Alex Kane: This new book on Gerry Adams is essential reading

A Belfast mural of Gerry Adams, that appears in the new book on the Sinn Fein president by Malachi ODoherty
A Belfast mural of Gerry Adams, that appears in the new book on the Sinn Fein president by Malachi ODoherty

A review of Malachi O’Doherty’s book on Gerry Adams:

As O’Doherty notes in the introduction: ‘Had Adams died in 1992, he would have gone down in history as a cheerleader for fanatical terrorism.

Malachi O'Doherty holds a copy of his book '
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life' at its launch at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Thursday September 7. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Malachi O'Doherty holds a copy of his book ' Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life' at its launch at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Thursday September 7. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

‘Instead, his work since then establishes him in the minds of many as a creative peacemaker.

‘And from being a fanatical revolutionary street politician in perpetual danger of arrest and assassination, he became a political leader with access to the British and Irish prime ministers and the US President.

‘He had become a statesman admired around the world, though still reviled by many at home who believed that thousands might have been spared horrible deaths if he had come to these ideas earlier.’

At the heart of this new biography is, I think, a conundrum: is Adams really a genuine peacemaker (in the sense that he wants unity and common purpose between republicans and unionists); or is his role in steering the IRA from terrorism and Sinn Fein into the assembly and elsewhere, just another tactic to deliver the unity that the terror so singularly failed to deliver?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

In other words, rather than the peacemaker, leader and visionary that his supporters would have us believe he is, he’s just someone who switched from armed propaganda to electoral propaganda?

The end goal remains the same, albeit the route to it is less blood-splattered.

O’Doherty acknowledges — as do I — that it was Adams more than anyone else within Sinn Fein who mapped out and directed this transition.

He recognised very early on that the IRA could not outgun the British state. And crucially: ‘Instead of attacking the British as the invaders ... as an imperial army, which is how he actually saw them, he organized protests over the way they conducted themselves.

‘He appears to have understood that the core republican analysis would not be enough to bring people onto the streets.’

That’s not to say that he had any particular qualms about the use of violence: ‘He learnt an important lesson (as early as 1972, when he was part of the IRA delegation to meet Secretary of State, William Whitelaw)), that his best bargaining chip was the violence and the leadership’s ability to contain it.’

A decade later this had morphed into what Danny Morrison — who was close to Adams — described as the Armalite/ballot box approach:

“Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

That, in turn, was ditched for the ‘totally unarmed strategy.’

Much of what’s in the book (the murder of Jean McConville; the murder of prison officer, Brian Stack; the abuse of his niece Aine by his brother, Liam; Máiría Cahill’s allegations; his 4-day arrest and 33 recorded interview in 2014; and his membership — or not — of the IRA) is already in the public domain.

And while O’Doherty throws no new light and provides no new clinching evidence on any of these issues, the list may come as an eye-opener to readers outside Ireland.

It’s hard to imagine any other leader in any other country — apart from a thoroughly corrupt and undemocratic state — who could have survived the never-ending series of allegations levelled against Adams.

Yet, as O’Doherty says, he just shakes them off and carries on regardless.

It’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t just a biography of Adams.

It’s also a very good, very thoughtful analysis of the IRA itself; how it operated, how it survived, how it responded to assorted pressures from the British and Irish and how it shifted from arms first to politics first through Adams’s rebuilding, repositioning and prioritising of Sinn Fein.

According to Richard O’Rawe, who once helped to run election campaigns for the party, “the Sinn Fein political machine was like a monster, soldier ants all over the place, putting up posters, knocking on doors, impersonating punters and all of this business.”

And at the heart of all this — whether it was fronting for the IRA in talks with successive British governments, or fronting for Sinn Fein as its political chief — is Gerry Adams; an astonishing and fascinating figure.

A mixture of Dorian Gray and Henry Clapp’s description of Horace Greeley as a ‘self-made man who worships his creator.’

He has, to all intents and purposes, invented and shaped himself, with one contributor noting, “There are different sides of him obviously. I don’t think even Gerry Adams knows who Gerry Adams is.”

He doesn’t seem to care that he divides opinion; although the increasingly bizarre and quirky contributions on his Twitter account suggest that he wants to be seen in a gentler light.

That said, he takes everything that’s thrown at him, with little evidence of blushes, embarrassment, self-doubt or guilt.

Indeed, why should he worry? Sinn Fein has grown on both sides of the border, while Adams is master of all he surveys within republicanism, in total control of Sinn Fein and seemingly untouchable by the media, the intelligence services or skeletons.

O’Doherty’s book is essential reading, not least because he writes extraordinarily well.

Deep down, though — and Malachi doesn’t really address the issue — I suspect that Adams remains disappointed and unfulfilled.

The only thing that ever mattered to him was Irish unity and a new Ireland.

Yet, after 50-odd years of IRA/Sinn Fein involvement and reinvention, the hope of ‘A Nation Once Again’ doesn’t really seem all that much closer.

• ‘Gerry Adams – An unauthorised life,’ is published by Faber & Faber, £14.99