I have never been able to figure out the reasoning behind Gerry Adams’ and Martin McGuinness’ insistence on lying about their past lives as IRA members and even less so now as it becomes clear that it was McGuinness’ insistence on doing so that led directly to Sinn Fein’s less than stellar performance in the Irish presidential election.
Whatever the rationale there can be no doubt now that for both men, and their party, the decision has been at best, stupid and self-defeating and at worst, a disaster.
First, take a look at McGuinness’ showing in the presidential election. This was billed as the election that could push Sinn Fein through the credibility barrier in the South and place the party on the cusp of government. The plan was simple: underline Fianna Fail’s fall last February with a result that said Southern politics have utterly and irretrievably changed; Fianna Fail is a relic of a dead past and Sinn Fein is the new, coming electoral force.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. McGuinness’ 13.7 per cent of the first preference vote was better than SF’s general election tally of nine months ago for sure, but as one shrewd analysis pointed out, that was not comparing like with like. The real and adjusted rise in SF’s vote was around two-and-a-half points, well short of the vote-doubling that the party’s managers had hoped for.
Not only that but Fianna Fail did what no-one expected and put on a convincing impression of Lazarus. The FF result in the West Dublin by-election, the creditable performance of Sean Gallagher, the ersatz Fianna Failer – despite the late-breaking brown envelope scandal – and the fact that Sinn Fein was outpolled in all but one of the Border constituencies, its home ground, all spoke to dashed hopes that Martin McGuinness’ candidacy would bring an historic breakthrough.
There can be little doubt that McGuinness’ decision to stick by the lie he told the Saville Tribunal, that he had left the IRA “in the early part of the 1970’s” – later finessed to 1974 since he was in jail on IRA offences until then – was his undoing.
No-one could quite believe the story that he walked out on the IRA all those years ago yet still carried enough clout to persuade his former comrades to end their war, become ministers in a British administration and destroy all their guns. Imagine the scene: the Army Council is in session when there’s a knock on the door. It opens to reveal the Chuckle-like grin of Martin McGuinness. “Hi guys!”, he says nervously. “You might not remember me but I used to be one of youse a while back. Those were some days, I can tell you! Listen I have a couple of ideas I’d like to run past you. Got a minute?”
It was never going to work and it didn’t. McGuinness was chosen to carry SF’s banner because he was the Provos’ Mr Nice Guy, the Chuckle twin who had tamed the raging bull, Ian Paisley and made friends with that sinister-looking Peter Robinson, a hero of the peace process who was so much more fun to be with than grouchy old Gerry.
Martin was probably expecting a gentle stroll in the general direction of Phoenix Park with much agreeable talk of how well he had performed in the Northern government and how pleased he was to have helped end the war. But instead his campaign was dogged by questions about his credibility and all because of the IRA lie. For sure there was an element in the Southern media predisposed against him – call them West Brits if you wish – but the lie about leaving the IRA in 1974 was a sheer gift to his enemies. Other, more neutral elements in both the media and electorate could hardly be blamed if they joined the sceptics. It was an election after all and elections are supposed to be about the candidates’ honesty and integrity.
Remember also that Martin McGuinness was the candidate and not Gerry Adams and why that was so. The Sinn Fein president and Louth TD has been lying longer and more profoundly about his IRA past than McGuinness, although to be fair the only reason why the Derry man is not denying any association at all with the IRA, as Gerry has been doing since at least 1982, is probably that pesky interview he had on the streets of Derry with the BBC’s Tom Mangold: “As the commander of the IRA Provisionals in Derry, can you tell us…..?”And so on, with nary a word of protest from the bold Martin!
Nonetheless look at the damage that lie has done to Gerry? It drove Brendan Hughes, his old buddy-in-arms, to complete distraction and, in my view, was the driving force behind Hughes’ decision to tell all to Boston College, detailing Adams’ part in leading the Belfast IRA and later the IRA nationally and not least the role Gerry played in the disappearance of Jean McConville, a revelation that has indelibly tainted the SF leader beyond repair.
The McConville connection may not be the only reason Gerry Adams didn’t stand for SF in this presidential election but it was one reason and it is why once-fondly held hopes that he might end his days sleeping in the presidential bedroom have been dashed forever.
But for the lie that wouldn’t have happened and but for his own version of it, Martin McGuinness might still be regarded as the Provo leader who still had a vestige of rectitude. Instead, McGuinness will forever be linked to Frank Hegarty, the Enniskillen bombing, the use of human bombs – and of course the outrageous fib about leaving the IRA in 1974.
I don’t know why the two men embarked on their lies in the first place. I could never see any advantage to it and so many potential pitfalls it just didn’t make sense. The other thing is that it was unnecessary. Some reporters have taken the view that there was only two choices: lie about their IRA membership or admit it and risk a jail term. Not true. They could have done what a previous generation of Republicans did, men like Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O Conail who would reply, when asked if they were in the IRA, “Mind your own business!”, or words to that effect.
Actually, it is not entirely true to say that I can’t think of a reason why they chose to lie because I can – although I don’t have smoking gun proof. Lying about his IRA links was sold internally at the time it started, during the campaign for the 1982 Assembly election, as something Adams had to do to frustrate a hostile media and it was okay because it was just a tactic, nothing more or less than that, just like car bombs or “up and unders” or personating in West Belfast or fixing the vote at the 1986 SF ard-fheis: these were things that had to be done to win the war.
And what that did was to make telling lies an excusable and acceptable tactic, a very handy device when the peace process began and it became necessary to sell one story to the British, Irish and American governments about the ultimate intentions of the Provo leadership and an entirely different version to their own grassroots.
But now the tactic has come back to bite those who devised it in the bum. I can’t say I have much sympathy for them.