Gerry Adams And The Civil Rights Movement

In the wake of the the furore over Gerry Adams’ use of the ‘N’ word in a tweet there has been another lively controversy over a subsequent claim from Mr Adams, made in mitigation for his unwise intervention on social media, that he had been a founder member of the civil rights movement and therefore in no way could be said to be on the side of slavery or any similarly reactionary behaviour.

Today I came across a story in something called the NewsHub which more or less captured the vitriol directed at Adams over this issue. This is the relevant extract:

Then to top it all off, he claimed to be a founding member of NICRA (the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association). This is simply a flat-out, brazen lie that has infuriated and baffled in equal measure. In the words of Ivan Cooper, a senior members of NICRA speaking to the Irish News; “People like Gerry Adams threatened to extinguish the ideas of the civil rights movement by waging a conflict which claimed the lives of innocent Catholics, Protestants and others who yearned for an end to the violence. They set the cause of equality back by decades in the narrow pursuit of vengeance and destruction. In doing so, they long ago sacrificed any claim to the civil rights movement. I will not allow him to revise our history. I will not allow him to degrade and debase our movement.”

Austin Currie, another senior member, suggested that Adams seeks to appropriate the achievements of NICRA as the IRA’s own campaign to force the British out of Northern Ireland was such an abject failure. It’s a damning condemnation but it does seem accurate given Sinn Fein’s insistent linking of NICRA and the IRA in recent years. Perhaps Adams thinks if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. To give him his credit, lies like this have him hailed as a hero in certain international circles. Back home, it just makes him look an oddball.

I was surprised to see Ivan Cooper of all people chipping in with his tuppence worth considering that his record during this time hardly bears scrutiny. Put it this way, the good people of Strabane are still wondering what happened to the boatload of Cyprus potatoes that were supposed to have been shipped to the brand new chip factory Ivan and his buddies had promised to build back in 1976.

Gerry Adams actually wrote about his role in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in a book called ‘Twenty Years On’, edited by Michael Farrell, published in October 1988, to which I had also contributed an article on the media and the Troubles.

When someone makes a claim about an issue or event that is not a matter of controversy or dispute at the time of writing or publication it tends, in my view, to make that account a pretty powerful piece of evidence if, nearly thirty years later, as in this case, the issue does become contentious.

And so it is with Adams’ claim to have been there at the birth of NICRA.

The truth about NICRA is that it was, in large measure, a creation of the then IRA leadership – that is the Goulding leadership – along with the Communist Party. Many others were involved in the gestation process in the years beforehand, such as the McCloskeys and their Campaign for Social Justice, but the significant final moves came mostly from the IRA/CP direction.

One crucial and secret IRA meeting, held in Kevin Agnew’s home in Maghera in Co Derry in late 1967/early 1968 – I believe Eoghan Harris may have written about this event – decided in principle to create a NICRA type body.

A meeting in the War Memorial Hall in Waring Street, Belfast in January 1967 attended by republicans and members of the Wolfe Tone Societies took this decision a step further but the key meeting, which approved NICRA’s constitution and elected the first Executive, was held in March 1967 in the International Hotel in downtown Belfast (I wrote elsewhere, inaccurately, that this meeting took place in St Mary’s Hall off Castle street. That was an earlier meeting of the Republican Clubs, the first to be held in defiance of a government ban).

This was the foundation meeting of NICRA.

Gerry Adams was at the International Hotel meeting under IRA orders, although he was, as always, coy about the IRA bit in the article he wrote for ‘Twenty Years On’, and like his comrades was under Army orders to vote the party line, as he describes in the extract reproduced below.

So his claim to have been a founder member of NICRA is technically truthful even though it is a bit like the tail gunner in the Enola Gay asserting responsibility for nuking Hiroshima. He was, after all, under orders. If the IRA edict that day had been to render NICRA stillborn, would he have raised his arm? As a good soldier, probably.

A note or two about ‘Twenty Years On‘. I remember well when it was published. In those days some journalists in Belfast had established a lunch club. It convened every month or so and the idea was that a luminary of some sort, from politics, the police, government and so on, would be invited to dine with a select bunch of hacks and after we had feasted and the port was passed around – left-to-right of c0urse – there would an off-the-record exchange, with the emphasis on off-the-record.

About a year or two before that event I had left The Irish Times in circumstances that can only be described as painful and the scars were far from being healed. By that point there had been a bit of a hurdy gurdy act in the Belfast office and by October 1988 some bright spark had settled on the idea of sending Fergus Pyle up to Fanum House to be Northern Editor.

Fergus had been appointed editor of The Irish Times in 1975 when Douglas Gageby decided to retire. He was given the job not on merit but because he was about the only semi-sentient Protestant left on the staff and these were the days, remember, when the chairman of the Irish Times Trust was Major McDowell, a retired British Army officer who had spent the Second World War labouring on behalf of MI5. The Times was changing, for sure, but the remaining Anglos about the place were still holding out against a Catholic editor.

Anyway Fergus Pyle was a disaster – he fell big time for the Peace People for instance – and before long he was farmed off to the public relations department at Trinity College (where else?) and Gageby was persuaded to come back to rescue the paper from financial disaster, which he did.

Fergus had been Northern Editor after Henry Kelly, who later found his  vocation as a quiz show presenter on commercial television, i.e. way back in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, and the idea of making Fergus Northern Editor was anchored in the notion that he was well equipped to look back and make sense of everything.

The day of the press lunch, as I said earlier, coincided with the publication of ‘Twenty Years On’ and hardly had I settled in my seat at a long dining table than Fergus, who was sitting opposite me, launched his Exocet, in full sight and hearing of the gathered crowd.

“I see you are sharing a by-line with Adams”, he sneered. “Do you think that was a wise thing to do?”

At the end of the lunch, as was normal practice, the guest departed and the remaining hacks, or at least those sober enough to contribute, debated who to invite to the next gathering.

Someone, I can’t remember who but it was not me and might well have been Anne Cadwallader, suggested : “Why don’t we ask Gerry Adams?”

If silence could be sliced and laid on plates with a spoonful of vanilla ice-cream we would all have had an interesting second dessert that lunch-time.

Eventually someone broke the stillness: “But there are no decent restaurants in West Belfast we could take him to”. (The unspoken sub-text here was that a) the alternative, a restaurant in downtown Belfast was too public a place for respectable reporters to be seen in such company, b) hopefully, Adams himself might consider it too dangerous to venture out of the ghetto and that would be the getout! and c) there really were no decent restaurants in West Belfast.)

So that settled the matter.

Six years later, many of the same journalists (not all, but a lot) – minus Fergus Pyle, who had gone to the great newsroom in the sky – would be scratching each others’ eyes out for a one-to-one exclusive with the same man, while eyeing sceptical little me with a look which said: “What’s wrong with you, buster?”

Anyway here is Gerry Adams’ own account of those earlier, simpler days. (It would be an interesting exercise to trace the subsequent career paths and personal journeys of those who contributed to ‘Twenty Years On’) Enjoy:

NICRA1

NICRA3

NICRA2

6 responses to “Gerry Adams And The Civil Rights Movement

  1. Excellent piece, the cumulative intake of port has not dulled your edge.

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