Belfast Telegraph

'I looked Adams in the face and he said sorry to me. Well... blessed are the peacemakers'

 

In 2010, a TV documentary-maker persuaded a victim of IRA violence to meet Gerry Adams face-to-face. But, as Malachi O'Doherty reveals in his new biography of Adams, unknown to the director a second IRA victim was to witness the encounter.

In 2010, Gerry Adams reflects on the life of Jesus for a Channel Four documentary and is asked if he, like Jesus, can forgive. He says: "Bad things have been done to me. I have forgiven those who did it. I did it in the first instance for me; I didn't do it for them. I did it for me, because I didn't want to become corroded."

Towards the end of the programme, two of those who might forgive Adams are in the room with him. One is Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the IRA bombing of Frizzell's fish shop on the Shankill Road in October 1993, an attempt to kill the UDA leaders who were thought to be meeting upstairs.

The other is the cameraman, Eugene McVeigh, whose brother, Columba, was among the Disappeared, killed by the IRA and secretly buried. Adams knew that the cameraman was the brother of one of the Disappeared. The director of the programme, Dan Reid, did not know this.

Eugene McVeigh says he didn't seek to step forward, because he didn't want his own grief to be part of the story. Adams was trying to concede some limited regret to Alan McBride about a bomb of nearly 20 years earlier. The story of Columba's murder and disappearance was still unfinished, for the body has not yet been found.

Eugene says: "I remember Dan making great presence about how this was such a seminal event in this film and these two men were going to meet and this was going to be a special moment. I had a moment within the moment, even as Dan was talking. It was only afterwards when I was driving away that I started to internalise and reflect on what was happening."

His professional responsibility on the day was to serve the needs of the documentary, to record the conversation between Alan McBride and Gerry Adams. Adams had carried the coffin of Thomas Begley, one of the bombers, who had died in the fish shop attack.

"It was very moody, almost confession box-like in the way I had lit it. And I remember looking through the camera and saying, 'This is the confession box. What are you going to say? How do you justify what was done?'."

As a current affairs camera operator, Eugene McVeigh had seen Adams protect himself from many probing journalists before. Adams tells Dan Reid, the director, that the bombing of the fish shop was "a stupid operation".

He says: "It didn't take into account the safety of the civilians and, of course, Thomas (Begley) gets the blame for this and clearly the blame is one which has to be shared. It was an operation which was just fundamentally flawed and fundamentally wrong."

Alan McBride, in his turn, acknowledges that the mother of the dead bomber had suffered a grievous loss and deserved sympathy. Adams thanks McBride for "the example you are giving people like me".

Gerry Adams positions himself, not among the aggressors, but among the aggrieved. He says: "There were times when I was afraid my heart would break. I mean, I can be as angry and as ruthless and as focused and as deliberate in terms of what I have to do as anyone else, but I have a fairly logical mind.

"So, even though I could be angry at something that was done, either through the stupidity of the side that I supported, or by those who were opposing us, I never felt entirely brutalised by what was going on."

He is saying that he is a good man still. And, in the end, he appeared to signal in a gesture that he had been an IRA commander.

"It needs generals to make peace, okay?" And he raised his eyebrow. The gesture, the use of the word "general", looked like a strong hint that he was referring to himself as a military leader.

And it is that peacemaking and that vision of a wider context that enables Eugene McVeigh to preserve his respect for Gerry Adams. "I have known Gerry Adams a long time and I suppose he didn't always know who I was, or the connection to my brother Columba."

Eugene's name had featured in media reports around the creation of a commission for the recovery of victims' remains and, again, shortly after his mother died. She had appealed on television for information about the hiding of the body and said that she could die happy if first she could give Columba a Christian burial.

"Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams got in touch with me and asked me if I would be prepared to meet them. I did meet them at Sinn Fein headquarters on the Falls Road and it was a very strange meeting, walking in without a camera to talk to them about my brother.

"Both of them did apologise to me. I assumed that, when I was in a room with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, that's good enough."

He says he didn't see much point in parsing the apology to evaluate its sincerity. Neither man was saying that Columba should not have been killed, but they were saying that they would do everything they could to help find the body.

"We stood in a room and I looked Adams in the face and he said sorry to me. Well, blessed are the peacemakers. What do you do?"

Eugene does not blame the IRA alone for the killing. "Columba McVeigh, at 19 years old, a young man who would be classed now as having learning difficulties, had been used by intelligence agents in 1975 to gather information about the IRA in Donaghmore. It was always in my head that, though someone in Adams' organisation squeezed the trigger that took my brother's life, the state had some responsibility, too."

And he thinks, at times, that death isn't necessarily "the unkindest cut".

"When I look at his life and the things he has admitted about his own father; I have never had to own up to my father being a child molester; I have never had to see my brother going to jail for being a paedophile. That's a living torture, as much as anything else. He has dealt with it. He has got it out there.

"I would think that all of that makes him the person he is, for good, or bad."

  • Adapted from Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life by Malachi O'Doherty, published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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