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Newsmaker: Gerry Adams

The leader of the Sinn Fein party, which was viewed as the political wing of the terrorist group the IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, exploded into the headlines this week after being questioned over a woman’s murder, writes Colin Randall.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

A peacemaker and visionary or a man with the blood of innocents on his hands ... It may be impossible to know about Gerry Adams without holding a strong opinion on him.

With the grey hair and beard, and distinctive spectacles completing the appearance of a rural schoolmaster, Adams is instantly recognisable as the face of Irish ­republicanism.

The president for 31 years of Sinn Fein, which was broadly seen during the Northern Ireland “Troubles” as the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA), he played a pivotal role in the transition from armed rebellion to constitutional means.

He has been likened by supporters to Nelson Mandela and was invited to join a guard of honour when the anti-apartheid leader’s body was handed over to the African National Congress before last year’s South African state ­funeral.

But the judgement of others has been less reverent: “an Armani-clad terrorist” was one description whispered to reporters by a senior aide to Peter Brooke, the then Northern Ireland secretary in the British government, during informal peace talks of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It’s the persistent allegation of active association with terrorism that has propelled Adams, now a member of the Irish parliament after previously sitting in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, back into the international spotlight.

For four days, until his release without charge on Sunday, he was questioned by police investigating the IRA’s kidnapping, murder and burial of a Belfast woman, Jean McConville, in 1972.

A Catholic convert and the mother of 10 children, McConville was accused – falsely, according to a later investigation by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman – of selling information about republicans to the British army.

The IRA is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of about half the 3,500 people killed during the Troubles, a wretched period of Ireland’s history stretching from the late 1960s to the turn of the 20th century.

Much of the suffering of the conflict has slipped from public awareness in the ensuing years of what another Northern Ireland minister, the late Mo Mowlam, liked to call a “flawed peace”.

But the McConville murder is one atrocity that refuses to be forgotten. Lingering disquiet and suspicion over the circumstances of her death and the disposal of her body led to Adams being interrogated.

One of McConville’s sons, Michael, was 11 when he saw his mother dragged screaming from their home in the Divis Flats, a Belfast stronghold of the IRA. He says that he knows the names of several involved in the abduction but will not publicly reveal them, claiming to have been warned by Adams in the past to be prepared for a “backlash” if he did so. He interpreted the words as a threat; the Sinn Fein leader flatly denies using them.

A file on the case has gone to public prosecutors, though there’s speculation in Northern Ireland that further action against Adams is thought unlikely, unless compelling new evidence is uncovered.

Adams’ alleged involvement is reportedly described in interviews with two leading IRA activists, both now dead, recorded as part of a project on the Troubles by Boston College, a Jesuit research university in Massachusetts. Ivor Bell, a former IRA chief of staff who is now in his late 70s, has been charged with aiding and abetting the murder as a result of the new information that has emerged.

The life and times of Gerard Adams, or Gearóid Mac Ádhaimh as he styles himself in the Irish version of his name, have been examined in thousands of book and newspaper pages, and in countless hours of radio and television airtime.

Now 65, he was born in Belfast, one of 13 children, three of whom died in infancy, and educated by Christian Brothers in the Catholic Falls area of the city.

When community violence erupted, he was a barman serving the lawyers, journalists and politicians who would congregate in the Duke of York public house in central Belfast. But it would be a mistake to suppose that his head was turned by their anecdotes and conversation; he had been a committed republican, a believer in the objective of a united Ireland free of British rule, by violent means if necessary, from boyhood. His parents were activists with long records of involvement in armed resistance.

An uncle, Dominic, was reputedly an IRA chief of staff and some writers on the Troubles maintain that Adams held the same position for more than a year in the late 1970s. Adams denies this and insists that he has never been a member of the IRA.

“I never will disassociate myself from the IRA,” he was quoted as saying shortly before his arrest last week. “That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that they did, because I don’t, particularly in the case of Jean McConville, which I think was wrong – a grave injustice to her and her family. But thankfully, thankfully the war is over.”

Whether or not his immersion in the republican cause ever led to formal membership of its armed movement, Adams’ loyalties were not in doubt.

In 1993, he helped to carry the coffin of Thomas Begley, an IRA volunteer whose prematurely exploding bomb killed him, a Protestant paramilitary leader and eight civilians, including two children, at Frizzell’s Fish Shop on Belfast’s Shankill Road.

Six years earlier, in graveside orations after the funerals of eight IRA men killed in an ambush by British special forces, he had warned that republicans would never be defeated. At one burial, he complained that the priest conducting the service had made it sound as if the activist had “died of pneumonia”.

Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s prime minister, found Adams’ media profile disturbing enough to order a ban in 1988 on his voice being heard on radio and television. The measure covered 11 republican and loyalist groups, though Adams was by far the most prominent figure to be affected. Thatcher said that the aim was to “starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”.

Adams found it simple enough to rationalise his outlook. “If you militarise a situation,” he once said, “you beg for an armed response.”

In his book, A Secret History of the IRA, published in 2002, Ed Moloney, an acclaimed if controversial author on Irish affairs, presented a mixed appraisal. “There are elements of Adams’ character that some people will find distasteful, his ruthlessness for example,” he wrote. “But it was probably his ruthlessness which enabled him to push forward the peace agenda.

“He stands there with people like Michael Collins [the Irish revolutionary leader, involved in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty that created the Irish Free State in 1922] as a very significant figure. He is a man of strategic genius. I think he should have won the Nobel Prize for what he did.”

But Moloney also described Adams as responsible for setting up the IRA unit that murdered and buried the so-called “Disappeared”, nine of a larger group of people – Jean McConville among them – who vanished in the 1970s and early 1980s. Adams dismissed the claims as outrageous, “a mixture of innuendo, recycled claims, nodding and winking”.

Yet the comparison with Collins is telling for another reason. Collins was regarded by former republic comrades as a traitor, and assassinated by rebels during the civil war that followed the treaty’s signing. And republican dissidents of the 21st century believe Adams betrayed the same cause by signing up to the peace process without having achieved the goal of a united ­Ireland.

In interviews with the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph a few months before her death in 2013, Dolours Price – one of the IRA bombers who attacked Britain’s most famous criminal court, the Old Bailey, in 1973 – attacked the Sinn Fein leader in stark, bitter and incriminating terms.

Price portrayed his denial of IRA membership as “a betrayal of the cause, a betrayal of me, a betrayal of anybody he sent out to do any kind of operation, or active service, and you know, who sent me to London? Who sent me to London to blow it up? Gerry Adams.”

After his recent travails, Adams chose an improbable source of inspiration when spreading his thoughts to more than 52,000 followers of his prolific Twitter posts, quoting from Elvis Presley’s 1970 hit The Wonder of You: “When no one else can understand me/When every thing I do is wrong/U give me hope&consolation/U give me strength 2 carry on.”

Gerry Adams is not so much an enigma as a story waiting to be told in full. Reliable detail of all the roles that he has fulfilled in his pursuit of an all-Ireland, 32-county republic may never be known, even after his own death.

But how intriguing it would be, for scholars of modern Irish history as well as those affected by the Troubles, to know precisely what he meant when he told a New York television interviewer in 1994: “Making peace, I have found, is much harder than making war.”

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