Hope and History by Gerry Adams

Little green lies on the road to peace
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It may not be politically correct to admit, it but much of the long, long run-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was actually pretty boring. Nerve-wracking, yes; genuinely historic, yes; but also frequently tiresome.

The Irish peace process has been exhilarating at times, but can also move in slow motion. It is about life and death but also gets clogged up with impasses which can last for months. In this book on "making peace in Ireland" , Gerry Adams frankly acknowledges this, writing of "tedious, mind-numbing effort", though he prudently waits until the last page. By this stage, the reader has long got the point.

There are vivid sections, such as his description of being hit by five loyalist bullets: he recited childhood prayers. But these are surrounded by inevitably stodgy accounts of hundreds of meetings. The book also contains a repeat of the Adams assertion that he was never in the IRA. No one I know believes this, and perhaps we are not meant to; there could be some political or legal reason why he keeps this up. Adams routinely praises the IRA and its volunteers, in admiration of its "armed struggle".

Perhaps his unconvincing assertion has its roots in the fact that the IRA often tells lies when questioned about its involvement in shootings. Paradoxically, Sinn Fein is much more truthful, its leaders generally showing themselves more honest than other elements in the peace process. That goes especially for Tory governments.

Many who have dealt with Adams have come to accept that his word is his bond, regarding the denial of IRA membership as just a little green lie. Important figures, chief among them Tony Blair, have come to believe in him. It is another paradox that a figure from such a secretive background should have become so adept at building key relationships. This is just one of the skills acquired over 30-odd years of republican activism. Adams is a man for meetings and committees, and for keeping the republican movement on board during its journey into the unknown.

The world will probably always be divided between those who think him the very devil and those who think that, whatever his past, he is commendably steering his movement away from war. He has built Sinn Fein into a highly effective political organisation. In Northern Ireland, it attracts more votes than any other nationalist party.

The most vital question is whether all this is irreversible. The republican movement, previously a cold killing machine, is being gradually transformed into a formidable political machine. Could it go back to war?

You can never say never, but the whole tenor of this book confirms that 90 per cent or more of the efforts of the republican movement is going into politics. That still leaves 10 per cent devoted to less than legal activities; which is to be expected. A movement which sought to disavow its past and condemn the IRA would leave the way open for the emergence of a more militant breed. Perhaps it is preferable, as a former chief constable argued, to keep the IRA together rather than have it splinter.

The peace process has reduced violence; what it has not done is settle the issue of whether Northern Ireland will remain in the UK or become part of a united Ireland. That struggle will go on for decades. In the meantime, the case in favour of Gerry Adams is that he has helped ensure it will be conducted not through armed struggle, but through politics.