Book Review: Man of War, Man of Peace? The Unauthorised Biography of Gerry Adams by David Sharrock and Mark Devenport

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This book opens with a blast. David Sharrock of The Guardian and the BBC's Mark Devenport have written a meticulously researched tale of the rise and rise of the man who may end Ireland's woes, in particular the "tradition" of physical force-republicanism. Unfortunately, it adds nothing new to the acreage of print about the Adams myth. So the authors begin by pulling our legs. The first chapter opens with a gunfight between Gerry Adams and the RUC, ending with Adams and a policeman injured. The reader thinks: "Wow, this is new"; then comes the punchline: "It was 5 September 1942".

From the "involvement" of Adams's father through to the present Stormont talks, the book sweeps the reader along, mainly by skillful rewriting of other works on the IRA, with a few interviews and highlights of Adams own writings. It's not original, but it spares us trawling through the turgid, folksy prose of Falls Memories or Before the Dawn.

What is very clear is that the knives are out. Every anecdote stressing Adams's aloofness, dourness, scheming and evasiveness is, within the laws of libel, repeated. While this book is a fine introduction to republican politics, any reader with background knowledge will see a pattern emerging from the selection of expert witnesses. The recollections of members of the Official IRA, Republican Sinn Fein, Monsignor Denis Faul, former Tory minister Sir John Wheeler, various British Army officers and some anonymous disenchanted provos are all valid in a comprehensive biography of a man reviled by many, including all the above. It's good copy, but not good history: like researching the life of Lady Thatcher and only talking to sacked miners and ministers.

The book goes into great detail to show that Gerry Adams had been, and probably still is, a senior member of the Provisional IRA. Therefore he is implicated in some of the worse atrocities to strike these islands, from Bloody Friday in 1972 to the 1993 Shankill bomb. In reaching the top of the IRA's command structure, he has stepped on quite a few toes. The reorganisation of the IRA, which he formulated with Martin McGuinness, resulted in a few hundred (mainly) men with no great education holding down almost 20,000 troops, and twice coming within feet of wiping out the entire British cabinet. Provo law is the writ of most nationalist areas in the North, rigorously enforced with threats, blackballing and shattered limbs. Adams allowed ten man to die on hunger strike "for electoral advantage". Clearly, he is not a nice man.

Nevertheless, as one senior RUC man tells the authors, "I would be more concerned if he wasn't on the IRA Army Council". Adams has remoulded the power structure of republicanism in his own image. Almost every key position in Sinn Fein and the IRA is filled by his Northern Irish acolytes. If one follows the logic of Adams's "peace strategy", Irish republicanism may be on the road to an historic compromise. He could be killed for his troubles. So, despite the many, many flaws in Gerry Adams's character and life, he deserves a truer reflection than this book offers.

Macmillan, pounds 16.99