early as 1982. In the preface as well as suggesting that Adams should have shared the Nobel prize along with John Hume and David Trimble, he describes Adams as a figure of comparable historical significance as Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

This book is by far the most detailed and convincing account of Adams' truly machiavellian achievement in bringing the bulk of the IRA to accepting in the Good Friday Agreement what amounted to broadly the same sort of deal that was on offer at the Sunningdale conference in 1973 which was rejected contemptuously by republicans at the time. It revises radically the chronology of the peace process whose origins are seen not in the late 1980s but in discussions between Adams and his long time confidant, the Redemptorist priest, Alec Reid which began in 1982. Thus by the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which other accounts have treated as a crucial catalytic event in the development of republican strategy, Moloney claims the peace process was three years old. Rather than the Malley/McKittrck account which portrays the initial republican outreach as being to Charles Haughey Moloney shows that Adams approached the British state, in the person of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King, first in 1986/87.

The author's unparalleled access to IRA sources for this period and the early 1990s provides the most comprehensive and subtle account of the interweaving of feelers to the British , Haughey and the SDLP alongside the attempt by the 'soldiers' in the leadership of the IRA to use Libyan-provided hardwire to launch an Irish 'Tet Offensive' to break the British will to stay. The analysis of the increasing degree to which Adams and his supporters attempted to control IRA violence in order to minimise threats to the pan-nationalist alliance with Dublin and the SDLP, along with his account of the Loughgall ambush and the decimation of the potentially dissident East Tyrone IRA provides the most insightful account of a crucial period of Provo 'armed struggle' that I have read.

There are numerous references to the widespread suspicions in republican circles, particularly in Tyrone, that crucial operations were betrayed by one or more high-level informers. However, Moloney provides no evidence to link the existence of such spies to Mr Adams and in the case of Loughgall admits that 'glaring mistakes' in the planning of the operation may well have alerted the security to forces. However he does emphasis the degree to which such botched or betrayed operations greatly assisted the progress of Adams' pursuit of his 'secret peace process' with the London and Dublin governments.

By emphasising the degree to which the peace process was a 'pre-cooked dinner' concocted by Reid and Adams in the early 1980s and based on the acceptance of the principle of Unionist consent as essential to any settlement, Moloney has certainly produced a provocative thesis, which, if true, would be the basis for the overturning of the dominant discourses, academic and political, on the peace process. It is not sufficient as some of the more robotic Sinn Fein spin doctors may allege to try and hang the 'dissident' placard around the author's neck. It is true that a very high proportion of the references which back up the central arguments of the book are to unspecified former IRA members and confidential interviews with peace process participants and senior clerics. But Moloney's reputation as an expert reporter with more than two decades of experience of covering Northern Ireland, and until the early 1990s at least, extremely good access to the inner circles of Mr Adams should make any reader hesitant before dismissing the book's central arguments.

The problem lies not in the reliability of the sources but in Moloney's interpretation of them and the fact that on the crucial issue of the consent principle the evidence is at best thin. That Adams was responsible for a fundamental reworking of republican military and political strategy is not seriously contestable. What is is the argument that he was, since the mid-1980s, surreptitiously guiding a largely recalcitrant movement towards acceptance of Sunningdale Mark 2. He may well have concluded by 1982 that armed struggle would not force a British withdrawal and that the continuation of violence would put a firm limit of the electoral progress of Sinn Fein. He may also have realised, however belatedly, that the major obstacle to republican objectives was the Unionists not the British. But Moloney's evidence that he had accepted the principle of consent is not convincing.

The six questions which Adams is claimed to have posed in a letter to Tom King in 1986/87 (250) included requests for the British to play the role of 'persuaders' for unity and a public statement of an intention to withdraw from Ireland by a specified date. As this was part of Adams 'secret diplomacy' with the British it is hard to square with Moloney's thesis of his already having the Good Friday Agreement on ice. In documents which Alec Reid presented to Haughey in 1987 the idea of Unionist consent was included. However as Moloney point out these documents were drawn up by Reid who melded together ideas that had come from the British and Irish as well as Adams and himself. The 'Stepping Stones' document did prefigure the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement but Moloney does not convincingly establish that it reflected Adams position at the time.

Adams' 'genius' lay not in anticipating the need for an historic compromise between Unionism and Nationalism/Republicanism. How could it while he, like Moloney in his unimpressive traditionalist account of the origins of the Troubles treats Unionism as an essentially reactionary philosophy which needs to be weakened and marginalised not accommodated? Rather, it lay in an acute awareness of how to exploit contradictions between Unionists and the British state and intra-unionists divisions to try and produce a settlement that would have been much more like joint authority than that which was agreed at Stormont in 1998.

Moloney raises but does not answer the question of how Adams was able to sell radical reversals of policy on ceasefires and participation in Stormont to his reluctant base. Perhaps the answer is simple: faithfulness to republican theology was ultimately less important than an ability to exploit the more neuralgic reflexes of unionism to persuade his followers that what was agreed in 1998 would ultimately prove to be a far more effective way of ending partition than armed struggle.

Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster. His book Ireland Since 1939 will be published by OUP on 24th October





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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
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Index: Current Articles

13 October 2002


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How Clever Was Adams?
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Academics on Independence, Part 2

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