Author Malachi O’Doherty and Gerry Adams carrying a tricolour draped coffin with Martin McGuinness. O’Doherty picture by Bill Heaney
There was a far larger audience than I ever thought there would be at the Edinburgh Book Festival reading by the Belfast-based author Malachi O’Doherty from his new book Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life.
My wife, who met Adams many years ago when he appeared alongside Nobel laureate John Hume at the Humbert International Summer School in Co Mayo, wanted nothing to do with him. His name sent a shiver down her spine.
Bernie would have been as surprised as I was had she stepped inside the tent to discover Adams himself was not there, and that his biographer spent most of the hour allocated to him telling “funny” stories which made Adams out to be a fantasist and a liar.
While he may not be either, Gerry Adams is certainly an enigma.
Susan McKay, another Northern Ireland journalist cum author, writes: “He’s a hall of mirrors, Gerry Adams, and a head-wrecker. He attracts obsessive loyalty, obsessive enmity. The rest of us have mixed feelings. Malachi O’ Doherty is the latest of his detractors to set forth determined that he will, as his publisher promises, “expose the real man behind the myths”. It is a menacing Adams who looks out from the cover. Oddly, he looks hardly less disturbing on the front of his own recent My Little Book of Tweets, posing in dark glasses with a lewd-looking goat apparently about to nibble his beard.”
O’Doherty, McKay adds, “sets off at a brisk clip down the dead end of trying to establish whether Adams was ever in the IRA. Painstakingly he sets out all the old evidence. He finds no new proof. It is hardly needed. Perhaps the best commentary on this matter is to be found in a BBC documentary that shows Adams on a walkabout in his heartland of west Belfast. He praises the IRA to a group of boys, one of whom then asks him if he was ever in it himself. No, replies Adams. The boy is puzzled: ‘Why not?’ he asks.
“Adams has told lies. He led a movement that committed and covered up sectarian atrocities, including multiple murders. He has failed women who have been sexually abused by republicans. Yet the party’s electoral rise on both sides of the Border has been inexorable. A 2014 poll showed that almost 70 per cent of people believed Adams had been in the IRA; a 2017 poll showed that satisfaction with his leadership is growing. His party has replaced Labour as the third biggest in the Dáil. In Northern Ireland it has eclipsed the SDLP and caused unionism to lose its majority at Stormont for the first time.”
I haven’t read the book, and I might not, but I’ll take McKay’s word for it that O’Doherty has said he rejected the “j’accuse” approach to writing about Adams in favour of being measured and factual.
McKay adds: “He tries. There are stilted references to those who might admire him as a ‘creative peacemaker’, occasional gruff acknowledgments that there were other parties to the conflict. But he deplores Adams. He believes that the Provisional IRA ran a squalid sectarian war and intimidated the Catholic community while claiming it was conducting a heroic struggle on that community’s behalf.
“O’Doherty grew up during the bloodiest years in an area dominated by republicanism, and he is angry. The wish to appear even-handed deadens his prose: it lacks the narrative surge of those who let rip…
“O’Doherty uses a limited range of sources. Mostly men, many of them established critics of Adams, always eager for an outing. Several mad and now dead. Some hate him because they saw the peace process as a sell-out, some because of IRA atrocities. There is a curious overlap. O’Doherty has written better books.”
I am interested in all things Irish and I have been in Northern Ireland covering the Troubles when they were at their height, but I have never been drawn to find out more about Adams other than what I have read in the papers and heard on the radio.
Having heard O’Doherty and read McKay’s take on his book, I am not attracted to it, but never say never.
Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life by Malachi O’Doherty is published by Faber & Faber and costs £14.99 in good bookshops and on-line.