Not too long ago anyone who publicly doubted the honesty and integrity of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was, in some quarters south of the Irish border, risking the sort of response usually reserved for child molesters and war criminals. Few could be more withering and condemnatory, especially behind one’s back, than Fianna Fail, although to be fair the Department of Foreign Affairs always gave them a run for their money.
I am of course speaking of the days of the peace process, especially pre-Northern Bank robbery, when to suggest that Gerry Adams was anything less than a fountainhead of truth and candour was on a par with concocting a breakfast recipe that featured fattened Protestant babies in the main course.
Now it may have been the case that people like the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Northern point man Martin Mansergh truly believed that Adams was being sincere and straight in his peace process dealings but I seriously, seriously doubt it. Something as difficult as getting the IRA to end its war on the terms that were finally accepted was not the sort of project that could be steered to success without a considerable amount of falsification and dissembling. And Bertie and Martin would have known that very well.
So when Gerry Adams or his nom de guerre, P O’Neill, would routinely assure the troops that IRA decommissioning was just not on the cards, my hunch is that Bertie and Martin would look at each other and wink. They would, or should have known via Garda Special Branch that this was nonsense and that plans to do just this were already being laid just as they knew that Adams was aware that decommissioning was the price he’d have to pay to get Unionists to share power with him.
But they would also have been acutely conscious of another peace process reality: lying to and deceiving the Provo grassroots in this way was the only assured route to eventual success. It kept the IRA rank and file content and quiet, lulled into a false sense of security until it was too late for them to do anything about it. In the same way, Bertie and Martin would, I suspect, have grinned and borne it whenever Adams or P O’Neill denied that the IRA robbed this or that bank, knowing this would also keep the grassroots bamboozled, convinced that their leaders were trustworthy, had once again successfully hoodwinked the Irish government and that the IRA would never go away.
Bernadette McAliskey once compared the peace process to pushing a fly down the neck of a wine bottle. Eventually a point would be reached when there was no traction left and the fly would fall, helpless, to the bottom of the bottle where it would drown in the dregs. Mendacity was the stick that pushed the fly down the neck of the bottle.
In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the ability of Gerry Adams to lie and fool so expertly was the peace process’ most valuable asset. Had Adams been straight and honest with his people about where the IRA was going to end up, he would have been found long before 2005 in a ditch somewhere in South Armagh, trussed up like a Christmas turkey with several bullet-shaped holes in his skull. Without his talent for dissimulation we would never have got to 2005 when the IRA, finally divested of its Semtex and AK-47’s, declared its war against Britain to be over.
The corollary of all this was that a special venom was reserved by the Irish state for anyone in the media who dared suggest that the Sinn Fein leadership had less than a monopoly on the truth. Everyone knows the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, how a child shames the crowd into admitting the truth, that the Emperor parading in front of them supposedly clothed in finery is actually stark naked. There is a special Irish version of the story with a very different ending. When the child cries out ‘the Emperor is naked’, the crowd reacts by turning on the child and beating it to death.
It is, of course, the job of government to lie and deceive or to connive at others’ lies in the pursuit of implementing policy. And many will say that telling lies in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland was not only excusable but laudable. But journalists are not politicians, or at least they shouldn’t be. They – we – have a special duty to the truth, even if that causes discomfort or difficulty. Whenever I was assailed by government officials, or more often by fellow hacks, for writing stories deemed ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process my response was simple: if this process cannot survive one of my stories then it’s doomed no matter what I write or do not write. Joining in the deception, either by commission or omission, wouldn’t make a jot of difference except to devalue the trade of journalism, to render it a useless and unconvincing charade.
So, I have to say that when I heard that the new Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin had challenged Gerry Adams to tell the truth about his past membership of the IRA, to “come clean” about his “baggage from the past” as he put it, I have to confess that I laughed out loud and long. “There is a fundamental problem for Gerry when he continues to deny his membership of the IRA”, said the bold Micheál, “because every time he talks in this debate during the election about honesty . . . it jars very much with his own position about the past.” Indeed it does Micheál but you didn’t have that problem back in 1998, did you?
Micheál Martin was not only a minister in the Fianna Fail cabinet from 1997 onwards, during the key years of the peace process when there a special premium on Adams not telling the truth, but he is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs whose civil servants not only helped Adams hone to perfection his dissembling skills but often led the charge, employing a special sense of viciousness, against anyone who questioned the Sinn Fein leader’s honesty.
Micheál Martin, more than most people, has known for a very long time that, in relation to Northern matters, Adams and the truth have often been strangers and the fact that he chose this time to let us all in on the secret is a sure indication that in the forthcoming election the Fianna Fail party is headed down the toilet. Truth suddenly acquires virtue, one could say, when political destruction stares you in the face. There was a sense of desperation about what he said, as well as artifice, and I suspect the Irish voter picked up on it.
There was however one line in Micheál Martin’s statement that especially drew my attention and it was this: “Martin McGuinness doesn’t have a problem admitting his membership in the past but I think there is a huge problem for Gerry Adams in a credibility sense.”
Actually not entirely true, Mr Martin. Not only not the full truth but also unfair to Mr Adams. It’s unfair to Gerry Adams because in the narrative of Provo dishonesty peddled by the likes of Micheál Martin, the Sinn Fein leader is depicted as the singular voice of skullduggery in Sinn Fein whereas in fact Martin McGuinness has lied ever bit as flagrantly about his IRA history as Gerry Adams and, I strongly suspect, would have lied as comprehensively but for a few inconvenient pieces of newspaper and television archive.
The Martin McGuinness that I came to know as a journalist covering the Northern Ireland beat was rarely far from the very top of the IRA pyramid. In the mid to late 1970’s he was the IRA’s first Northern Commander, appointed to the job when on Adams’ advice a separate Northern Command was created whose effect, if not purpose, was to take power away from Southern IRA leaders. He then became Chief of Staff and held that post until 1982 when others on the Army Council insisted that he had to give it up if he wanted to run as a Sinn Fein candidate in the elections to Jim Prior’s Assembly.
He always hankered to get the job back and for years afterwards a vicious feud simmered beneath the surface between him and Kevin McKenna who took over the post and held it until he was succeeded by ‘Slab’ Murphy. McGuinness re-entered the military picture in a serious way in the mid-1980’s when, in preparation for the arrival of Libyan weaponry and the launching of the IRA’s version of the ‘Tet offensive’, he was again made Northern Commander with the special job of distributing Col. Gaddafi’s guns to the units on the ground. The task that he performed was done in such a way that it brought him into conflict with Michael McKeviit, then the QMG. McKevitt came to suspect that for whatever reason, McGuinness gave more weapons to units that were most likely to lose them, usually through the efforts of informers.
When the peace process got under way he played two key roles. One as the IRA’s (or at least Gerry Adams’) secret contact man via people like Derry businessman Brendan Duddy with British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Office; the other as Chairman of the Army Council, traditionally the IRA’s chief diplomat and representative in discussions with outside individuals and bodies. When the media would describe McGuinness as the ‘Sinn Fein negotiator’ during peace process talks they got it wrong. He was actually there representing the Army Council, as their official ambassador.
So in all the years between the mid-1970’s and 2005, Martin McGuinness was there at the very top of the IRA or thereabouts, playing a crucial role in both its military and political side.
But what does Martin McGuinness himself say about what he was doing during this period?
Well the answer to this question can be found in the report of the Saville Tribunal into Bloody Sunday, to be specific in the transcript of witness cross-examinations, pages 140-141 of day 391’s business. McGuinness was being questioned by Christopher Clarke QC, counsel for the Tribunal about the “Green Book’, which contains the IRA’s manual, statement of aims and constitution and this is how it reads:
Q. It may well be, sir, you had already left the IRA by the time this document in the form that we have it, came into existence. When did you leave the IRA?
A. Here we go again, on another trawl through the Martin McGuinness fixation.
Q. No, it is not at all, sir, not at all. May I just explain to you, because you have been very concerned, understandably, to be treated in the same way as the soldiers, and it is precisely the same question, word for word, as was asked, I think, of some seven or eight soldiers.
A. Were they asked when they left the British Army?
Q. Yes, simply because it was thought to be relevant to the way in which other people had reacted to what had happened on Bloody Sunday. You do not have to answer my question or any of them, I ask them, and I will not ask them twice, it is for the Tribunal to say whether you should answer them or not: I ask again, when did you leave the IRA, if you did?
A. I left the IRA in the early part of the 1970s.
So during all those years when we thought that Martin McGuinness was Northern Commander (twice), Chief of Staff and then Chairman of the Army Council, he was really a civilian with no connection at all to the IRA. How could he be anything else since he told the Saville Tribunal under oath that he had left the organisation in the ‘early’ 1970’s?
I can almost hear the readers’ response: “Sure, that’s bullshit but at least he admits he was in the IRA, if only for a bit!” And that’s true and it’s more than Gerry Adams has ever acknowledged. But why lie about the three decades or so after the ‘early’ 1970’s and not about the two or three years before it? Is it because there’s more to hide in the later years or because he screwed up in those early years, admitting things about his association with the IRA that he regretted later and which the wilier Adams would never have? And if he had not said or done those things would he too, like Adams, now be swearing to the world that he had never, ever been in the IRA?
There’s this for instance, something that falls into the rush of blood to the head category, a statement he made from the dock in Green Street courthouse, Dublin in 1973 when he was convicted of IRA membership:
“We have fought against the killing of our people. I am a member of Oglaigh na Eireann (IRA) and very, very proud of it.”
That’s something Mr Adams would never have said.
Then there’s this video of an appearance at an IRA press conference in Derry in June 1972, perhaps an example of McGuinness succumbing to the lure of the klieg lights. He is flanked by IRA Chief of Staff, Sean Macstiofain, Belfast Commander Seamus Twomey and Army Council member Daithi O Connail, and the purpose of press conference was to put forward an IRA ceasefire proposal to the new NI Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. There’s an even more famous television interview, broadcast on ITV but sadly not available on YouTube, in which a youthful McGuinness admits being the Derry Commander of the IRA. Again the shrewder Gerry Adams would have steered well clear of such exposure.
After blatant admissions like these it would be impossible for Martin McGuinness to deny he had been in the IRA in the ‘early’ 1970’s. But after that, in the subsequent three decades, he never made a similar mistake or engaged in such embarrassing frankness ever again and, thankfully from his viewpoint, it was so much easier therefore to resort to the lie.
There’s another part of the story of Adams, McGuinness and the peace process that is vital to an understanding of this period. For sure, Gerry Adams dissembled the IRA into decommissioning its weapons and ending its war with the British but he didn’t do this alone. He couldn’t have achieved it without McGuinness’ help for while Gerry was the Provos’ political leader, he never had the trust of the IRA rank and file that Martin had. The reason was simple: Martin had a military track record and Gerry didn’t. Martin had done the business and Gerry hadn’t. So when Martin would give substance to Gerry’s assurances that all was well, as in this video, it gave the whole project a crucial credibility.
In the days before my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was published in the autumn of 2001, Martin McGuinness toured newspaper and television offices in Dublin and London to talk about it to editors and senior journalists. His purpose was simple, to blacken my name and label me a dissident fellow-traveller. It was partly an effort to do the book down and partly an exercise in intimidation, carrying with it the implied threat that any journalist treating my book sympathetically or seriously risked the same treatment. He even went to see my editor in the Sunday Tribune, Matt Cooper. Matt asked him did he believe Gerry Adams when he denied ever being in the IRA? “Yes” replied McGuinness, not missing a beat. “He looked me straight in the eye when he said it”, recalled Cooper.