The Irish media, print, radio & television, with some notable individual exceptions, were and are profoundly anti-republican. Lacking any semblance of meaningful critique, it ranged from blatant censorship to howls of feigned indignation against a political movement whose primary aim of ending partition was the death knell of the political hegemony which that media represented. Small wonder that there exists a healthy reticence when it comes to republicans engaging with representatives of that media be it for interviews or research material.
That reticence should be clearly understood and any evasiveness regarding media engagement cannot be held up as a broad stroke charge of systemic furtiveness into the inner workings of Sinn Fein. Any purposeful inquiry must eschew that approach particularly when it comes from a member of the media. In a prelim to the book's Prologue entitled ‘A Note on Sources’ it is unfortunate that this broad stroke approach is taken thereby potentially portraying the book’s premise as yet another biased media inquiry.
In fairness to the author she stresses the wide variety of sources she did engage with including past and current members of Sinn Fein but again she falls into a presumptive trap when she references Sinn Fein’s ‘culture of secrecy’ which again is highly unfortunate because it should be up to the book to establish this charge and from there how it impacted on ‘The Long Game’.
Early on some factual errors are apparent which cannot be considered pedantic because in trying to trace the evolutionary path from republicanism to constitutionalism clarity of events are important. The book, by and large, views the 1981 hunger strikes as the watershed moment, which is validly argued, and moreso the beginning of the Provisionals' real drift into electoralism when Bobby Sands was chosen as a candidate. On this point Jim Gibney is given credit for this proposal but Daithi O’Connail is also widely credited with this important move demonstrating a political prescience, an alleged absence of which was a charge used against the latter to justify his removal from leadership.
The other point of error is attributing comments made by Ruairi O’Bradaigh during the 1986 Ard Fheis on abstentionism to Daithí O’Connell. The video of the former's speech is readily available and widely viewed which makes the error all the more basic; the salient point being that for those who took the constitutional path, but have serious difficulty in defending it, such errors offer a welcome opportunity to parry.
Getting into the substance of the book some interesting points emerge which are worthy of development but are immediately hampered by the gross overuse of unattributed sources. This practice of ad lib commentary is more commonly associated with tabloid like stories deliberately designed to sex up the narrative as opposed to lending it authenticity.
Sinn Féin were always at pains to highlight their negotiations skills, McGuinness most unashamedly, but when it finally dawned on its elected representatives the contradictions posed by what was actually negotiated and agreed to, they were left like dazed rabbits in the headlights.
Voting for welfare cuts was on a par with negotiating away the fundamentals of the republican struggle and in the face of both the book makes a credible assumption that their continued loyalty was more based on their own financial considerations than any political view that there was strategic merit to acting out both.
Quoting Martina Anderson ‘we’re winning’, coupled with the Denis Donaldson revelations, credibly highlights the grotesque absurdity of Sinn Féin’s core position being hopelessly compromised on one hand, and on the other, subject to a form of shadowy control by men and women completely out done by British security and political tacticians.
But the book fails to expand on the political implications of this for Irish republicanism. Similarly, its treatment of the decommissioning issue is tepid. It is certainly true that so called ‘big army names’ were used to sell decommissioning to the rank and file but what they were actually selling was the humiliating defeat of the PIRA itself.
In positive terms the meeting between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth is covered almost metaphorically as to how Adams and McGuinness portrayed negatives as positives. For example, their boycott of the Queen’s visit to the Twenty-Six Counties was seen as an assertion of their republican credentials whilst knowing full well the political path they were on was predicated on recognising that same royal as the sovereign authority over British governance in the Six Counties.
Similarly, McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen was portrayed as the other way round, the Queen coming to terms with the elected status of republican McGuinness and as yet another example of the Adams/McGuinness strategy sticking it to the Brits. More decommissioning sold in the exact same way.
There is an interesting episode covered which touches on (but not expands) the mindset of Adams. It concerns former hunger striker Leo Green and his relationship with Adams throughout the abuse revelations by Adams’s brother. Green is reported as asking Adams to step aside as president for the duration of the legal proceedings. This didn’t sit well with Adams as he perceived it as a push against him even if Green’s approach had merit.
As Adams moves to marginalise Green the book references a party meeting at which Green openly declares ‘Gerry, you are a liar!’. Either the author was beguiled by the headline quote, or they simply failed to grasp the significance of it given the silent reaction in the room to Green, but this was a Nixon like moment ‘when the President lies it isn’t a lie’. This goes beyond his denial of IRA membership. What does that say about his long interactions with the British? What does it say about his signing of the GFA? What does it say about his autobiography? (As one individual said to me; its like George Best writing about his life but never mentioning Manchester United)
The book ends on the Dowdall case, manna from heaven for anyone who is opposed to Sinn Féin, but cannot formulate a credible political critique beyond mudslinging. And this is the great void in the text.
It reads like the author has received snippets of information and then formulated a tabloid narrative about dark lanes and shadowy passengers to present ‘proof’ of their view that the inner workings of Sinn Féin continue in this vein. So what? Wouldn’t Fianna Fáil have a similar approach to its own internal workings when you consider the revelations which emerged about Bertie Ahern after Albert Reynolds was shafted for the Áras candidacy? As that FF matriarch Mary O’Rourke succinctly put it; we don’t have to look outside the family to realise who’s speaking out of school.
And that’s what the book is about; speaking out of school but not enough to educate.
Aoife Moore, 2023, The Long Game: Inside Sinn Fein. Sandycove. ISBN-13: 978-1844885794.
⏩ The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British.