“What was the IRA for?” asks the respected Belfast journalist Malachi O’Doherty in his piercing biography of Gerry Adams. It is a question to which his subject, president of Sinn Féin for three and a half decades, has provided contrasting answers during a long political career. Adams has never admitted to being in the IRA, despite the widespread belief that he sat on its army council since the 1970s. Whatever the truth, no one has done more to explain the various phases of its campaign to different audiences in Ireland, Britain and the United States; and no one has been defter at changing the script.
Ten years ago, Adams told the Guardian’s Nick Stadlen that “the use of armed actions” was “never about building the united Ireland, they were always about protesting or standing up to British policy”. The idea that the IRA campaign was a protest against injustice, fought primarily in the name of achieving civil rights, would have been enough to get you laughed out of a room of republicans at any point during its 30-year war. But it is textbook Adams to target the sweet spot of his audience – and there are many star-struck admirers, such as Ken Livingstone, who makes a cartoonish cameo in this book – or jar the antennae of his critics with gymnastic evasiveness and platitudinous bilge. The best that can ever be hoped for is a version of the truth.
O’Doherty – who was born two years after Adams, raised on the same streets, and as an adolescent had a number of friends in common – has been an unsparing critic of IRA violence in the past.
Adams, who has written three sentimental memoirs, will not enjoy the level of scrutiny shone upon episodes he would prefer to forget. The highlights of international statesmanship, such as his handshake with Bill Clinton on the Falls Road in 1995, are only mentioned in passing. Instead, O’Doherty gives more attention to unresolved controversies such as Adams’s role in the bombings of Bloody Friday in 1972, the fate of “disappeared” civilians (such as the abducted mother of ten, Jean McConville), the alleged manipulation of the hunger strikers for political gain, or the cover-up of sexual abuse. But this is not a hatchet job so much as an attempt to unpack the psychological layers behind what is, as O’Doherty acknowledges, a phenomenally resilient character and sophisticated political mind.
The oldest and tallest in a family of ten, Adams cut an awkward figure in his childhood – teased by his sister for a slight stammer and sent to live with his grandmother when the family home got too full. As a devout Catholic teenager, he declared his intention to join the Christian Brothers, for which he was promptly scolded by his father. Gerry Adams Senior had been interned during the Second World War when the IRA sought alliance with the Nazis and had founded the Felons Club for former volunteers. He told his son that it was more noble to take up arms for Ireland.
Gerry Senior had raised his family on tales of Irish nationalist heroism and British skulduggery. So he was granted full IRA military honours at his funeral in 2003, even after it emerged that he had sexually abused a number of his children. Liam Adams, Gerry’s younger brother, was in turn convicted in 2013 for sexual offences against his own daughter. It was then claimed that the Sinn Féin leader had engaged in a cover-up, allegedly dissuading his niece from pursuing the matter with the police. As the first to leave the family home, Gerry claims he was unaware of his father’s abuse until years later.
After training as a barman in Belfast’s famous Duke of York pub, which was frequented by journalists and judges, he began to establish himself as a “Big Lad” in the local republican community. He was blessed with wit and folksy charm, but he also cultivated the image of a serious strategist. He rounded out his Belfast accent and dispensed with much of the street slang. He rarely followed fashions and dressed in rustic jumpers and well-worn tweed, topped up with glasses and trademark beard.
The British state saw a future leader in Adams from his early twenties and kept a close eye on him. (Adams suspected they even shanghaied his dog, Shane.) At 24, he was flown to London with a senior IRA delegation for a secret meeting with Northern Ireland secretary of state, Willie Whitelaw, in 1972. Also on the visit was Martin McGuinness, aged 23, who, unlike Adams, never denied membership of the IRA. While both men were seen as hardliners, intelligence officers also marked them out as men with whom business might eventually be done. Did the British state go out of its way to keep Adams alive? All sorts of conspiracy theories surround his survival of an assassination attempt by loyalists in 1984, including the not-implausible claim that the intelligence agencies interfered with the weapon used to fire four bullets into his body, to reduce their impact.
Adams’s rise came on the back of two bitter feuds: the split between the “Official” and the “Provisional” IRA that began in the late 1960s; and the rupture between the Southern and Northern command in the mid-1970s, which saw him emerge as de facto leader of the “young Turks”. He had two lengthy spells in prison, yet it was understood that he was more of a thinker than a foot soldier. He was regarded as comparatively inept in the arts of bomb making and weaponry. In the words of a fellow prisoner, Richard O’Rawe: “Gerry didn’t do operations, ever. Gerry was a sender-out. He was up to his balls in it.”
It takes some stamina to bear the weight of so many dark secrets. There has been speculation about his potential retirement for months. But Adams sees opportunities in the destabilisation caused by Brexit and in his association with Jeremy Corbyn, who he has known “for a very, very long time”. At 68, the Big Lad just confirmed that he would seek re-election as Sinn Féin president at his party’s conference in November.
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life
Faber & Faber, 368pp, £14.99