When I recently asked a sardonic Northern Irish friend what historical figures Gerry Adams resembled, the tasteless reply came back: ‘A mixture of Jimmy Savile and Oswald Mosley.’ There are elements of both archetypes in this new unauthorised portrait, but it stops short of going the full distance. Perhaps we should not be surprised.
The Savile reference is to the grisly theme of child abuse in Adams’s family, leading to his brother’s conviction for offences against his own daughter, and the revelation that Adams père had also sexually abused his children.
Though no such accusation attaches to the Sinn Fein leader, these episodes have affected him politically as well as personally. For one thing, the saccharine accounts of poor-but-happy family reminiscences which he published some years ago (Falls Memories and the like) now read even more oddly than they did then. For another thing, he seems to have heard about his niece’s allegations against her father long before he did anything about it — having apparently forgotten a good deal in the interim. Again, no surprise here: Adams’s memory is a capacious but unreliable thing.
His future reputation matters to him, and there have been a number of previous biographies, most stepping pretty carefully — as well as his own reminiscences, presented in several ways (some of them served up as lightly disguised fiction, some not). Malachi O’Doherty is a contrarian and often very funny journalist and writer to whom (as to Newton Emerson) the province owes a lot. He has a way with titles (The Trouble with Guns; I Was a Teenage Catholic) and is no respecter of pieties. But although there is much insight in his latest book, his slippery subject tends to evade him at the end.
The strength of the book is to establish Adams’s pur sang Belfast-Republican background with sharpness and depth — and to pattern against it the squalid revelations that have been aired since. There is also fascinating material about Adams’s life in jail, and the differing reactions to him by members of the movement. Above all, there is the overarching question: why should someone so authoritatively in the eye of the storm that overtook Northern Ireland from 1969; so all-powerful within the broad front of Provisional politics; so early brought to London to negotiate terms with Willie Whitelaw; and so able (as O’Doherty shows) to impose terms on official-versus-Provo feuds — why should such a person keep denying that he was in the IRA and expect to be believed?
Part of the answer must lie in Adams’s long game. Having repositioned and remarketed himself as a ‘man of peace’, with an eye perhaps on the presidency of Ireland (which his colleague Martin McGuinness contested last time round), he is anxious that the days of shooting policemen, bombing hotels, knee-capping recalcitrant juniors and ‘disappearing’ inconvenient bodies fade into obscurity. With younger voters, who were born into a peace-process world, this may well work: as it has done with admiring (and often very rich) Americans for decades. I once made the faux pas of trying to explain to a Park Avenue matron that her recent guest Mr Adams was not exactly Nelson Mandela and received very short shrift indeed.
O’Doherty has conducted many penetrating interviews, and used to good effect the controversial recordings of participants made by Boston College, where people said more than they might have, under the mistaken impression that their confidences were embargoed. The evidence of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price specifically stated that Adams was the IRA supremo, but they are now dead and he is not; and they had their reasons to smear him.
The best part of this book analyses how Adams thought, and why he succeeded as a ‘street warrior’ back in the 1970s:
General Tuzo had grasped that the IRA was not necessarily representative of the community but had failed to grasp the implications of it being a part of it. Adams, on the other hand, more ambitiously sought to argue that the IRA was the community and was representative of it.
Adams must be credited for realising that the community which he claimed the IRA was representing was not the only tradition in Northern Ireland, and for belatedly realising that co-operation with Unionists was the necessary first step to any kind of settlement. But there is less here about his enmity to the constitutional-nationalist tradition, and the moderate Catholic element, represented by the SDLP. The Provos reserved a special hatred for the SDLP, and — a central part of the ‘peace process’ — effectively expelled them from politics (as Paisley’s DUP did the Trimblistas of the Official Unionist Party). More on the talks between Adams and the SDLP’s John Hume, which began the process, would be welcome here. But the book tends to peter out towards the end.
More energy might have been injected by a fuller consideration of Adams’s record and position in the politics of the Republic where he now sits as a member of Dail Eireann. He does not seem much liked by colleagues from other parties, and his mixture of sanctimonious piety and unconvincing sallies into folksy humour (often via tweet) are grating. But Sinn Fein are stealing the clothes of the Irish Labour Party as they stole those of the SDLP. Adams is loved by his party, and can nominate his successor — who will come from the generation that does not remember, or care about, his early life and record. To watch him receive their adulation at the annual Ard-Fheis is to see the longest lasting party leader in these islands still in ultimate control. But — to return to that opening comparison — watching him it is hard not to remember what was said about Oswald Mosley by his son Nicholas. ‘His right hand dealt with grandiose ideas and glory, while his left hand let the rat out of the sewer.’