FERGUS FINLAY: Sorting truth from contradictions of Adams may take generations

While intensive and daily negotiations about peace were going on, the IRA planned and executed a terrible atrocity. Adams honoured the bomber, writes Fergus Finlay

My mother was a great fan of Gerry Adams. Me, not so much. My mother admired his writing and his politics, and used to send him letters telling him so. (To which, by the way, he always replied courteously.)

I could never reconcile the man committed to peace with the man who carried Thomas Begley’s coffin.

So I would approach the task of trying to write a rounded assessment of Gerry Adams with some trepidation. I have my biases, of course, and it’s also probably too soon.

Apart from anything else, he hasn’t gone away — he’s only announced his intention (which at least is more than Robert Mugabe did over the weekend).

But he has been a dominant figure in the politics of this island for a generation, an unchallenged leader of his own movement, and the best known Irish politician on the international stage.

He’s been described as a terrorist and a statesman, a war-monger and a peacemaker, a hypocrite and a man of honour.

It might indeed take a generation or two, and teams of historians, to sort out the truth from the contradictions in his career.

But there are reasons I remember Thomas Begley. He was a young IRA volunteer, sent to bomb a meeting of UDA leaders that wasn’t happening.

It was supposed to take place upstairs in a fish shop called Frizzell’s on the Shankill Road in Belfast on October 23, 1993. Not only was Begley in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the bomb he was carrying blew up in his hands.

It killed him and nine other people, and desperately wounded more than 50 others, including the other IRA volunteer who had accompanied Begley.

It was an IRA fiasco, badly planned and terribly executed. Worse than that, it was an IRA atrocity that caused terrible pain to innocent people. Those who died had quiet family funerals, full of grief.

Except one. Begley’s funeral was covered by the world’s media, and heavily guarded by the security force. His coffin was carried by IRA volunteers, and by one man who had “never” been in the IRA, Gerry Adams.

Seven days later, the gang Begley had been sent to target, the UDA, took their revenge.

They attacked the Rising Sun bar in a little nationalist village near Derry called Greysteel, killing seven people and wounding many more.

Sorting truth from contradictions of Adams may take generations

So in a seven-day period dozens of people were killed or maimed in sectarian attacks.

But this wasn’t at the height of the troubles. In the weeks that all this happened, the IRA had publicly committed itself to a peace process, and Gerry Adams was intensively involved in the search for that peace.

For weeks before those massacres, a group of Irish civil servants (I was one of them) was meeting their British counterparts for at least a day a week, trying to piece together a document that would underpin the search for peace.

Endless hours went into drafting words and phrases that both Albert Reynolds and John Major might be able to sign up to. Secret meetings were held with republicans, and with loyalists, to try to ensure their buy-in to the language being developed.

At the same time, meetings between John Hume and Gerry Adams were taking place, giving rise to the idea that a Hume/Adams process was going to produce an agreed text.

When the Shankill Massacre happened, John Hume in particular was subjected to terrible pressure because of his dialogue with Adams.

Sorting truth from contradictions of Adams may take generations

But in fact, the only text was the document we were working on with the British. There were many key phrases in that document — some of them very hard-fought around the negotiating table.

Phrases like “a new political framework founded on consent”; “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; “a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence”.

All of those phrases, and many more, designed to establish an agreed basis for self-determination, based on consent, and for the involvement of parties like Sinn Féin in the process, once they had put violence behind them, were discussed again and again.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were among the key people involved in consultation at every stage, in those demanding and exhausting weeks. We — and they — were talking to the British at almost the moment the bomb went off on the Shankill Road.

Sorting truth from contradictions of Adams may take generations

The revulsion that followed almost derailed the peace process in its entirety. It was impossible to figure out how negotiations about the detailed language of peace could be got back under way in the atmosphere that prevailed.

If you read the Dáil debate that took place a few days after the Shankill bombing, you can sense the despair. But my boss at the time, Dick Spring, made an important speech in that debate which set out “six principles” that had to underpin progress.

That speech was seized on by people anxious to get the negotiations started again, and despite the horror felt by everyone, we re-started our weekly meetings.

A couple of months later, just before Christmas that year and about seven weeks after the Shankill Massacre, the Downing St Declaration was signed.

It became the basis for the first IRA ceasefire, and the principles it established became the foundation for every document and structure underpinning peace in Ireland ever since.

It’s why I feel such a deep sense of contradiction about Gerry Adams. While intensive and daily negotiations about peace were going on, the IRA planned and executed a terrible atrocity. In its immediate aftermath, Adams honoured the bomber, not the victims.

In a sense I think it can be reasonably argued that the Downing St Declaration — often seen as the outcome of a process started by Hume and Adams —was achieved in spite of Adams. He may have wanted it, but he put it at risk in order to carry a bomber’s coffin.

But there are others who will argue — and I can’t claim to know the truth of this — that if Adams had condemned the bombing, or refused to carry the coffin, it would have undermined him at precisely the time his authority was most needed.

It has been argued many times that his carrying of the coffin was a key factor in his ability to carry a united republican movement past the text of the Downing St Declaration and on to a ceasefire.

I’ve always thought of that incident as a sort of microcosm of Gerry Adams’ career. He has built a powerful political movement, that has remained united despite endless — and warranted — criticism.

He has built it in part because the unity of his movement has always been the thing that mattered most to him.

That has involved a decision on his part to always look inwards, never outward. It has meant that he cannot reconcile the contradictions, especially at times when the rest of the community demands a different response.

It makes one wonder whether the unity of his movement can survive him. Above all it makes me wonder whether Gerry Adams’ insistence that he would lead only his own, and nobody else, was his greatest strength or perhaps ultimately his failure.


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