Hope and History, by Gerry Adams
reviewed by
Desmond MacNamara

Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams’s latest book on the fragile and fitful Northern Irish peace process is subtitled “Making Peace in Ireland,” and the text is prefaced by a Seamus Heaney poem:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The tide of justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme
So hope for a sea change
On the far side of revenge
Believe that farther shore
Is reachable from here
Believe in miracles and cures
and healing wells.

There is little more to be said in that poignant vein.

But poetry compresses experience and not even the hearty injunctions in Rudyard Kipling’s “If” tell the anxious reader how to achieve the ambitious moral goals urged upon him. Likewise, Adams’s extremely detailed book gives such a congested account of Provisional Sinn Fein’s journey through the wilderness that it is difficult to wend one’s way through all the thick word curtains of annotation. There are striking passages of narrative clarity, though, obviously only one partisan perspective is enthusiastically engaged. These occasional morsels are very digestible but they are buried in vast carcasses of connective tissue. His worthy tome is, in a word, tiring (though not tiresome) to read.

Heaney’s poem, cited at the start, gives us some hope of better prose around the bend when the eyes are weary and the narrative bogs down. But, as I said, poetry compresses and Gerry Adams, and his team of aides meticulously recording every jot and tittle at meetings and events, have composed a work dismayingly far removed from the realm of smooth, well-paced narratives. Possibly, a gripping story, which the peace process ought to be, was never Adams’s goal. This imposing mass of cumulative minutes of meetings, encounters, and Ard Feises (annual party congresses) inundates us with information, some of which is forgettable, though much of the remainder likely will nourish hardy historians and biographers for the rest of the century.

Let us start with essential facts. Ireland is a small island, 300 odd miles long and 150 miles wide, and historically too close for comfort to Britain. Northern Ireland consists of six counties of the province of Ulster. Three further counties, including, oddly enough, the most northerly, Donegal, are part of the Republic of Ireland, or Eire. The seeds of rowdy Republican political tradition run far back, beginning after the envied American and French revolutions. The dominant strain of republicanism in Ireland, it may surprise some readers to learn, was Presbyterian, though, as in Washington, and Paris, the leaders were probably deists or skeptics, like Thomas Paine. Wolf Tone, the martyred helmsman of Irish republicanism, uttered the oft-quoted nonsectarian aspiration “to substitute the common name of Irishman, for Protestant, Catholic and dissenter.” Tone’s valiant struggles, with French help, ended miserably in both the defeat of his French allies and of the popular 1798 rebellion: a bloody affair resulting in a forest of gallows plus the 1800 Act of Union, giving Ireland to England and adding a stripe to the Union Jack.

The chief sign of Irish republicanism’s political resurrection in the 19th century was the Fenian Brotherhood, born out of the American Civil War (where many an Irish recruit acquired military skills) and resulting in desultory bombings, plottings, hangings, and deportations until the rise in the 1880s of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party in the House of Commons, Westminster. Fraud and deceit, notorious in story and poetry led to his downfall and to the end of what seemed like imminent Irish home rule.

The bishops and their party
A tragic story made
A husband who betrayed his wife
And after that betrayed
But here’s another reason
For Parnell loved a lass
-W.B. Yeats

In 1905, the year of the Liberal Party landslide in Britain, Arthur Griffith in Ireland devised the name or slogan, Sinn Fein (pronounced “shin fain”) which means “us” or “we ourselves.” The name came into popular use after the 1918 election in the British Isles, which registered a huge Irish majority for Irish independence. It was at this turbulent time, the threshold of the Anglo-Irish war (Black and Tan War, 1919-1920), that the term Irish Republican Army (IRA) arose. The “diehard” republican opposition to the Irish Free State compromise government, which took power in the southern twenty-six counties in 1923, was known as the Irregulars and only gradually became widely known as the IRA. They were rapidly out-gunned, out-maneuvered and defeated, but not stamped out.

So former “irregulars” leader Eamon de Valera’s somewhat theological evasion of the British ”oath of allegiance” enabled him to enter the Irish Parliament, and take power in 1932. The years that followed until the Second World War—known in neutral Ireland quaintly as “the Emergency”—reshaped the IRA, which faced down a local Irish fascist “blue shirt” bid for power and its support for Franco in Spain. The IRA, a proscribed organization, now tended toward a nationalist-republican split among its fractious members, but somehow held together. Many members fought in Spain and became militant but parliamentarian socialists, following the guidance of the writings of James Connally, the executed socialist leader of the Citizens Army in the 1916 rebellion. During the war (or Emergency) years 1939-45 the IRA in practice became split doctrinally between socialist republicans and physical force nationalists although there was no formal secession. Despite often sharp disagreement among old (and new) comrades, friendly, if testy, bonds maintained the underground movement.

Through ensuing changes in Irish government, including one in which ex-IRA Chief of Staff Sean MacBride became minister for foreign affairs in 1948, the IRA continued to wind down its reliance on physical force and to concentrate instead on a socialist reform policy, eventually abjuring militarism altogether in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, in the six separated counties of sectarian Ulster, a satrapy of conservative Westminster, the Catholic, or more properly Nationalist middle classes were inspired by and imitated the tactics of Martin Luther King, rather than Wolfe Tone, and started a risky round of protest marching from Belfast to the Burntollet Bridge. The savage and bloody repression of these marches led to a plain need for, as the republican community saw it, self-protection. Since the “official” IRA had disposed of its dwindling arms stock and was caught empty-handed, a new and somewhat naively nationalist offspring of nationalist defense was born: the Provisional IRA, known in the back streets as “provies.”

As its bloody but unavoidable guerrilla campaign was waged, a public organ was established to formulate policy and act as spokesman, Provisional Sinn Fein. The “official IRA,” now pledged to political and not military action, was known as “the stickies” after the self-sticking emblem of the Easter Lily, sold in the streets by supporters, and for long years the symbol of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. The Provies broke away from the official IRA (who go uncited in this book’s index) over 1969-1970. The official IRA was always a mixed religious or non-religious body and an all-Ireland clandestine organization. In the twenty-six counties of the Republic the Official IRA, after calling its unilateral ceasefire in 1972, became parliamentary and re-dubbed itself Sinn Fein, the Workers’ Party, and finally in the 1980s just the Workers’ Party. The Provisional IRA, which began as groups of vigilantes, gained in strength and wealth from contributions from the USA, local “taxes,” and collections on paynights in Irish working people’s pubs in Great Britain. Adams was an early recruit.

After thirty years of guerrilla warfare and hundreds of atrocities and horrors on all sides, a sort of stalemate was quite clearly apparent to Adams, as well as any other unblinkered politician, and the Good Friday Agreement was mooted, backed by the governments of Britain and Ireland with the indispensable help of the Clinton administration. This scheme would allow for a plan for a joint British-Irish administration of a revived local government—prorogued in 1972—for the six counties of Northern Ireland with a mixture of Unionist and nationalist ministers, elected locally. There was a highly promising start to the process, which seemed to work for a while, but intransigence by more extreme Unionists caused it to collapse. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, coaxed and probably bullied a bit and up to the end of this book by Adams, it seemed likely that a “power sharing executive” (first launched in 1974 and ended quickly by a loyalist strike) might be relaunched in 2003.

There is always hope. But the Rev. Ian Paisley’s fiery “not an inch” attitude has been the reigning extremist Unionist belief since Protestant Northern Ireland leader Edmund Carson uttered that chilly phrase in 1913. The adamant resistance of the Unionist hard core brought about the partition of Ireland and has its roots in the decaying compost of bigotry. Unfortunately, this book was barely off the printing press when low-turnout by a weary public in a north of Ireland election produced electoral results that caused everything to collapse. The implacable Democratic Unionist Party led by Paisley finally became the biggest Unionist party, outpolling David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, itself riven by internal extremists, and which had held out the prospect of reaching a reasoned arrangement of fair government with the nationalists. All hopes of power sharing disappeared overnight.

In my compressed, if not poetic, account of this whole sad story, as Adams’s volume relates it, much was omitted or underemphasized: important aspects such as the role of the Social Democratic Party, and Labour Party and its courageous leader John Hume, who doggedly talked Sinn Fein into accepting the concept of political compromise. Among the great cataracts of details of policy and decisions flooding the pages, many telling episodes also emerge: the exploits of the Army Intelligence Agency which penetrated and aided the Ulster Defense Association (UDA, the largest of several deadly loyalist paramilitary organizations, which curiously get little press) and its deals with the South African arms manufacturers; the exploits of army agents and spies; and the UDA murder of Paddy Finucane, the human rights lawyer, filled with bullets before his horrified family as they sat down to Sunday dinner.

Adams’s book relates many more such awful incidents, often with names and their seamy connections supplied, providing they incriminate the authorities, apparent or secret, who indeed have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland. Bombings and shootings by the Provisional IRA, however, are handled with the most conspicuous discretion. This is all too understandable, but it makes for very bad history. Nonetheless, for what it offers from an essential participant’s perspective, we should be grateful for this account of the tediously and painfully slow development toward the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and one hopes that the good Rev. Paisley’s religious and political bigotry will somehow be circumvented in the near future.