Review: Malachi O’Doherty, Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life

Malachi O’Doherty, Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life. Faber and Faber, 2017.

Gerry Adams earlier this year stepped down as leader of Sinn Fein, formerly or residually the political wing of the Provisional IRA, which forged a peace deal that, however shakily, has held since 1997 in the six counties commonly known as Ulster (of which province they comprise two-thirds) or Northern Ireland.[1]

Like it or not, Adams leaves to successor Mary Lou McDonald a thriving organization that as the largest nationalist party shares power in the Northern Irish government at Stormont during the intermittent spells since 2007 when it functions, garners seven of eighteen Northern Irish seats in Westminster (which it declines to attend), and forms a vibrant leftwing presence as the third largest Party in the Irish Republic’s parliament, the Dail.

For an unlettered working class Belfast Catholic and former apprentice barman, these are heady political achievements by almost any measure. I say ‘almost’ because Adams inevitably generated implacable enemies who grant him no credit for any action.  Still, the instructive storyline of gunman-to-statesman has been exemplified by many personages over the years, from Michael Collins and Eamon De Velera in 1920s Ireland to Menachem Begin in Israel to Nelson Mandela in South Africa to Danny Ortega in Nicaragua to the unlamented Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. One validly may add George Washington to the list. Politics is indeed a funny thing, by which I do not mean rib tickling.

Irish journalist Malachi O’Doherty conjures a proudly “unauthorized” biography of an extremely complex and controversial figure, which, however, plummets straightaway into a tenacious scorched earth operation. A pathography is the dead opposite of a celebrative hagiography, but both biographical enterprises tell us much more about the authors’ proclivities than about those of their ostensible quarries.  Absolutely nothing Gerry Adams ever spoke, scribbled, speculated, spit or ventured is regarded as of redeeming merit.  From the outset Adams is a malignant glowering Machiavelli figure, although, because Adams is not allowed here to be good at any vocation, an emphatically second rate one.  While Adams, and the small-r republican movement he headed and wrangled with for decades, are very far from angelic forces he clearly was a crucial actor guiding Sinn Fein, and the Provisional IRA’s testy military council, to the negotiating table and ultimately through a turbulent  fits-and-starts process to cessation of armed conflict. Is there really nothing to be said for his role in that accomplishment?

This stern accusatory screed reads like nothing so much as a slapdash prosecutor’s brief prepared for delivery within the innermost paranoid confines of the Orange Order. At every turn the biographer conscientiously imposes the most denigratory spin imaginable on events in Adams’ tumultuous life. This smug compilation of “gotcha’ moments, however, quickly begin to contradict one another as they unfurl, always a sure sign one is in the hands of an unswerving passionate partisan. O’Doherty even sashays up to the brink, for the perverse fun of it, of indulging a deranged hypothesis that would immensely gladden the intractable republicans in the small breakaway Real IRA or Continuity IRA or New IRA, whom the author assuredly abhors. This is the daft notion that Adam was “turned” during his first imprisonment and thereafter morphed into a sublimely cunning British agent. While I suppose that wacky supposition might explain a few things it also would contain a host of titanic and frankly insane improbabilities. But plausibility is not foremost among the author’s concerns. “May you suffer biographers,” this volume acutely reminds, is likely one of the vilest of curses.

The torrent of fulminating accusations all flow from a dotty and ill-informed pair of presuppositions: (1) that the IRA was the initial and sole reason for the long bloody conflict in the North, and (2) that working class people like Adams and his associates are Morlock-like figures, scarcely functioning adults, who have no business aspiring to be in charge of their own lives and communities versus epicene upper crust authorities and the nice neat middle class technocrats who profess to know what is best for them. This corrosive authorial contempt bubbles up through every crevice of O’Doherty’s thoroughly cracked case against Adams.

One would never glean from these heartily tendentious chronicles that the first three murders as well as first bombings in the conflict were done by loyalist paramilitaries (who tried to false flag them as IRA devices).[2]  One would never suspect that at the start of the conflict the IRA had sold off its arsenal and functioned more as a social action organization than as a military unit, which is why the Provisionals broke away at the end of 1969. One would never guess that at the outset of the “troubles” Catholics in Northern Ireland (then a third and now over 40% of the population) suffered extreme discrimination in jobs, housing, voting rights, and benefits. One would never realize that a leaked British Army intelligence report in 1978 appraised the Provisional IRA as a disciplined, politically astute and highly motivated group with roots in their communities and that they were unlikely to be defeated by military means.[3]

Nor would one learn that a majority in the nine counties of Ulster voted for the earliest incarnation of Sinn Fein in 1918. Nor would you have an inkling that the profusion of Ulster Protestant paramilitaries – the Ulster Defence Association, Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commandos, etc – randomly murdered a lot of innocent Catholics in quite gruesome ways, and did so in several cases, including in Dublin, through proven collusion either with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (really an occupation police force) British intelligence services or the British Army (and its virtually all-Protestant adjunct, the Ulster Defence Regiment, a.k.a, Royal Irish Regiment Home Service Force).[4]  One would not appreciate that the Celtic prince of darkness Adams was the key grandee that led Sinn Fein from a purely nationalist and reactive stance to a peace-seeking Party of the Left.  There are plenty of reprehensible deeds to be found in the Provisional IRA’s bloody campaign but the Provos hardly can be understood as isolated figures of blame, although that is the objective of this exercise. Everything, according to O’Doherty, somehow would have worked out to everyone’s satisfaction if only the croppies (the Catholics) lay down and stayed down. What dream world do analysts inhabit that they reckon that resistance, however extreme or ugly or misjudged, to systemic injustices will not arise? We get only a slight hint of the pervasive Orange bigotry of the era when the author notes in passing that splenetic Protestant women shrieked at young Bernadette Devlin that her first baby would be black, which for these harpies was the acme of iniquity no less than in good ole white Mississippi at the time.

Adams is the spawn of a republican matriarch and a feckless father later convicted of sexual abuse, for which the author can’t quite hold the son responsible, though he does his best to do so. O’Doherty relishes imagining how the mother’s staunch republican outlook must have buckled when a “rogue” policeman kills 3 people in a Sinn Fein office very shortly after she visited it.  Huh? Everything Adams, his family and associates do is treated as fanatically and toxically tribal.  Whether it’s republican tribalism or socialist tribalism, the author loathes the few choices these hard-pressed people have to make, secure in his own mind that he is not thus exhibiting a dopey yuppie tribalism of his own.

Official IRA leader Cathal Goulding, who led the IRA leftward in the early 60s (and whose organization declared a ceasefire in 1972) is branded a Communist, not a socialist, although those terms are equally repellent to the author and certainly not worth parsing since they both hark to a “dreary grandiose dream” of a classless society. Bernadette Devlin, by the way, complained that the few hidebound and ultra-cautious Communists there were in Northern Ireland were as reactionary as the Unionists.[5]  While tirelessly rejecting Adam’s denial of IRA membership (which Martin McGuinness curiously had no problem admitting), the author at the same time pounces on every chance to mock unmanly Adams for not being bold enough to pick up a weapon himself and plug the next proddy passerby.

According to O’Doherty’s rendition of the 1960s the whole trouble behind the “troubles” was that there were never enough RUC (or unmentioned B-Specials) to handle those boisterous Irish Catholic civil rights marches, which is why the police merrily beat the hell out of the peaceful marchers or turned a blind eye to vicious sectarian bands who battered them. Poor Bull Connor might have mumbled the same woebegone lament about his plight in Birmingham, Alabama. Again according to this mischievous account, Goulding’s Official IRA was simply dishonest in supporting a civil rights movement demanding “British Rights for British Citizens,” despite the Commie-baiting of them he indulges in anyway, because they counted on the Orange state violently to reject those rights, which is somehow the protesters’ fault.  What else can one expect from these Punch Magazine simians? Anyone who contends that Orange parades merely conveyed an “underlying threat to enemies of the union” never attended one, or else was there banging a Lambeg drum. Orange marches were conscious ceremonies of domination over, and degradation of, the Catholic minority and they are no prettier now than they were forty or fifty years ago.[6]

In August 1969 at a massive clash on the republican Falls Road we are informed that the police simply ‘misread the situation’ and ‘believed they were confronting an IRA insurrection.” No. The police saw what they were diligently trained, inclined and determined to see, so it was not an innocent error as the word ‘misread’ implies. The author scarcely spares a word for the Protestant paramilitary-led UWC strike in 1974 that met minimal British Army resistance and brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing government.[7]Was there a way to interpret that dispiriting sabotage as anything other than a ferocious aversion by loyalists to sharing power with the Catholic minority?

Meanwhile, young Gerry Adams, later wounded badly in an assassination attempt, is beaten up and interned in 1971. Internment, almost exclusively of Catholics, was a profoundly counterproductive gimmick devised by the usual batch of dim-witted authoritarians.  Adams was released to negotiate a short-lived ceasefire in 1972 (and again in 1975) which an official British report assessed him to be sincere in seeking.  The author asserts that the Provisional IRA took advantage of ceasefires for their own sinister ends, but not the authorities who, by other accounts, used the breathing spaces to spot IRA sympathizers to nab later.  Adams supposedly was mocked by fellow internees in Long Kesh for “not being a militarist,” but a few pages later it emerges that the “men revered Adams,’ especially for taking the IRA leftward. O’Doherty can’t square all these uncomfortably confounding statements, except by downplaying laudatory ones.  Like every other militant figure in world history Adams is pilloried for sacrificing family life to a larger cause, which apparently only well-heeled people, who never have any reason to, should be issued permits to engage in.

One of the most extraordinary and ludicrous claims, in the face of numerous studies and memoirs to the contrary, is that the IRA outside the prison framed the 1981 hunger striker demands with “little or no input from the average blanket man.”[8]Prisoners, according to O’Doherty, too readily gave in the first hunger strike while Adams unnecessarily extended the second strike, resulting in ten fatalities.  Yet a page or two later the author admits some of the hunger strikers wanted to continue even longer.

The protracted decommissioning saga in the peace process is an epic of artful cynicism all around, but how does the author know Adams guided decisions not to decommission sooner than 2005 (with the tiny INLA following in 2010)?[9]Scant attention was paid to undisarmed Loyalist groups.[10]The author foretells that a peace agreement would find Sinn Fein “swept away by the more experienced party,” the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Nope, it was the SDLP that took the hit.  In a startling interlude of lucidity O’Doherty concedes that Adams was usually “caught between IR hardliners and the obdurate British,” which is “not too far from the truth.” He also records the observation that “Adam’s position was that he could influence the IRA to end its campaign, but that he could not take the decision himself or be held answerable for the IRA’s refusal or hesitation,” which was pretty much the case. One conjectures that a Faber editor may have nudged the author to face historical reality occasionally, which might account for the unstable and zigzagging narrative.

O’Doherty wonders if Adams “has no one to tell him not to dress like a tramp or a clown.” Sweet Jaysus.  Shabby Adams is expertly diagnosed from afar as “two different men,” as if that is unusual for diplomats. Flaying a TV appearance by Adams on a program about biblical myths, O’Doherty extrapolates, “so maybe the story about British oppression of Ireland is as questionable as the Gospels.” Presto: no penal laws, no Cromwellian horrors, no rack-renting, no Plantation, no mass evictions, no famines with brisk grain exports, no emigration, no Black and Tans, no Special Powers Act to jail anyone for anything, nothing to gripe about.  All it takes is a snap of the authorial fingers. But perhaps the cruel tormenting vortex of the ‘troubles’ can indeed be expressed in a single case related here of a TV cameraman Adams encounters whose brother had “learning difficulties and was exploited by British intelligence agents” in 1975 to inform on the IRA. Ponder that. The IRA snuffed the informer. Think about that too. This tragedy encapsulates the deliriously dirty game played all around. That a peaceful resolution emerged is a marvel and Adams, whatever his real faults may be, deserves some unbegrudging credit.



[1]Paul Nolan, “Post-Conflict Northern Ireland is still Plagued by Political Violence,” Irish Times 23 April 2018.

[2]Martin Dillon, The Dirty War (London: Arrow Books, 1991), p. xxxix, Also see Dillon’s memoir, Crossing the Line: My Life on The Edge. (London: Merrion Press, 2017).

[3]Duncan Campbell, “The Army’s Secret Opinion,” New Statesman 13 July 1979.

[4]Angelique Chrisafis, “Loyalist Bombers ‘helped by British.” The Guardian 10 December 2003.

[5]Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul (London: Pan Books, 1969), p. 147.

[6]Jonathan S. Blake, “What a Protestant Parade Reveals about Theresa May’s New Partners,” The Atlantic 11 July 2017.

[7]Robert Fisk, The Point of No Return: The Strike that Broke the British in Ulster (London: Times Books/Deutsch, 1975).

[8]See David Beresford, Ten Men Dead (London: Grafton, 1987).

[9]For starters, in 1994 the Downing Street Declaration “promised that if the violence ceased then the way would be open for Sinn Fein to ‘join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way ahead.’  The promise was not kept. Instead fresh conditions were imposed, conditions which had not been mentioned in either the formal Downing Street negotiations or in the secret British-Sin Fein talks described within.” Decommissioning was one of those additions.  Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles (New York: Saint Martins Griffin, 1996), p. xv.

[10]Northerners have “87,000 licenses for 140,000 weapons, virtually of them held by Protestants. They are not part of the decommissioning process. On top of that, there are thousands of illegal weapons in the hands of loyalist paramilitary groups.” Jeffrey Sluka, “In the Shadow of the Gun: Not-War-Not-Peace and the Future of Conflict in Northern Ireland.” Critique of Anthropology 29, 3 (2009). p. 291.


Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor for Logos and the author of Chasing Progress in The Irish Republic(Cambridge University Press, 1994).  Most recently, he is author of International Politics and Inner Worlds: Masks of Reason Under Scrutiny(Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and coeditor of Reconsidering American Power(Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019).


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