In Denial

The party president, once suspected of sitting on the ruling army council, draws gasps of astonishment by insisting he was never in the Provisionals. Even his closest associates look on in bewilderment – UTV 4th October 2002

It wasn’t too long ago that republican critics of Gerry Adams would be infuriated at his persistent denials of Provisional IRA membership. They felt betrayed that the person many of them regarded as their former military commander would abandon them in such public fashion. In their minds he had, by putting distance between himself and the IRA, absolved himself of responsibility for the actions they had carried out and which he had directed; the implication being that membership of the IRA was something to be ashamed of.

These days they rarely wax furious, preferring to just laugh and do the round robin on the phone, urging those who missed the latest televised disavowal to grab themselves a recording. It has become a bit of a thing with them, more comedy than current affairs. They reckon that the denials have become so ludicrous that the Sinn Fein chief should draw only their scorn, not their fury. It cannot be said that they enjoy his discomfort as he rarely seems discomfited by his denials. What they do relish, it seems, is having a ringside seat for interviewers performing as mock jocks. It is the one issue on which the otherwise astute Sinn Fein leader is made to look injudicious. For good measure his republican detractors enjoy poking a bit of fun at the ciphers who feel duty bound to trot out the line that fiction is fact.

Recently I witnessed, heard to be more exact, all the unmitigated derision hard on the heels of an Adams interview with Noel Thompson on BBC’s Hearts & Minds. I can’t say I was brimming with enthusiasm for the exchange, having seen them so often, but was enticed into viewing a recording with the promise that ‘you’ll scream laughing.’ I didn’t manage that response but then, like an old joke, how often can it be laughed at? Nor was it the worst Sinn Fein performance against the wry Thompson. Martin McGuinness has bagged exclusive rights on that. At the same time Adams has had better outings. He played square balls and seemed to break no new ground; platitudes aplenty but little in the way of policy substance. All of which served to confirm the view of Irish Times columnist Davy Adams that the Sinn Fein president is armed only with a ‘portfolio of policies which constitute little more than clich├ęs and soundbites’. Moreover, he exuded jadedness, someone moving pedestrian-like through the motions and who has the benefit of neither a spur nor a leadership competitor pounding at his internal flank. None of which augurs well for his party as it faces another electoral challenge in the difficult terrain of the Republic.

Back in June 1983 when Adams had his solicitors write to the Irish Times to vehemently protest that it had erroneously described him as Vice President of the IRA rather than of Sinn Fein he was already plotting a course, began some time earlier, that he has followed to this day. Then few would have expected him to concede IRA membership and face jail for it. He had already beaten an IRA membership rap in September 1978 when Lord Chief Justice Robert Lowry acquitted him on grounds of insufficient evidence. Not that in terms of what constitutes public knowledge are we are obliged to follow the legal declarations of Bob Lowry. I too was acquitted of the same charge by ‘Sir Robert’ so know not to take such things too seriously, having been an IRA member of ten years standing as I stood listening to him legally find that I was not in the organisation. But for Adams the verdict was a useful foil against media suggestions of IRA involvement.

Subject to the unquantifiable laws of memory erosion I have what I hope is a fairly clear recollection of a prison conversation with Brendan Hughes who expressed the view that Adams might have stepped down from the army to take up a party role given his very public discourse on the issue. The Dark felt his old comrade was too straight a guy to mislead people. It was a position Brendan later parted company with. I expressed the view that Adams was hardly going to hand the Brits a stick to beat him over the head with. The Dark’s response as I recall it was simple: a ‘no comment’ was all that was required to evade legal sanction. Not much to argue with there.

Maybe denials work with people of a much younger age than me although I have no evidence of it. People of my generation grew up understanding Gerry Adams to be in the Provisional IRA as comfortably as we grew up believing Paul McCartney to be in the Beatles. It was just a matter of fact, nothing controversial to it. I suspect however that the younger generation are not taken in. The denials are not being reinforced from anywhere else in society. Apart from the odd groupie or two on the internet few profess to take them seriously. It is well nigh impossible to find a journalist, academic or historian willing to go on the record and endorse the long standing claims by Adams. Reputation in their respective fields obviously still counts for something.

What seemed novel about what Noel Thompson did in his interview was to leave the albatross question to the end. This ensures that the interview is remembered for the note it ended on rather than anything else that was said during it. Had it been the opener on the night Gerry Adams would have had time to sideline the ridicule-inviting denial and allow his later points to stay on centre. The Thompson tactic was to entice the Adams head onto the block, allow the denial to be uttered and then guillotine any further discussion. There was no follow-up cross examination from Thompson or heated debate. The point had been simply made and efficiently executed. It was a lesson in mockery without even seeming to try.

At some point journalists might start asking all Sinn Fein members being interviewed if they believe Gerry Adams when he claims never to have been a member of the IRA. In responding they can only avoid appearing foolish by making a fool out of their leader. Hieronymus Bosch would have recognised the dilemma; a ship of fools or a foolish captain, the vessel’s seaworthiness dubious either way.


  1. A great post.

    After all these years, I wonder whether he actually believes his own denials?

  2. This was a great post Anthony.

    I think most every one knows now how really pathetic the man is. What followers he has should be embarrassed when his lips move.

  3. And now with certain elements in the republican movement apparently resuming armed activity, it will be interesting to watch as Gerry "I was never in the IRA" Adams calls upon his followers to turn informer. Meanwhile just several weeks ago wasn't there a big fuss over a Unionist politician insinuating that Adams was in the IRA... which SF quickly attacked as necessarily accusing Adams as having therefore been involved in criminal activity, a stance completely making a mockery of the whole point of the dirty protest and the hunger strikes in '81.

    Politically, something has to give. SF is now a protector of the British state and the status quo, its leader never had anything to do with the "criminal" IRA, and is willing to do all this to maintain his position as a member of the British parliment.

    Am I off-base or otherwise getting this wrong?

  4. Per CNN:

    Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), said the attack was "wrong and counterproductive."

    "Last night's attack was an attack on the peace process," he said. "Those responsible have no support, no strategy to achieve a united Ireland. Their intention is to bring British soldiers back on to the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict."

    It seems to me that Adams is correct here.

    NCM -- "politically something has to give." What? It is over. As Anthony has pointed out time after time -- the good guys lost.

  5. Today, more than most days, I really miss The Blanket. I would like to find an intelligent, informed discussion of the situation instead of emotional finger-pointing. Eagerly awaiting your next post, Anthony.