MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Gerry Adams is a politician without a past

VIEWED in isolation, the accusations against and attacks on Gerry Adams this week were unfair. 

Last Tuesday the BBC’s Spotlight programme centred on an interview with an anonymous figure who claimed to have been a member of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin and having worked as an agent for the British security forces.

This man, “Martin”, claimed that Adams sanctioned the killing of Denis Donaldson in 2006. Donaldson had, under pressure, outed himself as a British agent a few months previously. His confession was a serious blow to the Republican movement in which he had been a major figure for over two decades.

He was shot dead in an isolated cottage outside Glenties in Donegal, to where he had relocated after admitting his deception. Three years later, the Real IRA claimed responsibility for killing him.

Martin told the programme that Donaldson was in fact murdered by the Provos because the South Armagh faction felt it was necessary. Such a killing would require the sanction of the leadership of the movement, and especially the man at the very top, Mr Adams, according to Martin.

There were no documents, but there never is with the IRA. But neither was there any eye witness account of a meeting where the murder was sanctioned. There was not even a second hand account related to Martin from somebody who witnessed Adams sanctioning the killing.

Martin didn’t claim to be well acquainted with Gerry Adams. It was just a matter of process. If the IRA murdered Donaldson — and even that is in dispute — it followed that Adams must have sanctioned it. As the basis for an allegation of murder, it was pretty weak.

It could also be claimed that Spotlight would not have broadcast such an allegation on that basis if it was directed at any other public figure on the island of Ireland or beyond.

Reaction from political opponents was swift. Enda Kenny said Adams had areas in his “past life” that he has to deal with: “I think there are elements of his past that only he can answer,” the Taoiseach said.

Micheál Martin said Sinn Féin had “no issue” with the credibility of Spotlight last week when the programme highlighted issues in Nama.

“I do get concerned when Sinn Féin just pounce on the messenger, attack and deny, attack and deny, which is a standard tactic from the Sinn Féin response to situations like this.” Brendan Howlin called on Adams to admit he was a member of the IRA, which is a bit silly at this stage of the game.

All of them could be accused of pouncing on a weak allegation and blowing its significance completely out of proportion for cheap political points.

That would be to ignore what they have to put up with. Kenny, Martin and Howlin have all had to account for how they conducted themselves in power. Their past is out there to be parsed and rightly criticised, and while they may not answer the questions in any meaningful way, they are at least forced to address how they conducted themselves.

In Adams they have an opponent without a past, without a record. While Micheál Martin can be forced to account for his time overseeing reckless behaviour in the economy, and Kenny and Howlin are frequently forced to defend their approach to austerity, Adams is never personally called to account for how he wielded power over life and death through most of the 30-year conflict.

Police forensic experts entering Denis Donaldson’s hideaway home near the village of Glenties in Co Donegal after he was found shot dead in April 2006. He had been shot in the head and arm.
Police forensic experts entering Denis Donaldson’s hideaway home near the village of Glenties in Co Donegal after he was found shot dead in April 2006. He had been shot in the head and arm.

The dogs in the street know he was a key figure in the IRA. Not even his colleagues or friends have ever even attempted to propagate an alternative scenario. But because his past is shrouded in the underworld, there is no official record.

He can accuse opponents of allowing people to die on trolleys, but he doesn’t have to defend his role in the IRA, in which senior figures routinely ordered people to be killed.

So when even the dullest light is shone on the past, it is inevitable that the other party leaders will seek to manipulate the shadows.

That is the political environment in which Adams is forced to operate. His colleagues call it unfair and parrot garbage about bias, as if any examination of his past life should be out of bounds.

Certainly, he deserves credit for bringing about the peace, but he also should be held to account for his role in the war.

While the allegation against Adams concerning Donaldson had credibility problems, the programme maintained Spotlight’s excellent standards in its central thesis of how riven with informers the provisional movement was.

The extent to which the Provos were infiltrated, particularly in the final six or seven years of the conflict, has long been known. Spotlight reporter Jennifer O’Leary dug down deeper. Denis Bradley, a highly credible source and a member of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland, spoke of having seen intelligence files which pointed to up to 800 informers in the Provisional movement.

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that every layer of the movement was infiltrated in those years. Donaldson, and the man known as Stakeknife, Freddie Scappaticci, have been uncovered. Is it plausible that they were the only two senior figures in the movement who were compromised?

Who among the top brass was tick tacking with British intelligence during those years, as young men and women were recruited and sent out to certain deaths in operations that were predestined to fail? How do the families of those “volunteers” who died feel, now that they know many at the top of the IRA took the queen’s shilling, or just played games with their opposite numbers in the final years of the conflict?

Spotlight was a reminder how morally bankrupt, even on their own warped terms, the leaders of the provisional movement grew over time. The rewriting of history by Sinn Féin portrays the struggle of so-called freedom fighters, glossing over the ethnic cleansing, the base crime, the terror inflicted on their own communities, the protection rackets on businesses, the relocation of favoured paedophiles.

Spotlight provided another dimension, this one into how many succumbed to the basest instinct of betraying friends and comrades.

The RUC’s role in the conflict also requires further examination, but its former head of special branch Raymond White did offer one good line to the programme.

“We won the intelligence war but they won the propaganda war,” he said.

Perhaps so. Adams may not know much about the day-to-day specifics of politics or economics in a relatively stable democracy, but his grasp of propaganda is quite extraordinary.

When he does deign to step down, Sinn Féin will face a turbulent transition into a relatively normal political party. ‘It is entirely understandable that there is no mad rush to face into what will be very choppy waters.

In the meantime, they just have to get accustomed to having a procession of ghosts materialising now and again to haunt the party’s project.


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