The irony about the |disclosures which are threatening the reputation and legacy of Gerry Adams is that they have not really been secret at all.
Every history that has been written about the IRA has placed him at its head during its most violent years. They all tell us about Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell too; about how Adams ejected Bell from the IRA because he was opposed to the running down of the organisation.
Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, who told his story to Boston College, to be published after his death — serialised in yesterday’s Sunday Times, from Ed Maloney’s new book, Voices From The Grave — has put the burden of proving some of his claims about Adams on Bell. Though Hughes was aware of the story of how Jean McConville had been arrested twice by the IRA and finally killed and ‘disappeared', it was through Bell that he heard the final confirmation, he alleges, that Gerry Adams ordered the secret burial of her body — a charge Adams denies.
Those histories also credit Gerry Adams with being the one who steered the revolution in a new direction; first towards a Long War strategy and later into the peace process. Brendan Hughes died with the bitter gall of contempt for Adams in his gullet because Adams denied that he was ever in the IRA, let alone the leader who had ordered some of its most brutal acts; like the murder in Long Kesh of Paddy Crawford — a hanging disguised as suicide.
But Ireland is grateful to Adams that he brought the armed struggle to an end and most are prepared to indulge him about not having been an urban warlord. No one seriously believes that a merely political republican like Bairbre de Brun or Eoin O Broin could have brought the IRA to support political reform in British Northern Ireland, a position they held in contempt at the start of their war.
The leader who steered the movement through two radical changes like that had to have the credibility that only leadership of the armed campaign would have given him. He would have had to have learnt through personal experience what was wrong with that campaign. And what was wrong with it was that it was a mess.
That it was taking a huge toll on civilian life might not have mattered much; but it must have been of some minimal concern. The IRA ceasefire and phony talks strategy of 1972 was designed more to placate Catholic feeling that the campaign was wasteful carnage. That strategy saw Adams released from Long Kesh to meet first with a British diplomat in Donegal and later with the Secretary of State alongside other IRA leaders.
It was also costing too many IRA lives. In those years half of all IRA deaths were caused by premature explosions and shooting accidents. Left to themselves, even without British army action against them, they would have eventually squandered the lives of their own volunteers and gone out of business.
The question hanging in the air still is how much of the detail of Adams' IRA career the public can stomach. He is a born manipulator of people. The most grisly detail about the murder of Paddy Crawford — if the story is true —is that the prisoners in Long Kesh who hanged him were doing so merely to intimidate each other, to remind themselves of the dangers inherent in breaking under the strain of interrogation, as they believed Crawford had done. Had they retained any sense of personal principle or survival instinct, beyond what the IRA allowed them, they would have protected Crawford, one of their own who cracked under pressure as any of them might yet crack.
Many of them must have known the past lies by which the movement had been protected and bound together. They were having to lie to the people they claimed support from; support which if refused could lead to the IRA killing them. Their biggest lie in 1972, the year they killed and buried Jean McConville, was that a massive bomb explosion in Anderson Street in Short Strand had been a loyalist attack. That, they said, explained why armed members of the IRA were among the dead; they had seen the suspicious car enter the street, moved to intercept it and got caught in the blast.
The bomb had in fact been one of their own and had exploded in transit, killing eight people and demolishing several houses. They lied similarly about the bombing of Claudy and the murder of eight people there, including children.
The odious Sean MacStiofain had called an inquiry but first indications, he said, were of a British dirty tricks campaign to discredit the IRA. IRA men who had planted the bomb had rushed from house to house in the area looking for a working phone —themselves having, just the day before, destroyed the exchange.
That Adams was part of this clumsy war, a senior player in the IRA, alongside Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell, was a common belief in republican circles. No one who was in or close to the IRA at that time has ever doubted that he was a top man. Without him, the Price sisters and Gerry Kelly would not have been sent to London to bomb the Old Bailey. Without him there would have been no ambush on the British army at Horn Drive, in a manufactured dispute to end a ceasefire and prove the need to fight on to defend Catholics. The glorious irony of that strategy was that it implicitly recognised that Catholics would not support an armed campaign for a united Ireland but had to have it framed for them as a defence against loyalists and the ‘British war machine'.
The lies and the manipulation speak of a devious ruthless leadership. For the IRA was lying more to the Catholic community and its own members than to the British. And the charge of Brendan Hughes from beyond the grave is that much of this oozes from the heart of one man, Gerry Adams. But how could one man have persuaded them to lie to themselves for |so long?
It is time old republicans asked themselves why they were so pliable and gullible.