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Malachi O'Doherty: So, Mary Lou, the RUC was disbanded? the Provos have gone away? and Gerry was never in the IRA?

The Sinn Fein president is bound by republican tradition that certain mythologies must be maintained. She would do better to disown the barbarism, but will she?

Sinn Fein’s past could hinder the political progress of new leader Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein’s past could hinder the political progress of new leader Mary Lou McDonald
Former SF leader Gerry Adams claims he was never in the IRA
A masked IRA member
The RUC crest

Mary Lou McDonald has a problem. She has inherited the leadership of Sinn Fein and, with it, the responsibility to maintain the party's several fictions, stick by its stylebook and preserve the good name of the IRA. These obligations will always hinder her political progress until she - if ever - manages to outgrow them.

We have seen a couple of examples of this difficulty in recent days. Having sweetened her relationship with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and opened the prospect of a coalition with Fine Gael, she affronted him in the Dail on Wednesday by questioning the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner.

Her attack was founded on one of those fictions: that the RUC was disbanded. It wasn't. It was reformed and rebranded. She should know something of that process herself, or would if she was making a serious effort to change Sinn Fein.

If the RUC had been disbanded, Harris, who was a member, would have been stood down and would have had to apply for a new job in the PSNI. The Government at the time was emphatic that the "title deeds" of the RUC were contained within the PSNI and, lest anyone should think the force was in disgrace, awarded it the George Cross.

Republicans might have well-founded objections to the failure to disband the RUC, or to consign it to ignominy, but they are in no position to claim that those things happened when they didn't.

Mary Lou's other shady little history lesson for us says that the IRA has "gone away". This is out of the stylebook. She is no more specific than Bobby Storey was when he likened the IRA to a butterfly that had flown away. In other words, it is not here; it is somewhere else. I don't see it, therefore it doesn't exist.

A child could see through that game. What she really means is that if the IRA is not making obvious problems for us, we should ignore it. The reassuring words - if reassurance was the intention - would have been that it has been disbanded, stood down.

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As now-leader of the party that cheer-led the bombing campaign for decades and mediated between the army council and successive British and Irish Governments, you would think she would have some curiosity about what happened to those grisly old gunmen.

But no. "I look to the streets for the evidence of what's going on," she says. And, since she can't see the IRA, there is no IRA. Is she God. All that exists is only what she sees?

But Mary Lou plainly does not choose her own words when she is discussing the status of the IRA. Either that or she is as fully committed to befuddling us with propaganda as her predecessor was.

And what about him, then? She says: "What I find in dealing with people, as a rule, is that they are the experts on their own lives and their own experiences." I wonder if she'll accord the same courtesy to Mr Harris.

Mary Lou either wants us to believe that she is naive or she wants to wriggle out of any demand that she speak plainly about the IRA and her party's connections with it. She appears to be the only person in the country who believes that Gerry Adams was not in the IRA.

Other Sinn Fein members and apologists will dodge the question. They will accuse you - or me - of being obsessed with it. But show me a clip of tape in which Conor Murphy, or Oglach McGuinness, or Gerry Kelly, has ever said that Adams wasn't in the IRA.

John Hume, in 1988, confronted Adams in a radio programme, Behind The Headlines, presented by Brian Garrett and produced by Martin Dillon. He told Adams that he wanted to speak to the leadership of the IRA, the people who were making the decisions, not to Gerry. What was the outcome of that challenge? It was negotiations with Adams which produced the Hume-Adams accord.

I asked Hume why he had spoken to Adams and not to the IRA, and he said simply: "Well, he is the top man." Hume had come to accept that the conceit that Sinn Fein and the IRA, at that time, were separate entities was politically useful, would enable Governments to negotiate.

And maybe some of us hadn't grasped that there wasn't a precise overlap of personnel, except at the very top. The IRA wasn't wholly in Adams's pocket just yet.

McDonald, for now, is bound to the republican tradition that certain mythologies must be maintained. These are that the IRA campaign was a necessary evil; it was driven by good, noble, self-sacrificing people, responding to oppression in the only way they could. That Adams is a saintly, Mandela-type figure, who was never in the IRA, but had a unique influence over it. He is even holier than Mandela, for Mandela actually was a member of the ANC and was a bomber.

But she can never persuade others outside the republican movement to accept these ideas. She may hold sincerely to them herself, but more likely she feels that the IRA, having cleared space for the political growth of Sinn Fein, expects, as part of that deal, that it will never be disowned; that it's heroes will never be dishonoured.

And this despite the fact that they did most of the killing during the Troubles and all for goals which they failed to realise and never could have realised by their methods.

The best she can hope for, perhaps, is that others will understand her problem. But, for that to work, she would have to wind her neck in a bit and stop the cheerleading.

The photographic artistry that smoothed out her skin for publicity pictures will not achieve anything near as much for her credibility as a bit more candour would and a little less deference to a dark and murderous tradition that will only be behind us when republicans stop pretending it was decent and worthwhile. From such a position, they might ask for a bit more understanding of what happened to that tragic generation.

She has on her side the reality that the republican tradition has already evolved, away from Pearse and his Catholicism, from De Valera and his protectionism, from early Adams and his revolutionary socialism, from wanting out of the EU and from preserving the ban on abortion, into a movement nobody in 1970 ever conceived it could be.

Mary Lou's legacy can be that she took the next step to disowning the barbarism. On current form, that looks unlikely.

Malachi O'Doherty's Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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