Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams; drawing by David Levine


Even in Ireland, where popular culture used to be skeptical and irreverent, there are now magazines devoted to the worship of celebrities. The best-selling native equivalent of People in the US or Hello in Europe is called VIP. Its issue for September 2002 had the usual mix on the cover: a TV anchorman, the model who advertises the Wonderbra, a member of the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy. The main picture, however, was devoted to a smiling man in a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, with a neatly trimmed beard and a well-groomed sweep of gray hair adding distinction to his temples. The blurb was “Gerry Adams the charismatic leader reveals the man that few people know.”

The revelations inside were, of course, insipid. Readers learned that the leader of Sinn Fein and the pivotal figure in the Irish peace process has teeth that are “a credit to a top-class orthodontist.” He is sometimes moved to tears by “good music or a happy memory,” has given up Guinness beer in favor of red wine, loves dogs, and has a special affinity with trees. In the relentlessly fawning style of such magazines, Adams appeared as a sweet, avuncular figure, full of the self-confidence of calm middle age but with a gloss of New Age mysticism to keep him in touch with his inner child.

Trivial as all of this undoubtedly was, it had its own significance. The final absorption of Gerry Adams into the soporific world of celebrity journalism marked the astonishing success of his political strategy. Until quite recently, Adams was an international pariah. He was not allowed to enter the United States until President Clinton granted him a special visa against the advice of the State Department in January 1994. Only in the same month did the Irish government lift an order banning all interviews with him or members of his party from radio and television. In the UK, his voice could not be broadcast, so interviews with him had to be dubbed by an actor speaking his words.

Adams was reviled because he was regarded by the Irish, British, and US governments as a terrorist. Though he operated in public as the leader of a legal political party, Sinn Fein, and had never been convicted of a terrorist crime, no serious observer of the Northern Ireland conflict questioned his private status as a senior figure within the clandestine Irish Republican Army. That status had been confirmed as early as July 1972, when Adams was just twenty-three years old. The British government arranged talks with the IRA leadership in London. One of the IRA’s conditions for agreeing to take part was that Adams be released from custody to join its negotiating team.1 In January 1973, the US embassy in Dublin reported to Washington that the IRA was led by a “Troika,” namely Daithi O Conaill, Joe Cahill, and Gerry Adams, “who is still an active Belfast military commander.”2 Recently Dolours Price, who was convicted of involvement in the planting of four IRA car bombs in London in March 1973, described Adams as “my commanding officer” at the time.3

As leader of Sinn Fein, moreover, he consistently and explicitly supported the use of violence to further the political goal of forcing Britain to leave Northern Ireland. In his first address as party president in 1983, for example, he described the IRA’s campaign as a “necessary and morally correct form of resistance.”4 His occasional mild criticism of especially disgusting IRA atrocities did not detract from that position. It was clear that, directly or indirectly, Adams had blood on his hands.

With the gradual development of the peace process in the mid-1990s, however, the public image of Gerry Adams began to change. He was engaged in an epic task: trying to get the IRA, an undefeated and highly effective terrorist organization, to abandon violence and adopt a fully political strategy. He needed and deserved a large measure of tolerance from governments and the press. The very ambiguity of his position, after all, was one of the great assets of the peace process. If Adams were not accepted as a democratic politician, he could not be brought into negotiations. If, on the other hand, he did have at least a significant degree of control over the terrorists, he could deliver what the governments and most of the Irish people wanted: an end to the IRA’s sordid campaign.

Thus Gerry Adams the godfather of terrorism was replaced by Gerry Adams the tree-loving, wine-drinking celebrity politician. In 1996, he published an autobiography, Before the Dawn,5 which almost entirely glossed over his career in the IRA. In promotional interviews for the book, he went even further and claimed that he had never been a member of the organization and had never engaged in any act of violence. Since most of the international press and all of the relevant governments were anxious not to damage the peace process, these incredible assertions were allowed to pass with no more than mild expressions of skepticism. As a result, Adams acquired so much glamour that, at a Sinn Fein fund-raising dinner in New York in early November 2002, he was introduced with the suggestion that if Ian Fleming were alive and looking for a new James Bond, “he wouldn’t need a script and he wouldn’t need to do anything other than read about the life of Gerry Adams.”6


There is a wonderfully surreal absurdity in the transformation of one of the leaders of an anti-British terror campaign into the mythic hero of the British secret service. There is, though, a serious side to the reconstruction of Adams’s image. The danger has always been that the tacit agreement to ignore the IRA past of the Sinn Fein leader would encourage a larger and more profound act of denial. If Adams did not have to account for his involvement with the IRA, then perhaps the IRA itself could remain unaccountable. Sinn Fein would share power in the democratic institutions established under the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and present itself as a normal political party with no paramilitary connections. The IRA, meanwhile, could retain its underground existence, not as an active terrorist force, but as another center of political power—raising money, enforcing social control in its own Catholic strongholds, giving the party extra leverage at the negotiating table.

This connection between the new, bland image of Gerry Adams and the IRA’s ambivalent attitude toward the peace process makes it rather appropriate that both should have reached a crisis point more or less simultaneously over the last few months. On the one hand, the IRA’s continuing presence has provoked the collapse of the local political institutions established under the Belfast Agreement. On the other, the publication of Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA has challenged more deeply than ever before Adams’s carefully constructed image as a peaceful man who has never engaged in acts of violence. Taken together, these events signal the end of a period in which creative ambiguity was a useful instrument of the peace process. Where once a certain vagueness about the IRA was the oil that kept the process in motion, now it has become the glue that has brought it to a stop.

As one of the few journalists to have covered the entire span of the Northern Ireland conflict, Ed Moloney, who has written for the Irish Times, and more recently for the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune, is widely accepted as an especially authoritative figure. He is not, moreover, motivated by any hostility to Gerry Adams. On the contrary, the overarching theme of his book is the extraordinary nature of Adams’s achievement and of the skill with which he brought an implacable armed movement to accept a political settlement which did not meet its primary demand: a withdrawal of Britain from Northern Ireland.

Moloney’s persuasively argued contention is that Adams’s decision to re-think what the IRA calls the “armed struggle” had its origins as early as October 1982. The occasion for this momentous decision was the IRA’s kidnapping and eventual murder of a Protestant man, Tommy Cochrane, who was a part-time soldier with the local army auxiliary force, the Ulster Defence Regiment. The murder itself was not unusual, but the IRA’s statement that the unfortunate man was being held for interrogation created a gruesome drama. A Protestant paramilitary gang kidnapped a Catholic man, Joe Donegan, and beat him to death almost immediately. The gang announced, however, that Donegan was being held hostage against the safe return of Cochrane. The IRA killed Cochrane anyway, sparking an especially vicious cycle of tit-for-tat killings.

Before Tommy Cochrane’s murder was confirmed, however, a Belfast Catholic priest, Father Alec Reid, approached Gerry Adams and asked him to intervene with the IRA to secure his release. Moloney sees this approach from Father Reid as “the moment at which the peace process could be said to have been born.” From it stemmed a series of tentative but significant engagements between Adams and some elements within the Catholic Church. These contacts had no concrete results but did suggest that even at this stage Adams was, as Moloney puts it, “clearly willing to discuss an alternative to the IRA’s violence, and to contemplate huge ideological shifts.” By 1986 or 1987, Father Reid was acting as a go-between in establishing contact between Adams and the British government. In interviews with Moloney, two successive British secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Tom King and Peter Brooke, confirm official contacts with Reid at this time—much earlier than previous accounts have suggested.

An important element of this tentative breakthrough was that it be kept secret, not just from the public at large but from the IRA’s own ruling body, the Army Council. In the IRA’s conspiratorial mentality, a suggestion that armed violence might not be the best way forward and a willingness to engage in contact with the enemy were tantamount to treachery, and the price of treason was death. Adams was in an especially good position to know this for, according to Moloney, he had himself established the IRA unit which carried out the execution and secret burial of alleged “informers” and traitors.


Adams commanded the Belfast Brigade of the IRA between November 1972 and his own arrest ten months later. He was promoted within the organization even though he was almost certainly involved in the infamous atrocity known as Bloody Friday, when, in July 1972, the IRA exploded twenty car bombs in the city center within an hour, killing nine people and injuring 130. Two of the dead were soldiers, the others were civilians, among them a fourteen-year-old boy. As commander, Adams established two special IRA cells, which acted autonomously within the organization. Their function was counter-intelligence, the detection and murder of people inside and outside the IRA who were suspected of passing information to the authorities. According to Moloney, these cells, called “the unknowns,” “reported directly to Adams and received their instructions only from him.”

If this is true, it places Adams at the center of what has been one of the most bitter episodes of the peace process in the late 1990s: the question of the so-called Disappeared. Even in the conflict’s grisly catalog of suffering, a small number of murders stood out as especially cruel because the families of the victims had not been allowed to bury their dead. In March 1999, the IRA, under severe political pressure from the Irish and British governments, acknowledged the “killing and secret burial” of ten people and apologized for the “injustice of prolonging the suffering of victims’ families.” Details of nine secret graves were eventually released, but extensive searches by the authorities located just three bodies.7 Among those whose bodies are still missing are three people who Moloney believes were killed on Adams’s orders in 1972: IRA members Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright, and the most poignant victim of all, Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten young children. The first two, he claims, were buried in secret because their unmasking as British army informants was a direct embarrassment to Adams himself, under whose command they served. Jean McConville was “disappeared” because the IRA did not wish to claim a murder that left ten children as orphans. Moloney equivocates on whether or not the order for her secret burial came from Adams directly, but he writes that it is “inconceivable that such an order would have been issued without his knowledge.”

Adams for his part has described this claim as “offensive and outrageous.” The difficulty with his denial is that it is part of his general policy of denying all involvement with the IRA, and is therefore tainted with the same lack of credibility. Having insisted so often that he was never a terrorist, he is not in a good position to dispute any specific allegation, even if it is untrue. What for him was once a useful political strategy has become a liability. His most important ally in the leadership of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness (who was minister for education in the local administration until it collapsed in October and is currently the party’s chief negotiator in the attempts to reconstruct the peace deal), has openly admitted that he was an IRA leader,8 and thus tends to be believed when he speaks about any specific incident. Adams has placed himself in a position where almost everything he says about his own past history is regarded as just another evasive exercise.

This applies in equal measure to Moloney’s other main contentions in relation to Adams’s IRA career. He writes that Adams was the IRA’s chief of staff (overall commander) from December 2, 1977, until February 18, 1978, the dates being those of the arrest of his immediate predecessor and, for a second time, of Adams himself. The precise dates are important because, on February 17, 1978, the day before Adams was arrested, the IRA committed one of its most appalling atrocities. Twelve Protestant civilians, none of whom was involved in the conflict, were killed by an incendiary device placed in the restaurant of the La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast. The device, which used a mixture of explosives and gasoline, created a fireball that left bodies so badly charred that some of the victims had to be identified from their dental records or from blood tests carried out on their relatives. The dead—who included three married couples—were, like Gerry Adams, dog lovers and were attending the annual dinner of the Irish Collie Club.

There is no suggestion that Adams had directly ordered the attack, but his position as chief of staff would be enough under international law to make him personally culpable. Even the IRA itself admitted at the time that the massacre was inexcusable. In his autobiography, Adams claims that he was “deeply shocked by the news” of the La Mon firebombing and that he was “depressed by the carnage and deeply affected by the deaths and injuries.”9 He suggests that it was his distress that caused him to neglect his usual routine of moving around to avoid surveillance and to stay the night in his family home, where he was arrested the next morning and charged with IRA membership.10


It is tempting to see La Mon as the turning point in Adams’s journey from violence to democratic politics. Yet there is no evidence that his shock was sufficient to change his mind about the use of violence. According to Moloney, he took up the position of northern commander of the IRA on his release from prison in September 1978, assuming “day-to-day responsibility for running the IRA’s war in Northern Ireland…. By coincidence or otherwise, Adams’s release from prison signalled an upsurge in IRA violence.” Even when his day-to-day involvement with the terror campaign ceased in the early 1980s as Adams gradually took control of Sinn Fein, he remained a member of the Army Council, a position, Moloney suggests, that he continues to hold.

How, then, do we explain Adams’s brave decision to respond to Father Reid’s approaches in 1982? It makes most sense to see what happened as a change of mind rather than as a change of heart. There is little evidence that Adams was ever so horrified by the atrocities in which he was implicated that he suffered a crisis of conscience. His change of strategy was essentially a pragmatic calculation. By the early 1980s, it was clear to any rational political activist that the “armed struggle” could not succeed. The IRA could not be defeated. Neither, however, could it force the British to leave. Britain simply could not abandon the Protestant majority of the Northern Irish population. Anyone watching the events of 1982, when Margaret Thatcher went to war with Argentina over the relatively meaningless Falkland Islands, had to realize that the idea of the same government surrendering a part of the United Kingdom to an army that consisted at any one time of a few hundred active terrorists was pure fantasy.

If, however, the Falklands War showed Adams that the IRA campaign was not going to work, he also had a glimpse of a strategy that might be more effective. In 1981, ten prisoners belonging to the IRA and a smaller splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, starved themselves to death in a protest over their demand to be treated differently from ordinary criminals. The protest generated enormous sympathy both in Ireland and around the world by changing the image of the IRA from men of violence to martyred victims. Along with this extraordinary propaganda coup went the development of a mass organization to support the protest and successful ventures into electoral politics. The leader of the hunger strike, Bobby Sands, won a by-election for the British Parliament in April 1981. The following month, two IRA prisoners won seats in the general election in the Republic of Ireland. The message was clear: militant Irish nationalists could win significant electoral support provided they were not seeking a mandate for IRA atrocities. The long-term logic was that if this potential political support was to be harvested, the atrocities would have to stop.

It was easy enough to reach this rational conclusion, but very difficult to maneuver a conspiratorial organization with a self-righteous imperviousness to the complex realities of contemporary Ireland into accepting it. Precisely because he was not morally repelled by the IRA’s continuing violence, Adams was willing to remain on the inside and play a long, slow game. In the story that Moloney unfolds, the very qualities that made Adams a dangerous terrorist—ruthlessness, duplicity, a capacity to think ahead, a willingness to intimidate his enemies—also seem to have fitted him for the task of moving the IRA toward a political strategy.

Moloney’s formidably detailed but generally fascinating account of the internal wranglings that eventually led to the IRA cease-fire of 1994 can be boiled down to a single private statement attributed to Adams by an unnamed colleague on the IRA Army Council: “You don’t confront people. You isolate and marginalize them and then get rid of them.” Intriguingly, Moloney suggests that, from the mid-1980s onward, the British were secretly supporting the Adams faction within the IRA. The biggest threat to the new strategy was the possibility of a spectacular IRA offensive which would revive the fantasy that a military victory over the British might, after all, be possible. This possibility rested largely on the IRA’s links with the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who supplied it with 150 tons of weapons in the mid-1980s. The IRA pinned its hopes on what it called a “Tet offensive,” which like its Vietnamese model would transform public opinion by showing that the war could last for a very long time. This in turn might provoke the British into crude repression of the Catholic civilian population, thus further inflaming international opinion.

All of this would make Adams’s tentative moves toward a political strategy effectively redundant. The plan, however, was foiled by the capture off the coast of France in October 1987 of the trawler Eksund with the most important Libyan arms shipment in its hold. Moloney suggests that the operation was betrayed to the British by a very high-level informant within the IRA. He implies, but does not state directly, that this informant was effectively supporting the emerging Adams strategy. By making the “Tet offensive” impossible, the capture of the Eksund significantly advanced the internal case for a turn to politics.

Whatever the full truth of such suggestions—and it will almost certainly never be known—the core of Moloney’s account is both persuasive and curiously hopeful. In the short term, his revelations of Adams’s IRA involvement undoubtedly add to the current difficulties in the peace process. Those problems are rooted, after all, in the same ambivalence about the IRA that Adams has practiced. The IRA is by no means the only active paramilitary organization in Northern Ireland. Most of the low-level but repulsive violence of the last few years has been carried out by Loyalist gangs rooted in the Protestant community, who have continued to attack Catholic homes. In political terms, however, IRA activity is far more damaging. The Loyalist paramilitaries have very little electoral support and thus no real role in the local political institutions. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, on the other hand is now the largest political party among the Catholic community, and is therefore entitled to a place in the administration. The basic assumption of the peace deal was that a political, democratic Sinn Fein would replace the IRA, and that the latter organization would effectively dissolve itself. This has simply not happened.

The IRA did make a historic move to put some of its weapons “beyond use” in October 2001, a clear signal that its formal “armed struggle” was over. Its presence, nevertheless, remains all too obvious. While Sinn Fein talks about human rights, the IRA continues to police Catholic communities, beating those whom it labels as criminals, but whose crimes may consist of nothing more than a refusal to pay protection money or a row with a local IRA member. In early November 2002, for example, in the Catholic village of Camlough in South Armagh, the IRA attacked the owner of a mobile food store, beating him with iron bars and spiked cudgels, breaking both of his arms and one of his legs, and tearing flesh from his back and head. According to the victim, he had refused a demand for protection money. Such attacks are now so common that they barely make the headlines, even in Ireland.

Much more attention, however, has been focused on the IRA’s more exotic escapades. The trial in Colombia of two IRA members and Sinn Fein’s representative in Havana is due to resume on February 7, with the three men facing charges of helping to train members of the FARC rebel movement. The publicity surrounding these allegations has been especially damaging to the movement, not least in the United States. And the uncovering of an apparently extensive IRA spying operation at the headquarters of the local government in Belfast was the proximate cause of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in October. The IRA, for its part, responded to the suspension of the Executive by cutting off contact with the international group that is supposed to be overseeing the destruction of its weapons and by blaming the British government for attempting “to impose unacceptable and untenable ultimatums on the IRA.” In reality, however, the IRA’s apparent determination to remain in business has made it impossible for pro-Agreement Unionists, already an embattled minority within the Protestant community, to remain in government with Sinn Fein.

In the longer term, however, this present crisis may well be just what Gerry Adams needs to push his colleagues into a final decision that the IRA must be dissolved. The Adams who emerges from Moloney’s book is a strategist who uses crises to enforce change. He waits until a position becomes untenable, then comes forward with the alternative. He has not so far pushed the IRA to disarm because he has not needed to do so. There has always been room for another fudge, another evasive maneuver. The process has now reached a point where it cannot continue unless the IRA accepts its own redundancy. Having spent almost twenty years working with all his skill and ruthlessness toward that point, it is unthinkable that Gerry Adams will pull back from the brink now.

—January 29, 2003

This Issue

February 27, 2003