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.