Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life

Christopher Owens reviews the latest book on Gerry Adams. Influenced by post punk and industrial music, Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

The term 'unauthorised biography' still carries a lot of connotations in today's world, and none of them tend to be positive: hatchet job, exploitative, cheap cash in. While this may be the case for those who prefer their biographies to lean towards celebrities and the culture surges that spawn them, it can be quite different when it comes to the world of politics.

All too often, this lack of endorsement means that a writer has much more freedom to be critical and indulge in speculation, linking events together and questioning the mindset of the subject during periods of euphoria or defeat. Robert Dallek's excellent book on Kennedy is an example of what can be achieved without approval from the subject/subject's descendants.

And so, Malachi O'Doherty enters the arena with a book about Gerry Adams. The first biography of Adams since 1998.

With his reappearance on the North's political stage, O'Doherty's timing couldn't be any better. The recent death of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein crashing the Assembly and his re-election as President of Sinn Fein has now led to a re-evaluation of his life's work. A lot not particularly favourable.

So a biography offering new insights into Adams is to be welcomed. And the title, while an obvious twist on the aforementioned phrase, can also be used to describe O'Doherty's take on Adams: contempt, with a certain amount of exasperation at his enduring influence.

O'Doherty tells the tale of Adams' life in fairly straightforward fashion. Anyone familiar with the recent history of this country will find nothing surprising or revelatory. It's a fairly straightforward take of someone being born into a republican family, joining up almost as if it was expected of him, and finding outside events spiralling out of control.

Strangely, O'Doherty doesn't mention that Adams was a founding member of the NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association), which he wrote about in Twenty Years On, a collection of essays published in 1988. Ok, he was there under orders from Cathal Goulding, but he still voted in favour of the formation of the organisation. 

The main problem with the book is that O'Doherty has a tendency to oversimplify events, basically pitting it down to one side being oh so manipulative and the other side naïve. An example of this would be the early battles between the Provos and the just landed British Army.

What O'Doherty doesn't inform the reader is that the Army were under the control of the Stormont government, who wanted the IRA crushed, and undoubtedly suspected the overall Catholic population as being equal participants. So this overarching force (Stormont) were putting pressure on an army that did not know the area and were building relations with the ordinary Catholic population, only to have to use excessive force, which was then used by the Provos as proof that the British Army were there to suppress them.

As another example, he cites (via Anthony McIntyre) conflicting reports of the strength of the Provos during the 1975 ceasefire, while allowing Richard O'Rawe to suggest that Adams perpetuated the "IRA as broken by the ceasefire" line in order to allow people to portray him as the saviour of the movement.

Highly compelling, but it overlooks the fact that IRA members were routinely breaking in Castlereagh (more often than not through torturous methods by the RUC) from 1976 onwards (a year after the ceasefire) and the descent into sectarian violence. So, regardless of individual company strengths, the IRA were clearly heading in the wrong direction. Whether that was because of, or helped along, by the stipulations of the ceasefire is open to interpretation. But, once again, O'Doherty never leaves the reader aware of this.

There are no new stories and no new insights into the man. The people interviewed are mixed in their reasons for disliking him, and all too often talk about how personable he is, but also how devious he is. This gets quite tedious very quickly, and his use of Paul Durkin's poetry to illustrate general disgust is reminiscent of 'The Young Ones', where Rik Mayall's character recites lines like "Oh Cliff/Sometimes it must be difficult/Not to feel as if/You really are Cliff."

Overall, it's a rather bland, insipid read, with a tendency to simplify events in order to shift the blame onto Adams and co. Of course, there’s no denying that Adams deserves a chunk of the blame for what happened during the Troubles, but a bit of perspective from O’Doherty would have been nice.

There are attempts at psychoanalysis, with Mairia Cahill providing the necessary zinger when she states that she believes that "...Gerry Adams doesn't know who Gerry Adams is." It's easy to see how she has come to this conclusion but she is wrong.

Ultimately, in order to get to the position that Adams currently finds himself in, one has to be adept at being all things to all people while still maintaining a distinct personality. Some may call that sociopathology. Others would refer to it as the necessary key to being a leader.

Ian Brady once wrote that:

as years have passed and you are no longer the person who committed or would repeat such crimes, do you believe you should not be punished? Would you honestly sacrifice yourself simply to satisfy the abstract principle of public deterrent or divine/secular justice? In which case, do you still believe that a captured criminal who has similarly altered with passing years should continue to be punished regardless ... law-abiding souls must have their victims, too, experiencing no guilt at how pleasurable it feels to punish others for crimes they themselves have contemplated or succeeded in getting away with. Further, in punishing others for these crimes, they actually feel they are making retribution of some sort for their own. That’s why punishing others subconsciously feels so good. Beneath the civilised veneer, man remains the supreme predator. Cursed with what he believes is understanding, his true soul blossoms godlike in the heart of the nuclear inferno. Again, only does punishment and retaliation frighten him, not the crime.

Imagine if O'Doherty had taken that idea, a proper psychoanalysis of Adams and really wrestled with it. It would have had the hallmarks of a fascinating read. Instead, we've got this bland soup of nothingness.

If you really want a good book on Adams, read A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney.

Malachi O'Doherty, 2017. Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life. Faber and Faber. ISBN-13: 978-0571315956

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

3 comments to ''Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life"

  1. Christopher,

    not having read the book I am unable to judge it but it must be said that your review is high quality work and TPQ is honoured to carry it. Thanks for the effort and for turning it round so quickly

  2. "Overall, it's a rather bland, insipid read" is right. Disappointing, nothing new. Very superficial psychological analysis. Would have been interested in some discussion of why Adams was left alone in the supergrass days.

  3. This was excellent. Every author writes with a bias but if that bias contorts a book into something bland and accusatory why should people be persuaded to read it?

    I had a sense of the content from the previous transcript of the interview with the author and was persuaded to avoid the book quite early on.


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