According to a publicity release from CBS’ Sixty Minutes programme, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has told the show’s presenter Scott Pelley during an interview scheduled for airing this coming Sunday, that he was never in the IRA, adding that he never “pulled a trigger, ordered a murder or set off a bomb.”
You can watch a preview here.
Well, two of those claims are true or at least mostly true. During all the years that I covered the IRA for various newspapers in Ireland, I came across only two instances when Adams could be said to have pulled a trigger or implied himself that he had done so – both happened very early on in the Troubles – and absolutely no evidence that he had ever set off a bomb.
The Scott Pelley interview has inadvertently thrown into relief a rarely discussed aspect of Gerry Adams’ life in the IRA. He may have been the IRA’s most able strategist – in fact I would rate him alongside Michael Collins in that regard – but he never got his hands dirty. He never went on operations, he never really fired a shot in anger but he did spend most of his IRA life issuing orders, including orders that led to loss of life.
During the IRA’s lengthy war against the British, Gerry Adams was often like the Generals in the First World War. Living well behind the front lines and the danger they presented, they devised the strategies and issued the orders to implement them – although to be fair and accurate none of those Generals lived on the run, sleeping in different houses, wearing disguises and always in fear of arrest or worse at the hands of the enemy, which was the life Adams certainly lived, especially post-1970.
The two incidents when Gerry Adams may have pulled a trigger happened right at the outset of the Troubles. One incident he wrote about in one of the short stories that he published in the 1980’s. In the story he tells the tale of two IRA Volunteers firing shots over the grave of a recently interred comrade.
This story is a thinly disguised account of the controversy over the death of Liam McParland in November 1969, then the pre-split IRA leader in Ballymurphy who died in a car accident on MI motorway en route to Belfast. There are conflicting explanations for the journey. One says McParland was on the way back from an unauthorised training camp in Donegal. Adams, who was in the car with McParland when it crashed, was also at the same camp but neither had the permission of the leadership to attend. Another version, from Brian Feeney, says they were returning from Leitrim and were transporting weapons. Needless to say Adams himself has not shed any more light on the matter.
Adams was suspended from the IRA, according to Brian Feeney’s account of the episode, and the IRA leadership refused to afford McParland the usual republican funeral trappings, including a volley of shots over his coffin/grave. Adams’ fictionalised account has a young man, clearly himself, and an older man (Joe/Tom Cahill?) stealing into Milltown cemetery in darkness to fire some revolver shots over the grave.
So he may have pulled the trigger in this instance even if the shots fired were not in anger.
A contemporary of his in the pre-split IRA, the late Jim Hargey who kept friendly relations despite the subsequent parting of the ways, once told me that he knew that Adams had fired shots at the British Army’s base in Ballymurphy, the Henry Taggart hall, very early on in the Troubles. The hall, a local community centre, had been taken over by British troops who used it as their headquarters in the district. That was at a time when there were nightly incidents like that.
Gerry Adams’ lack of operational experience was well known within the IRA and a serious handicap when he began steering the Provos in a political direction. Adams was widely credited within the movement for rescuing the IRA from defeat after the 1975 ceasefire but nonetheless was viewed with suspicion by some for holding views that sometimes echoed those of former comrades in the Officials.
Hence the partnerships with figures whose military credentials were beyond question. Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell were key allies when Adams began chipping away at the Provisionals’ abstentionist roots from Long Kesh by advocating ‘active abstentionism’ – i.e. the involvement of Sinn Fein in community politics as a way of building a long-term support base for the IRA’s military campaign. In practice though ‘active abstentionism’ signalled the beginning of a journey in the opposite direction, towards the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The fact that figures like Hughes and Bell supported these ideas at their outset was crucial in settling nerves internally.
Adams’ relationship with Martin McGuinness was another and much more important example of this stratagem.
McGuinness suffered none of the military shortcomings of Adams and was well known throughout the IRA as an enthusiastic operator, always ready and willing for action. The Bloody Sunday tribunal, for instance, has an utterly believable account of McGuinness on the day of the killings wandering the Bogside toting a Thomson sub-machine gun, something that Adams would never have done.
Both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price describe a Gerry Adams during this time who was always very careful to keep a safe distance from weapons, for instance on the day in 1972 when Armalite rifles were first delivered to the IRA in the lower Falls.
The role played by McGuinness during the dropping of Dail abstention in 1986 and later as the IRA was edged ever closer to the 1994 ceasefire was absolutely crucial. His constant re-assurances to the rank and file, his promise, for example, that no ceasefire would happen without an IRA Convention meeting to endorse it, settled nerves. Activists were just not ready to believe that McGuinness would sell them short while many were ready to think the worst of Adams.
There is no doubt that Gerry Adams was in the IRA and that he gave orders that led to others pulling triggers or setting off bombs and, of course, killing people. But he was not an operator by any stretch of the imagination. And this is a crucial and defining aspect of the story of how he brought the IRA from war to peace.