When Gerry met Jesus

The Sinn Fein president showed he lacked biblical wisdom just when it could have been of benefit.

Channel 4 is reported to be braced for a ritualistic public stoning over its decision to screen a documentary about Gerry Adams's own personal Jesus, to be broadcast this weekend. In fact, the first stones were cast at the station's big glass house in Horseferry Road, London, as soon as the news emerged, shortly before Christmas, that the man who has fronted the Irish republican cause for over a quarter of a century was heading off to the Holy Land to shoot his film.

Sinn Fein-IRA's dramatic rebranding as "Gerry and the Peacemakers" was never going to soften the self-righteous scribes who update the modern bible of Middle England every day. There was an almighty wail from the Daily Mail about how Adams was going to meet victims of the Troubles and talk about repentance and forgiveness. They don't do soppy notions like personal redemption at Northcliffe House. (Which is located in -- of all places -- London's Derry Street!)

This weekend, viewers across these islands will find out what all the fuss was about when the latest parchment of Channel 4's current Sunday-night God-slot offering, The Bible: a History, is aired. The series kicked off with Howard Jacobson on Genesis and then gave us Rageh Omaar on Abraham and Ann Widdecombe on the Ten Commandments. Gerry got Jesus.

 

Shinners' spin

But does he really get Jesus? Does Adams truly understand why this strange street preacher steadfastly rejected the path of political violence in the face of imperial atrocities? His answer: "Sometimes I was in tune with the Jesus message and sometimes not . . . I'm not a pacifist and I don't believe that non-violent protest would have got justice in Ireland."

Trailing the show on his personal blog, the Sinn Fein president wrote:

If Jesus had been Irish what would he have done? He too lived in an occupied country. There were a number of uprisings before, during and after his life. The desire of the Jewish people to be free of imperial rule was very strong. Indeed, many of them were waiting for a Messiah to liberate them and to bring back the Kingdom of David. Did any of them see Jesus as a liberator? Is this what the Romans feared?

If Jesus had been Irish . . . What a tragedy that that crucial hypothesis wasn't contemplated seriously before a terrible beauty was born in Dublin's General Post Office in 1916, or before a small band of zealots eschewed the nascent civil rights movement and plunged into their foolish and futile "armed struggle" against the British imperial state.

If you want to see through the Shinners' spin and understand what a whole sorry waste of time -- and thousands of lives -- their struggle was, read Henry McDonald's Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dress up Defeat as Victory.

The year 1916 was dripping in Christian symbolism. The timing of the Easter Rising (still an event of totemic significance for northern nationalists) was anything but accidental.

This was insurrection as Resurrection. Patrick Pearse spoke of blood sacrifice and Michael Collins even subsequently called his crack assassination squad the "Twelve Apostles". Disappointingly, that vital historic dimension doesn't feature at all in the documentary that Channel 4 will screen on Sunday.

 

"Give us Barabbas!"

The film does contain a bit about Barabbas, who was banged up in a Jerusalem prison for taking part in an insurrection against the same city's ruling authorities -- and for murder.

"From someone else's viewpoint, he might well have been a freedom fighter," muses Adams, clad in a keffiyeh to demonstrate his solidarity with the Palestinians. No surprise there. Faced with the very same choice as Pontius Pilate put to the multitude in Jerusalem -- Jesus or Barabbas? -- generations of Irish republican zealots (what Joyce would have called the "Rabblement") have yelled back: "Give us Barabbas!"

They've done so unwittingly, for sure. As Adams acknowledges, an Irish Catholic upbringing doesn't tend to encourage critical interrogation of the gospels. Yet, in contrast to a growing number of his compatriots, the Sinn Fein leader still describes himself as "an Irish Catholic, despite all the let-downs and scandals that the Church has become embroiled in".

Paedophilia scandals now also engulf the Adams family. As Gerry was heading off to the Holy Land to shoot his film on Jesus, the sensational news broke back in Belfast that his brother Liam was on the run in the Republic after being charged with sexually abusing one of his daughters throughout her childhood. According to the victim, the Sinn Fein president failed to protect her.

Adams repudiated his niece's allegations straight away in a local UTV documentary, screened in Ulster in December, and has since spoken in some detail on Dublin's leading chat show about the traumatic impact of the revelations on his whole family and what he perceives as the cruel treatment of the Adamses by elements of the press. (One leading local satirist now delights in lampooning the "Perversional IRA").

The Channel 4 film sadly misses out on this fascinating angle, which surely demonstrates how abuses of power and cruel domination are sins committed not only by occupying imperial armies.

 

Moment of insight

Adams's audiovisual essay should have been about Judas as well as Jesus, because he had a fascinating take on the most infamous act of betrayal in human history but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. It certainly fascinated his theological mentor for the programme.

"I had always thought of Judas's betrayal as something active, something he chose to do, rather than a situation he was forced into, perhaps under duress," says Dr Helen Bond, a senior lecturer in divinity at Edinburgh University. "But Gerry instinctively understood the defection.

" 'That's what happens,' he said. 'They got to him.' "

In other words, Judas Iscariot was a "tout" (the Provo term for "informer").

Not surprising that Adams should have this piercing insight. As more and more darks truths about the Troubles emerge, even the dogs in the streets of Derry and Belfast now know that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA was thoroughly penetrated at every level by British security agents. In fact, it was riddled with supergrasses (even Adams's personal driver, Roy "the Rat" McShane, was a spook!).

 

Another Judas

The programme-makers should have listened to Michael Davitt, who was cured of his brutal fantasies after a long, dark spell in Dartmoor for terrorist activities on behalf of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) at the end of the 19th century.

Realising that underground, armed conspiracies would always be infiltrated and undermined by the Special Branch, Davitt turned his back on the physical force tradition to campaign for Irish self-determination and social justice by peaceful means, becoming leader of the Land League and then an MP.

Davitt inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his non-violent struggle against the British empire. But only since the onset of the peace process has the "one-armed patriot" been admitted to the pantheon of Irish republican heroes.

Until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Davitt was deemed a Judas. In truth, he understood what Jesus also clearly understood: an imperial state can be the coldest of cold monsters, and those who would seek to slay such leviathans need to be wise as serpents. Alas, Gerry Adams lacked such wisdom, just when it could have been of benefit to him.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Independent Colleges, Dublin.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue