Last Man Standing

Gerry Adams has called time on a political career that began in the age of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, as his party stands on the brink of a historic breakthrough. The arguments about his place in Irish history are just beginning.

Gerry Adams attends a rally called in support of the former Sinn Fein president on July 16, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

When the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called a snap election for February 8, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams confirmed that he wouldn’t be standing for reelection as TD — Teachta Dála, member of parliament — for the Louth constituency. This came as little surprise: Adams is now in his seventies and had already relinquished his title as Sinn Féin president in 2017, passing on the torch to a new generation. It brings an end to an unusual parliamentary career that often symbolized the uneasy relationship between Ireland’s political class and the traditions it draws upon for historical legitimacy.

“I Was in America”

One incident from that career helps illustrate why Adams could never have been a conventional politician, even if that was what he wanted. In December 2016, the Sinn Féin leader read a statement to the Dáil about the killing of Brian Stack, an Irish prison officer, by IRA (Irish Republican Army) members in 1983. Alan Farrell, a TD for the center-right Fine Gael Party, interrupted Adams to suggest that two of his Sinn Féin colleagues, Dessie Ellis and Martin Ferris, could shed light on the circumstances of Stack’s murder.

All hell broke loose in the chamber as Ellis bellowed out an unconventional defense: “I’m not going to have people put my name out on something I have nothing to do with. I was actually in jail for the period in Portlaoise and before that I was in America.” True enough: the Irish police force had arrested Ellis in 1981 and charged him with possession of explosives, whereupon he skipped bail and fled to the United States, only to be arrested in Buffalo the following year and speedily extradited to his home country — a watertight alibi, as these things go.

Ellis went on to suggest that his accuser might “come outside — if you had any guts.” In context, he clearly meant that the Fine Gael politician should repeat his allegations without the shield of parliamentary privilege, but there must have been a few people wondering how Farrell would come off in a dustup with Ellis, who has a black belt in karate to go with his bomb-making skills.

His party colleague Ferris also spent much of the 1980s in Portlaoise Prison after being captured on board the Marita Ann, a ship carrying several tons of weapons and explosives that James “Whitey” Bulger had donated to the IRA. Alan Farrell, otherwise best known for bringing a controversial insurance claim against the Hertz Corporation, might be thought to inhabit a different moral universe.

That’s certainly the way the Fine Gael TD would like to see things. But the Irish Times reporter Miriam Lord, no great admirer of Sinn Féin, tutted disapprovingly at Farrell for “smiling,” “smirking,” and “chuckling” at the reaction he had provoked: “He seemed very pleased with himself and his handiwork.” Gene Kerrigan of the Sunday Independent dismissed him as “a lightweight, seeking a cheap way to make a name for himself, playing the game of Troll the Shinners.”

Tightrope Walkers

That’s been a recurring pattern since Gerry Adams first became a TD in 2011: matters of the utmost gravity used as the pretext for trivial punch lines, most of which were directed at Adams himself. Adams had been an elected representative for almost three decades when he entered the world of southern Irish politics, but Sinn Féin doesn’t take its seats at Westminster, so his maiden parliamentary speech came just nine years ago. His presence in the Dáil obliged the southern political class to confront some of the inconsistencies in its worldview. For the most part, politicians in Dublin have responded to that challenge by lashing out.

Contradictory attitudes to political violence are hardly unique to Ireland. Throughout the Western world, politicians will pay homage to figures like George Washington or Charles de Gaulle while lecturing Kurds and Palestinians about the illegitimacy of armed resistance to foreign rule. They use the term “terrorist” (or “terrorist sympathizer”) as a playground insult, stubbornly resisting any attempt to give it a consistent definition.

However, the strain of walking that rhetorical tightrope is much greater in a state that owes its existence to a revolutionary struggle. Ireland is currently in the midst of a rolling centennial to mark the anniversary of that struggle, which has already generated several controversies. Every major party in the South traces its origins back to the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Dublin’s three major train stations carry the names of martyred revolutionaries, and you can’t walk through its city center without coming across a statue or a street name that honors someone who took up arms against British rule.

Gerry Adams and his comrades drew upon the very same heritage to justify their insurgency in the North of Ireland during the 1970s and ’80s. When politicians in the South told them that the Provisional IRA should halt its campaign, they were ready with quotations from Wolfe Tone, Patrick Pearse, and James Connolly that could be used to legitimize revolutionary violence.

It was quite possible to counter such appeals to authority by arguing that the methods of the old IRA were no longer appropriate. But that would be a political argument, not a moral one: sententious finger-wagging about “the men of violence” was never adequate as a response to the Provisionals.

A River in Egypt

Unfortunately for Adams, he was in no position to push back against the glib moralism of his opponents. At quite an early stage of his public career, Adams caught himself on the hook of denying his IRA membership outright — perhaps the most ineffective lie in Irish history, since there’s not a single person on the island of any political persuasion who believes it.

It’s not clear why the Sinn Féin leader and his close allies decided this was the right approach. Of course, Adams could never have spoken explicitly about his membership in an illegal organization — still less about the things he did in that capacity — without exposing himself to the threat of prosecution. But there were evasive, ambiguous formulas he could have used that fell short of outright denial. His claim to have never joined the IRA is so unconvincing that it subtracts credibility from any subsequent assertion Adams makes about his track record during the conflict.

The fact that Adams had to choose between ambiguity and dissimulation tells you something important about the legacy of that conflict. The war of 1916–23 gave rise to a new state with its own definition of legality. There was no question of any IRA member being prosecuted for taking part in that war. Memoirs came thick and fast from IRA commanders like Ernie O’Malley, Dan Breen, and Tom Barry. The Irish state even set up an oral history archive, the Bureau of Military History, to collect witness statements from combatants — although it kept those statements locked up until 2003, much to the chagrin of historians.

The Provisional campaign, on the other hand, ended without having dislodged the British state from its remaining foothold on the island. IRA veterans, including Gerry Adams, still have to reckon with the UK’s criminal justice system. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) set up the Historical Enquiries Team to look at cold cases from the Troubles. Of the 1,625 cases that the team investigated, 1,038 involved republican paramilitaries.

The threat of prosecution has been a powerful disincentive for anyone who might be inclined to tell their side of the story. Memoirs have been few and far between: Adams himself has written two, but he avoided talking about his IRA career altogether. And the most significant oral history project ended in disaster because of a high-profile controversy involving Adams that has dogged him throughout his stint in the Dáil.

Interviewee Z

That controversy revolves around the death of Jean McConville, a Belfast woman murdered by the IRA in 1972. The IRA accused McConville of working as a low-level informer for the British Army. She was shot dead and then, in a macabre twist, buried in a secret location, leaving her ten children without a mother.

The killing attracted little attention at the time: 1972 was the bloodiest year of the conflict, with almost five hundred deaths. But the IRA came under intense pressure in the late 1990s to account for what had happened to McConville and other people it had “disappeared” during the Troubles. It was in that context that Gerry Adams faced the allegation that haunts his political career: Brendan Hughes, a well-known IRA commander from Belfast, named Adams as the man who had authorized McConville’s murder.

His testimony came from an oral history project that Boston College had agreed to sponsor, under the stewardship of journalist Ed Moloney. The tapes and transcripts were to be kept under lock and key for as long as the interview subjects were still alive. When Hughes died in 2008, Moloney published extracts from his account in a book called Voices from the Grave. That set in motion a sequence of events that dealt a fatal blow to the Boston College project.

A group of police officers — some retired, some still active — called for Adams to be prosecuted using material from the archive. Before long, a subpoena had made its way across the Atlantic, and the university handed over the recordings in spite of bitter protests from Ed Moloney. The PSNI arrested Adams in 2014 and questioned him about McConville’s death, but they couldn’t make any charges stick. Instead, Adams took the stand as a witness in the trial of Ivor Bell last October.

Bell, like Brendan Hughes, was a former associate of Adams in Belfast’s IRA leadership who had agreed to be interviewed for the Boston College archive. His trial on charges of soliciting McConville’s murder took a surreal turn when Bell denied that the voice on the tape was his; Adams also declined to identify Bell as “interviewee Z.” The judge decided that the interview subject was indeed Ivor Bell but still ruled that the tapes were inadmissible as evidence, leading to the collapse of the prosecution case.

Naturally, it was the appearance of Gerry Adams on the witness stand that attracted the most attention. Adams categorically rejected any suggestion that he was involved in the decision to kill Jean McConville. But he also denied participating in talks with the British government in the year of McConville’s death as a member of the IRA leadership: “Nobody at that meeting described themselves as being representatives of the IRA. The issue didn’t come up.” The issue probably didn’t “come up” because nobody at the meeting needed to ask why Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell, and Martin McGuinness were part of the delegation. Once again, blanket denials of IRA membership made it harder to credit specific assertions about what Adams did or didn’t do.

The Next Generation

Adams would prefer to leave the whole controversy behind him, as he made clear in 2011: “Brendan said what Brendan said, and Brendan’s dead, so let it go.” He might have had a harder time doing so if his political opponents in Dublin hadn’t trivialized the memory of Jean McConville’s murder by using it as an attack line for all seasons. Adams isn’t the only one with skeletons in his closet either: the British state has labored tirelessly to suppress the truth about its own atrocities during the conflict.

As a rule, perceptions of Adams in the South break down along generational lines. For those who lived through the 1970s and ’80s, he will always be the IRA’s slippery front man, capable of distancing himself from controversial attacks without explicitly condemning the perpetrators, in a way that many of his critics found more aggravating than a full-throated defense. Younger people tend to be more philosophical about the conflict, and are much more likely to vote for Sinn Féin.

They see conservative politicians selectively invoking the memory of IRA atrocities to deflect criticism of their own record, and they wonder why Sinn Féin should still be considered beyond the pale in the South, when its leaders have served in government alongside their Unionist opponents in Belfast for more than a decade. In the 1980s, Sinn Féin found to its cost that southern voters cared more about issues like health and housing that touched their lives directly than they did about the war in the North. Now the same order of priorities works to the party’s advantage.

Adams has even acquired a new luster as the subject of irony-drenched Facebook memes — helped along by his own self-consciously zany Twitter account. This may not be exactly what Bobby Sands had in mind when he said “our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” but it’s the kind of free publicity most politicians would give their right arm for.

In any case, his retirement has reduced the salience of traditional attacks on Sinn Féin. The party’s rivals have tried to depict his successor, Mary Lou McDonald, as a puppet of the IRA’s Army Council, but McDonald clearly belongs to the post-war generation of Sinn Féin leaders, one step further removed from a conflict that is passing into history.

If Sinn Féin’s late surge in the opinion polls holds up on election day, the party will have a choice to make that seemed inconceivable just a few months ago. Will it barter its electoral gains for coalition with the center right, at the risk of suffering the same fate as the Irish Labour Party? Or will it try to break the mold and force a realignment of the Irish party system? Gerry Adams may be stepping aside, but the political project he crafted still has a long future ahead of it.