The Adams Family

I’m crossposting something I originally wrote for my own blog because I realized it’s probably of far more interest to Fistful readers than to my own.

In March I wrote in Slate about Gerry Adams and the IRA, and the theory advanced by Ed Moloney (author of the excellent A Secret History of the IRA) that the Northern Bank bank robbery in December was part of Adams’ covert strategy to force the IRA to accept peace. If that theory is true, and I’m convinced by it more and more every day, then we’re now seeing the plan unfold.

Adams gave a speech Wednesday, worth reading in its entirety. It’s framed as an appeal to the IRA. Here’s the important bit:

In the past I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee, or turn a blind eye to oppression, or for those who wanted a national republic.

Now there is an alternative.

I have clearly set out my view of what that alternative is. The way forward is by building political support for republican and democratic objectives across Ireland and by winning support for these goals internationally.

I want to use this occasion therefore to appeal to the leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann [the IRA] to fully embrace and accept this alternative.

Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?

The IRA said they’d think about it and would respond “in due course.” I love that phrase.

Note that Adams is appealing to “the leadership” of the IRA to accept an end to arm struggle. More on that in a second.

There’s been a lot of talk already about what this means, with some hailing the speech as a major breakthrough, others saying it’s just the same old, same old.

Things have gone badly for Adams, what with the outrage over the Robert McCartney murder cover-up, a nose-dive in his own personal popularity rating in the Republic, and not getting invited to the White House. But he appears to be sticking to his script – again, if we buy Moloney’s explanation.

Though he officially denies ever having been a member of the IRA, Adams is in fact widely thought to be a member of the IRA’s ruling Army Council. This means he sits around a table every week or so with six other guys, discussing and voting on the future of the organization. So when Adams says,

I know full well that such truly historic decisions can only be taken in the aftermath of intense internal consultation. I ask that you initiate this as quickly as possible.

… it is indeed quite a charade. He’d be a key person in that discussion and presumably he’s already initiated it.

Is there dissent on the level of the Army Council itself about whether to lay down arms? Unclear. The IRA was ready to decommission in December, but stopped short when they realized their unionist opponents would use it as an opportunity to declare the IRA defeated and humiliated. On the other hand, according to Irish and British intelligence, the subsequent Northern Bank robbery was given the green light by the Army Council. So they don’t seem to be gung-ho one way or the other.

Did the Army Council approve of this latest speech? Is this Adams addressing the other six members of the Army Council, or is this the Army Council addressing the IRA’s rank and file?

There is clearly some dissent among the IRA rank and file about whether to lay down arms. And even if you don’t agree with the IRA’s politics or its methods, you can certainly understand the anger that a lot of the volunteers feel toward the Adams leadership. He has lied to them repeatedly, telling them that despite all his public talk of decommissioning, they will never really be expected to give up the guns, bombs and Semtex that Qadhafi gave them in the 1980s.

By now it must appear to many IRA volunteers that either Adams has lied so much to the public about being a peacemaker that he’s begun to beleive his own lies, or that he was actually lying to them the entire time.

The seven-member Army Council runs the day-to-day affairs of the IRA. But supreme authority rests with the so-called Army Convention – that is, a large gathering of delegates from within the rank and file. An Army Convention can basically hire and fire the Army Council. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the basic gist).

Being a member of the IRA is a crime in both the UK and Ireland; having such a large number of IRA members (up to 90, it says here) meet in one place at the same time is obviously a tricky task considering the security risk. Suffice to say it only happens once in a blue moon. Yet according to the IRA constitution, only an Army Convention can declare peace. Under no circumstances can the Army Council do that on its own. It appears that is what Adams is asking the IRA to do here. (Paragraph corrected. See below.)

So back to the question – what does Adams mean when he says “leadership”?

This speech might well have been vetted by the the Army Council. The “intense internal consultation” which Adams is asking to be initiated, in that case, could be code for the calling of one last and final Army Convention.

A final note: One thing I found missing in Moloney’s otherwise excellent book was a sense of outrage. In his more recent articles, you can sense that outrage; but the book was written in the aftermath of 9/11, when it appeared the IRA was really closing up shop on its own accord. Moloney wrote in the book’s preface that he felt Adams was cheated out of a Nobel prize. I wonder if he would say that today.

One thing that’s worth discussing: What, exactly, has changed since the days of armed struggle that makes “the alternative” (the politics of democracy) more possible than it was before? I would be interested in hearing an articulate argument that explains why peaceful, democratic struggle was not an option for Irish republicans prior to 1997.

CORRECTION: I originally wrote here that an Army Convention consists of a gathering of every IRA member. That’s not the case. My apologies. The Army Convention consists of delegates chosen on a local level by the volunteers. It’s still a big meeting, and a risky one.

Also — Kevin Toolis writes in The Times:

[H]owever qualified [Adams’s] appeal might have been, it asserts the most unspeakable heresy of all ? that all the sacrifice, all the bombing and killing, was a terrible, worthless mistake.

Via Slugger O’Toole.

11 thoughts on “The Adams Family

  1. Scott,
    Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked.
    Whether Adams remains on the Army Council as is alleged by prominent members of the Irish government is immaterial, he remains the driving force behind the Provisional movement and as such the idea that he is working independent of the men with the balaclavas is laughable.
    Sinn Fein/IRA are an organisation running out of ideas and purpose-United Ireland is decades away, their core base won’t tolerate a return to violence, human rights legislation is improving the situation of their electorate and the Irish government has had enough their lies and tricks.

    As for the Unionists,someone summed it up quite well, when they said that “there is a whole generation unborn” who will grow up with a hatred of Adams and the Provos for the crimes they committed for 35 years against our community.

  2. Hi SCott,

    One very brief reason that the IRA could not earlier take the soley political route was the tendency of loyalists to murder Sinn Fein candidates. Its hard to embrace a political route when your political candidates are being murdered.

  3. The problem with statements like Paul’s are how easily they can be reversed:

    As for the Nationalists,someone summed it up quite well, when they said that “there is a whole generation unborn” who will grow up with a hatred of Paisley and the Loyalists (British, Special Branch, etc.) for the crimes they committed for 35 years against “our” community.

    Not very helpful, in the final analysis.

  4. Jeremy

    “Its hard to embrace a political route when your political candidates are being murdered”

    The Unionist parties(Robert Bradford being the prime example) and the SDLP also had political canditates murdered by terrorists.
    They still followed the political route.
    Democrats don’t need private armies.

  5. Hektor,
    Unpalatable as it may sound that’s the truth, I’m afraid. I’m sure the same feeling exists on the other side and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.
    Despite this, the majority of both communities with the Good Friday Agreement agreed to a compromise of sorts, that could have worked if all parties had shown good faith

    My main problem with Adams,and Sinn fein is that they have wasted that opportunity by proving to be incapable of embracing democracy and throwing away the guns. Political parties who maintain an armed wing(which is still actively engaged in non-poloitical crime) and who try to protect the murderers of an innocent man in a pub brawl do not deserve to be in government.

  6. Paul,

    I’m sorry, but you’re not credible on this issue because you’re tribal to the core. Using words like “our”, “other side”, etc. just leads me to believe that you will demonize one side and hedge and defend the other.

    You can’t be tribal and a defender of universal verities at the same time. So appealing to universal codes of conduct while remaining irreversibly tribal means that you won’t convince me, since I have no belief that you actually would uphold universal values if your own tribe was the one that was being judged.

  7. Hektor,
    I don’t know your background,but I was born and brought up in N.Ireland. It remains a tribal society and that of course that has an effect on everybody’s attitudes including my own. I have looked back on my posts-I can’t see any of my comments which have demonized the other side(by which presumably you mean nationalists and republicans).

    All Irish nationalist parties on the island of Ireland follow the 100% democratic path with the exception of one. I admire greatly the likes of the SDLP(an Irish nationalist party, based in the North) who under great intimidation continue to preach the non-violent path and also the mainstream parties in the South who, if you read recent pronouncements have taken a very hardline against Adams and co.

    My own(probably you would say “tribal”) view of Unionism is that it has many aspects which I find unsavoury-I dislike the sectarianism which continues to exist within certain quarters, I dislike the knee-jerk negative reaction many have towards any expression of Irishness and last but not least, I despise the loyalist paramilitaries.

    But whilst I will continue to criticise Unionism, I also agree with the vast majority of democratic Irish parties North and South of the border that Sinn Fein must cut all links with criminality and their armed wing must be closed down for good before they should be let back into the political mainstream again.

    I suppose you have your own preset ideas about this question and whatever I write will not affect your opinion, but at least I’ve given you another point of view that’s rarely heard. So in that context, what you think of my credibility is neither here nor there.

  8. antnee,
    Ideally, SDLP will regain the position as leading nationalist party at the General Election.
    If this were to happen I think we would get a very prompt announcement from the IRA regarding meaningful disarmament or even disbandment.

    If this were to happen, then I could see no reason why the “Peace Train” (or whatever Blair’s latest description is)couldn’t back on tracks again and we could see a devolved government back in NI within 12 months.

    Unfortunately, I think Sinn Fein’s vote will hold or even increase at the May5th election and they will then justifiably say that, despite the events of the last 5 months,they have still a mandate from nationalists. In this case, the pressure on the hardmen will lessen and there will be no way practically that a devolved government could still work. I think it would be back to direct rule from Westminster for the foreseeable future with an increasing Irish government involvement in areas of mutual interest.
    But I could be completely wrong-I usually am!

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