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Why Adams' rise to top of republican politics was more by accident than design

History will likely judge the SF leader not as some master strategist, but a lucky opportunist, says Malachi O'Doherty

The big question over Gerry Adams isn't whether or not he was a member of the IRA. He insists that he wasn't, although he qualifies that by saying that he will never disown the IRA.

Were he to come out today, at his stepping down from the presidency of Sinn Fein, and acknowledge that he had been one of the IRA generals, it would make little difference to anyone but himself.

His critics don't doubt that he was in the IRA, and so a late admission would provide no illumination for them.

His followers surely also know the truth, too, if not the full truth. None of them have ever weighed in to endorse his denial.

You don't hear Gerry Kelly or Conor Murphy or Caral Ni Chuilin or Jennifer McCann or other prominent Sinn Feiners who were in the IRA attest that Adams wasn't.

Nor did Oglach McGuinness when he was alive and well-placed to clarify the issue.

So, in terms of how an admission might alter the common understanding or the historical record, it doesn't matter whether he says he was or he wasn't.

But it matters to him personally. In May 2014, the PSNI arrested him and sought to charge him with IRA membership. This was not a half-hearted attempt, though Sinn Fein alleged that the police were trying to interfere with elections at the time.

Having failed in the two-day limit for detaining a suspect, the police took their evidence to a judge and asked him to review it and permit them to extend the detention period. The judge was sufficiently impressed by what they had, to agree.

Then, the police approached several former ­republicans, including ex-prisoners, asking them to make statements.

In the end there was no charge, but the energy put into building a case suggests that were Adams to declare himself to have been in the IRA, he would indeed be charged now.

If Adams was in the IRA, he still has to keep denying it or he will go to jail.

There are some who rationalise the denials, who wonder if there is a way of reading them as literally true. Perhaps, they say, he was sworn into the IRA before the 1970 split and was never actually sworn in as a Provo. Some wonder if Adams, having been republican royalty, would have been spared the process.

He was from one of the core republican families of Belfast. His father had been imprisoned in the 1940s for trying to shoot a policeman. The police and the courts seem to have tried to go easy on him on account of his youth, for instead of charging him with attempted murder, they sent him down for possession of an explosive device - the bullet that jammed in his gun.

Gerry's uncle Dominic was a more serious operator and may have sent Brendan Behan to blow up Liverpool docks. Behan's own three-year sentence seems remarkably lenient, too.

Gerry Adams was active in political agitation among a group of IRA men led by Billy McMillen and Jim Sullivan on the Falls Road in the mid-1960s.

McMillen had fought an election as a republican in 1964 as "Liam McMillan", but those around him knew him as Billy. Adams at least witnessed the riot that McMillen organised when the police smashed his office window to remove the ­tricolour. Ian Paisley had been threatening to march up the Falls and remove it himself, a horrendous prospect.

Gerry's sister Margaret was inside at the time. Though two years younger than Gerry, she had joined the movement before him. The usual place for the swearing-in ceremony then was the Ard Scoil in Divis Street. This was an Irish language centre where ceili dances and fainne meetings were held to bring together the boys and girls of the Catholic schools of Belfast, a musty hall where young Irish speakers met their first loves.

There is a story told that when the 50th anniversary parade of the Easter Rising walked up the Falls Road, from Hamill Street to Casement Park GAA ground, the Christian Brothers watching from St Mary's Barrack Street saw young Gerry stewarding it.

Brother Murphy was heard to comment: "I see we have the officers."

The bigger question over Gerry Adams is whether he is a political genius or whether he was favoured by the drift of change.

The astonishing growth of Sinn Fein will be all the more alarming in the Republic if the record, on close analysis, discloses that Adams is a master strategist. More likely he was just a lucky opportunist.

That coterie of militants around Billy McMillen split in 1970. Margaret Adams stayed with the Officials, or Stickies. Gerry gave his loyalty to the breakaway Provisionals.

The political philosophy he espoused as a Provo prisoner in the 1970s was essentially communism.

When he came out of prison, he was able to negotiate a final settlement of the simmering, bloody feud between the two wings of the IRA.

The Officials had sent his own brother-in-law, Margaret's husband, Mickey McCorry, to represent them. The Provos, in those talks, even took the last hit. The victim was Tommy Tolan, a friend of Adams who had joined him in an attempt to escape from Long Kesh.

Adams was clearly a man who could commit the Provos to deals. He could also take them through a political evolution.

Though firm on his commitment to a united Ireland, his wider vision proved highly flexible.

He moderated his communism of the 1970s into a democratic Leftism which appealed to new allies in the British Labour party.

He brought the Provos into electoral politics, reversing the very principle on which they had split from the Officials 15 years earlier.

In the end, he was content to shape Sinn Fein into a slightly left alternative to the SDLP and colonise their electorate.

The united Ireland envisioned now is an internationalist one inside the EU.

The IRA maintained a small organisation with tight structures. Its function was more to veto political change that wasn't to its liking. It showed no inclination to grow into an army that could present a real military challenge to the British.

And this made it much easier for Adams to secure a ceasefire when it became clear in the 90s that armed struggle was incompatible with electoral growth. Adams converted all politics in Northern Ireland into peace-processing and now exercises a veto over government with votes.

Yet talks did not commence until 10 years after Adams had started sending handwritten, unsigned notes to the Secretary of State Tom King through Fr Alex Reid.

Why did it take him so long? One factor is perhaps that he was waiting for a Labour party to govern in the UK, trusting that it would concede more to him.

And all that time, the demographic shift in Northern Ireland was working in favour of nationalism. Perhaps the growth of the Catholic population was a wave whose crest any political leader of that community could have ridden to political stardom, especially one with a ceasefire to trade.

Malachi O'Doherty is the author of Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life (Faber & Faber)

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