Ireland is simultaneously a beckoning reverie of pilgrims, a nattering memory of exiles, an Unholy Land beset by religious fanaticism, an artistic obsession that too often becomes an aesthetic of death, a high concept for personal theater, and a martyr nation whose irreconcilable conflicts generate violent emotions, ranging from the gleefully nihilistic to the densely sadistic. Interwoven throughout is a traumatic memory of tragedy and oppression going back 800 years, a fair amount of which came from the Irish themselves, but most of which came from a certain English distrust and hostility, bordering on racism, toward the Irish people.
States of Ireland, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, managed best to suggest—despite the fact that Cruise O’Brien fell victim to his own extremism—the epic manner in which Ireland is at the center of several wildly differing (and often opposing) worldviews, or states of mind, depending on which tribal aspect of Irish-ness one is a part of, or wishes to evoke. Cruise O’Brien’s great victory was in describing the profoundly different emotional orientations of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and Northern Ireland. His great defeat was in hating violence so much that he ended up opposing peace, a peculiarly Irish accomplishment.
Such emotional orientations usually emanate from powerful group loyalties, which in both Ireland and Northern Ireland tend to mean group grievances. In 1916 there was a failed Irish uprising against Britain; in the immediate aftermath of that attempted revolution, the astonishing stupidity of the British in executing its ringleaders swung the support of the Irish people behind the revolutionaries. (The leaders of the uprising had declared a Republic, so those who supported it were called Republicans.) After the First World War there commenced a brutal national liberation struggle against the British, fought by the Irish Republican Army, until in 1921-22 a peace treaty was negotiated.
Sadly, however, in 1922 this peace treaty (‘the Treaty’) divided the Republicans into pro- and anti-Treaty factions, leading to the Irish Civil War. This division prefigured and to some extent paralleled another strong and ongoing divide in Irish life, between parliamentary (nonviolent) nationalism and ‘physical force’ (violent) nationalism. The Civil War ended in 1923, and within a relatively short time, as these things go, the Republic of Ireland was achieved through political, diplomatic and entirely nonviolent means, a process that picked up momentum in 1937 and was completed in 1949.
But the war was not over, as we now know. Six counties in the North had been divided by ‘the Treaty’ into a separate country called Northern Ireland, because its Protestant majority hated and distrusted the Catholic hierarchy, which it tended to regard as evil incarnate. Within Northern Ireland in the last half of the 20th century resided about a million and a half people, about a third of whom were Catholics identifying with the Republic of Ireland, and two-thirds Protestants violently opposed to any kind of merger with that same Republic. The two-thirds Protestant majority increasingly defined themselves by their burning antipathy to the politics and goals of Irish Republicanism, and to Irish Catholics generally.
Thus the antipathy between the two groups in Northern Ireland: the Catholics believing that Northern Ireland was destined to become part of Ireland proper (partly in order to protect the rights of Catholics) whereas most Protestants violently resisted any connection to a country in which policy would be decided by Irish Catholics, whose dominance they feared.
Those Catholics that once sought to merge the six counties of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland were the Republicans; the Protestants that violently opposed that expedient were called loyalists, or unionists. These two groups, Republicans (overwhelmingly Catholic) and Unionists (overwhelmingly Protestant) sought to represent the interests of the two religious communities in Northern Ireland; and both were parties to the armed conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from about 1968 until 1998—approximately 30 years—a time that people in both communities called ‘the Troubles.’
Since long before ‘the Troubles,’ however, there had been built into the social order in Northern Ireland certain extreme structural advantages for Protestants, in the form of institutionalized discrimination against Catholics—including the gerrymandering of voting districts—aimed at keeping in check the already impoverished Catholic community. But although the Catholics of Northern Ireland were objectively far more discriminated against than Protestants, those same Protestants felt deeply threatened by the preponderance of Catholics on the island as a whole; furthermore, in Northern Ireland itself, ‘the Prods’ came to detest and fear the Catholic minority they oppressed, a familiar mania of those who practice or benefit from oppression.
This essay deals to a great extent with one person’s experience in Northern Ireland, that of Gerry Adams, who—although he doesn’t acknowledge it directly—was in the leadership of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland during much of ‘the Troubles,’ as the urban guerilla war in Northern Ireland was called. These upheavals, lasting roughly thirty years, began in the late 1960s with violent Protestant pogroms staged against Catholic neighborhoods, and ended, for most combatants, with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Adams probably joined Sinn Fein (a political party closely affiliated with the IRA) as early as 1964, at the age of 16; but was also part of, and was deeply radicalized by, the inability of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to nonviolently address discrimination against Catholics.
Their nonviolent marches and demonstrations were met with police brutality, Protestant intimidation and—in 1972—with the killing of 14 unarmed demonstrators. The Irish Republican Army had already split over tactics, the Provisional IRA taking the position that the time for armed struggle had arrived, with Adams siding with the Provisional side. ‘The Troubles’ commenced, consisting of a period of intense and almost unbearable urban civil war until the IRA and most other parties, including most Protestant paramilitaries, formally accepted the Good Friday (Peace) Agreement of 1998. Reversing decades of IRA thinking, Gerry Adams became the main proponent, within the Provisional IRA, for the adoption of a constitutional (that is, electoral) strategy, in which the Provisional Sinn Fein would support candidates for office whilst conducting armed guerilla operations. He later advocated for the even more radical idea that he and his colleagues could achieve their goals politically, through their historic political party Sinn Fein (pronounced ‘Sheen Fain’). His advocacy won out, Sinn Fein was successful electorally, and ultimately the IRA decommissioned their weapons.
The problem of Northern Ireland—not just during ‘the Troubles’ but also afterwards—is the problem of shared traumatic memories so powerful, so continuous and so dense that everything else pales in comparison to it; in such a situation, the political becomes so personal that it dominates everybody’s waking and dreaming lives. It affected everybody in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles,’ and spilled over regularly into the Republic to the south; such a process also inevitably results in the wholesale internalization of aggression, and a burning identification with aggression as a way of life, since violence was the most striking aspect of the environment shared by the warring parties. I refer here not just to the daily violence of urban warfare, but to the grinding brutality of institutional religious discrimination and bigotry by the Protestant establishment against the Catholic minority. Add to that the fact that the IRA retaliated with the most horrific kind of terrorism, a prime example being the nearly simultaneous setting off of twenty-six bombs in Belfast on 21 July 1972. (Eleven people, nine of them innocent civilians, lost their life in that operation.) Not to be even momentarily dissuaded, the IRA reportedly set off upwards of 1,300 bombs that year alone.
The problem of Gerry Adams is the problem of a ruthless, perhaps fanatical, terrorist leader in a civil war, who unexpectedly—after advocating and committing many acts of violence—finds himself the advocate for certain policies capable of bringing peace to a tortured country. The moral problems are obvious. To what extent should anyone work with someone like Gerry Adams in a peace process, or in political life? (That is, to what extent should a terrorist escape punishment—or at the very least, public condemnation—for the crimes they have personally committed?) Under the law, a homicide is always a homicide, because for that crime there’s no statute of limitations. When and why, therefore, does a particular society, struggling to extract itself from the vicious cycle of violence in a civil war, decide to suspend all rules of law and morality and seek the help of the terrorist himself instead of imprisoning and executing him? The answer seems to be, “When he is able and willing, for whatever reason, to help bring an end to the terrorism, through the expedient of a peace settlement.”
And there’s yet another problem, one with both moral and psychological implications. If, as this essay would have it, psychological trauma as a result of human violence tends to bond people psychologically to aggression as a way of life—and tends to contribute to a worldview that sees aggression alone as the arbiter of history—what qualities enable certain people to break free of it? What gives them the strength to opt out of the addictive cycle of violence and trauma to which they are bonded, to break free of the shared traumatic memory that defines their world, and deconstruct the internalized aggression that drives their crimes and misdemeanors?
This question took on an almost unbelievable urgency at the very moment that peace seemed likely to descend on the tortured country of Northern Ireland, as Gerry Adams—the most feared commander of the IRA—was forced to confront the existence of the most profound kind of evil in his own family, as he discovered incontrovertible evidence of profound sexual abuse against children committed by his own father and brother.
In urban guerilla war, people become accustomed to body searches and requests to see identification by soldiers, not to mention the ever-presence helicopters, shots fired on a daily basis, and the sound of bombs going off. During a bombing campaign everybody listens, consciously or unconsciously, for the next explosion; some people are arrested or shot dead because their cars backfire at the wrong time. But the worst thing about it is that children are inevitably drawn into the fighting, since the war is fought in the ghettos where they live. War has its terrors, writes Morris Fraser in Children in Conflict about ‘the Troubles,’ but “stress takes on new and horrifying meanings in a war where there are no civilians—where children and their parents are themselves the combatants, drawn into conflict by powerful forces with vested interests in a deeply divided community.”
“Children now [the early 1970s] at school have never known streets free of armored cars, bullets, petrol bombs, stone throwing, broken glass, and the perpetual threat of death. Children of eight and upwards participate in violence—hurling missiles, making bombs, setting traps of wire for armored cars. Most appalling of all, because the soldiers are reluctant to fire on them, children are often used as front-line combatants, hurling bombs in situations into which adults dare not venture, acting as a protective screen behind which their fathers, armed with rifles, can take aim and shelter.”
In Northern Ireland urban warfare, children and teenagers found themselves involved as rarely before in the annals of guerrilla warfare. The result could be compared only to Black children threatened with death by segregationists during the US Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, according to Fraser, who compared a child in a Catholic ghetto to “a Negro youngster fleeing before a segregationist mob,” his Catholic equivalent in Northern Ireland portrayed as a “dirty-faced urchin, his back to a barricade, facing steel Saracens [armored cars] with his last weapons—half a brick, or a rag stuffed into a milk-bottle dripping with cheap petrol.”
“Children’s tears speak plainly in any language. Or do they?”
Gerry Adams’ maternal great-grandfather was a Fenian terrorist who (during the 1870s and 1880s) conducted a violent campaign of bombing in England on behalf of independence for Ireland. Gerry Adams’ paternal grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood during the Irish Civil War, as were two of his uncles, Dominic and Patrick Adams, who were interned by governments in Dublin and Belfast. Another of his uncles was election agent for Eamon de Valera in 1918 in Belfast. Gerry Sr., Gerry Adams’ father, joined the Irish Republican Army at the age of 16, as his son would later do; Gerry Sr. was often on the run, interned, or imprisoned. (He drew eight years for an ambush on a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) patrol.) Gerry Adams’ mother, Annie Hannaway, was a member of Cumann na mBan, the woman’s branch of the IRA. During ‘the Troubles,’ in 1974, one of Gerry Adams’ cousins, Kieran Murphy, was kidnapped and murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Gerry Adams was one of eleven children, many of whom were involved with IRA or Sinn Fein activities during ‘the Troubles.’ To grow up Catholic in Northern Ireland, even before ‘the Troubles,’ meant being exposed to a continuum of highly emotional stories, songs, legends and secrets regarding past crimes and glories of various Republican campaigns. All of it was extremely violent. (One of Gerry Adams’ brothers developed a pronounced stutter after a raid by British troops; all of them sustained wounds of one kind or another, mainly psychological ones. No doubt this added to a discernible tendency to alcoholism among Republican families.) Furthermore, children in this situation didn’t always know exactly what position older family members held in the confusing and often-changing welter of Republican politics, and these affiliations might remain secret for generations. (For example, Gerry Adams told Tim Pat Coogan, a scholar whose academic specialty is the IRA, that he hadn’t known that one of his uncles, Dominic Adams, had been IRA Chief of Staff during the 1940s, until he read it in the UK edition of Coogan’s book.)
This happened because of the extraordinary secrecy surrounding IRA activities. You could know exactly how a family member felt about particular political positions (and in fact such a family member might expound on them for hours) without others in the family being aware of his exact place in the hierarchy of armed struggle. But very often the ones who were least talkative were most active in armed conflict and terrorism. In any case, if anyone was asked directly if they were an IRA volunteer, he would deny it. Gerry Adams has always denied that he is an IRA volunteer when asked directly, but it is well-known that he was a top commander. Lying about IRA membership is simply part of the self-imposed discipline of membership, the way a spy or spymaster would automatically lie about his spy-craft, and strive to maintain “plausible deniability,” a highly suggestive phrase often used by US intelligence organizations.
This combination of secrecy and violence generates a ‘knowing, but not knowing’ mentality, in which one has a vague idea of the true activities of a family member, but no certainty. There is also a poetic Celtic other-worldliness adhering to Irish religion, and it is at least conceivable that within Catholicism it could have been enhanced by the confidentiality—or secrecy, if you will—of the confessional. Gerry Adams and his siblings adjusted well to this twilight world, perhaps too well—the ‘knowing, but not knowing’ habit would play a central role in the personal trauma that Adams would be forced to face after peace came. It led to various kinds of play-acting, in which true motives are hidden and relationships become a kind of shadow dancing.
To adjust to this, children growing up in such families were likely to adopt an ‘as if’ sensibility toward the claims of everybody around them, in which the young person had to create his or her own standard for authenticity. (The child would have little doubt, however, that violence played a big role in the lives of adults around him, without knowing exactly why or how.) In such a situation, it is easy to see how violence can come to seem the standard for personal authenticity to a young person, who would be likely to internalize the rationalizations for political aggression along with the aggression itself. If you were willing to give your own life, as well as take others, surely you meant business. Ideology made it easier: you internalized violence all the more easily because you needed it to drive the British out and defeat ‘the Prods.’ Aggression was just part of the deal. You were born into it and you inherited its powerful traumatic memories.
Violence was not questioned, at least partly because it defined all of life that young people like Gerry Adams experienced; and as violence defined everything, so did the traumatic memory it left in its wake. A fair amount of the trauma experienced by young Catholics in Northern Ireland probably came from various forms of multi-generational trauma already present in their family systems, but would then be reinforced by personal experiences on the street. Or to put it another way, one heard about this kind of violence repeatedly, and when one began to smell the tear gas or lose friends to the bullets, one said, “Ah yes—this is it, this is what it’s all about.” In addition, smart young people growing up in a Catholic ghetto quickly realized that their oppression gave them a paradoxical power, because although the Protestants despised them, they were also terrified of them. The outcome of this was the non-stop psychological trauma that bonded individuals in both communities to aggression as the arbiter of social life in Northern Ireland. To young people who became volunteers for the IRA, the violence it promulgated was already all around them in the ghettos where they lived, except that now they were acting it out, and becoming a victim-aggressor rather than merely a victim.
Gerry Adams was born in 1948, on lower Falls Road in Belfast, the historic center of Catholic Republicanism in Belfast. At the age of 16, Adams joined Sinn Fein and Fianna Eireann, a youth group aligned with Sinn Fein and the IRA. In that same year, 1964, something happened that greatly radicalized the young nationalist. He volunteered to work for a nationalist candidate whose office was on Divis Street in West Belfast. An Irish Tricolor, the flag associated with Irish Republicanism, was situated squarely in the window. Technically a violation of Northern Ireland’s Flags and Emblems Act, the Royal Ulster Constabulary—a police force with Protestant sympathies—ignored it, since it was in an out-of-the-way area. But a young, right-wing, anti-Catholic minister named Ian Paisley became aware of it and began to agitate against it among other anti-Catholic Protestants, insisting that no flag but the Union Jack should ever be displayed in Northern Ireland. Fifty police broke the door down at the office, and removed the flag. The flag soon reappeared, and the police reappeared in force. Significant rioting broke out, reminding some people of a similar riot in the area in 1935 in which 20 people had perished.
Nineteen sixty-six was fast approaching, which would be the fiftieth anniversary of the seizing of the General Post Office in the proclamation of the Irish Republic in Dublin. Both governments, of the Republic of Ireland and of Northern Ireland alike, were apprehensive, although neither could have said what they were apprehensive of. In general, they were most afraid of some kind of operation by remnants of the IRA, and there were no dearth of reports and rumors, including some grossly inaccurate intelligence reports regarding IRA intentions. What really bothered the leaders in both countries, in other words, was the possibility of people ‘picking up the gun,’ and of civil or rhetorical excesses that could lead to such an eventuality.
The Catholics in Northern Ireland were, however, given permission in 1966 to march in celebration of this important aspect of Irish history, probably because it would have been even more provocative to deny them that right. A few banners were flown, a few barricades thrown up (to commemorate the barricades in Dublin, perhaps?), and people marched—despite some failed attempts at provocation by Ian Paisley—down one of the main roads of Belfast, in unabashed celebration of the Easter rising fifty years before. It was all very quiet but dignified, but it had an effect on people seemingly out of proportion to the event itself. Peter Taylor, another of a handful of scholars who study the IRA, tells the story of a young man named Martin Meehan, from the Ardoyn area of Belfast, who was deeply impressed by this Commemorative parade on April 17, 1966. His father had been active in the IRA in the 1940s, but he’d never had the opportunity to discuss it with him, because his father wouldn’t allow it—the subject was taboo in their home.
But something in this Commemorative parade of proud Catholics, some of whom were probably not nationalists, and many more who were in no sense Republicans, but who nonetheless had joined together to celebrate the memory of a tragic insurrection both nationalist and Republican, moved him in such a very deep place that he found it impossible to deny its effect on him. After that, he said, his single ambition was to join the IRA, which he eventually did.
The aspect that affected Catholics in Northern Ireland the most, however, was the appalling conditions under
which they lived. Much has been written about this, but the extent of the conscious, institutionalized discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland is still shocking. Everywhere in Northern Ireland the voting districts were gerrymandered in such a way that there could never be a Catholic majority in any municipal council, even in areas—and some towns—in which Catholics were a majority. (The phrase ‘power-sharing, which was soon to be employed by those seeking some solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland, was clearly a reference to the negative presence of ‘the gerry,’ as gerrymandering was popularly known.)
Likewise discrimination in employment was profound and unmistakable—at the Belfast shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff, out of a workforce of 10,000, only 400 were Catholics. (And this tiny contingent had the least skilled and mostly menial jobs.) “Most of the province’s employers were Protestants who tended to look after their own. Catholics often only had to mention their name or address to guarantee rejection,” writes Peter Taylor in Behind the Mask: the IRA and Sinn Fein. And the worst part was the unremitting hatred from Protestants that went along with it, which after being internalized by Catholics could become a very toxic form of self-hatred.
Enhancing the problem was the fear and horror felt by Ulster Protestants toward any discussion of unification with the Republic of Ireland. Under a Republic of Ireland government, elected by a huge majority of Catholics, they would be likely to experience a great many polices as objectionable, from the inability to purchase decent birth control pills to an anti-British foreign policy. Most of all, however, they would, in Northern Ireland, lose the considerable privilege and power they had traditionally enjoyed at the expense of their Catholic minority. There can be no doubt, however, that these political objections of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland were routinely exaggerated, and gradually took on an apocalyptic tone more typical of pathology than politics. It is for this reason that Protestants found even the slightest reform threatening. Give the Catholics an inch, and they were bound to take a mile; after all, hadn’t the Protestants done the same, in their relations with Catholics? The argumentation of Northern Ireland Protestants had, therefore, over time developed more of the characteristics of a psychological obsession than a real political discussion.
Ian Paisley had, along with a few other fanatical Protestant ideologues over the centuries, developed an aggressive theology in which Catholicism was not only the greatest evil in the world, but the manifest demonstration of all evil. He believed in his bones that Catholicism was—not metaphorically but literally—a modern political vehicle of Satan, which made whoever was Pope a modern anti-Christ. Once he got into the inter-European parliament, the excitable Paisley went out of his way to insult the Pope personally, since Paisley believed that the Pope was using the UE as an opportunity to consolidate his power over Europe (by reconstituting the Holy Roman Empire, according to some Ulster Protestants). To Paisley, Catholics in Northern Ireland were but the frontal assault forces of a vast and abominable Popish plot (historical pun intended) aiming at taking over the British Isles, then Europe, and then the world.
The problem with this kind of lunatic worldview is that by conceiving of any very large group of human beings as intrinsically evil, one tends to bring the phenomenon of psychological projection into play. Whatever is wrong in one’s own personality, or in one’s own church, is immediately projected onto the Evil Ones, and becomes one more revolting characteristic of the group you are denouncing. One of the reasons Christianity stagnated in the Middle Ages, this writer believes, was its anti-Semitism, its obsession with the supposedly inherited guilt of the Jews. When one can only see the evil in others, it makes emotional and social growth very difficult, because one is deprived of the ability to be self-critical. At the same time, a supposedly evil minority can quickly become a scapegoat for all the suppressed guilt and aggression of the majority group, which is exactly the direction in which anti-Semitism took Europe. In Northern Ireland, the anti-Catholicism of the majority group led to a certain profound mediocrity in the culture and religion of Ulster Protestantism. This inherent mediocrity would show up repeatedly and flagrantly in the Democratic Unionist Party, Ian Paisley’s party.
In the late 1960s a new Catholic group appeared called the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, so-called in conscious imitation of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, whose non-violent tactics it imitated. Early organizers included Bernadette Devlin and John Hume, the latter of whom was eventually to play a pivotal role in the 1990s peace process. Also involved were moderate IRA members who would later found the Workers’ Party, which rejected armed struggle. Also involved were the more militant IRA and Sinn Fein members who would later be major combatants in the approaching civil war.
A great deal has been made of the fact that IRA people were involved in the early days of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), but it should be pointed out that many of those same IRA members were at that time hesitant to initiate armed struggle. They were, in other words, willing to give non-violence a try as a tactic; their participation in the NICRA was part of a political evolution. The lesson here seems to be that while terrorists do not become angels overnight, nor do practitioners of non-violence become terrorists overnight, since both are capable of some moral and political evolution; those that reject terrorism do so for reasons—including moral and legal ones—that make sense to them. The NICRA was organized by people from widely differing political backgrounds, some of whom had previously advocated violence and many who hadn’t, but they all wished to give peaceful protest a chance in this particular instance.
Critics claimed that NICRA wished to bring down the Northern Ireland government, but in fact Protestant over-reaction was far more likely to do that, not anything the demonstrators did or said. And such critics always left out the important fact that for most Catholics, the government had no legitimacy to begin with, because the Catholic vote was systematically suppressed by Protestant gerrymandering. In any case, even those NICRA marchers who wished to see the government fall also wished, in their capacity as civil rights marchers, to accomplish that goal using nonviolent tactics, and to do so outside existing institutions, both in government and out of it. That was something new in Irish politics.
The NICRA was formed along the fault lines of two great Irish controversies. First, its organizers were willing to address oppression against Catholics separate from the traditional Republican demand to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. They were interested not in Republican orthodoxy, but in protesting religious discrimination. Secondly, they were willing to adopt Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. In addition to rights for Catholics, they also advocated civil and human rights for Irish Travelers, a significant minority in Ireland and Britain, as well as nuclear disarmament. Ultimately the NICRA were mainly concerned with religious discrimination in housing and employment, and the gerrymandering of electoral districts. Although it eventually ended in tragedy, NICRA was proof that many were willing to try nonviolent methods—and it was not lost on close observers that it received significant support around the world for precisely that reason.
The first march of the NICRA was April 27, 1968, of about 2,500 people in Dungannon. They were met by 400 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which refused to let them proceed. The next march was in Derry (Londonderry), and began in the Protestant section of that town. Only 400 people were there to kick off the march, but there were important observers that the RUC probably knew nothing about; these included the Republican Labor MP Gerry Fitt, who had brought with him three labor MPs from the British parliament. As they had before, the Royal Ulster Constabulary prevented the march from going forward, instead attacking the marchers. At some point Catholic youths from a nearby ghetto got involved and were driven back, after some rock-throwing at police. In terms of public impact, by far the most important thing that happened was that the clueless RUC beat up Gerry Fitt and his British friends, putting the lot of them in the hospital; film of this event clearly showed highly armed police mercilessly beating unarmed protesters. International opinion swung decisively behind the NICRA marchers—and Catholic activists generally—because of the brutal beating of the Labor MPs.
Toward the end of 1968, the NICRA announced a temporary cessation of marching due to some small governmental reforms having been made. Attempts to hold further marches were made, but these attempts to air grievances seemed regularly to lead to violent clashes between Catholics and the RUC. Later in 1969 wide-scale rioting broke out in which many people were killed, and in which the RUC and Protestant supporters initiated the mass practice of entering Catholics houses and attacking Catholics simply because they were Catholics, in what were essentially pogroms. In response to continued widespread rioting in April and July, Catholics began to organize for a defense of their neighborhoods—which included gathering weapons—and to set up vigilante patrols. The NICRA activists tried to take pressure off Catholic neighborhoods that were attacked by holding marches in adjacent towns or neighborhood, hoping to draw police of RUC away from residential areas.
Gerry Adams was involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association at every point, and despite his membership in Sinn Fein and the IRA respected NICRA’s strategy of nonviolence. But he was acutely aware that the Dublin leadership of the IRA failed to understand the depth of sectarian loyalties on the part of the Protestants. The Dublin IRA leadership thought class interests would trump culture; but then, as now, it’s the other way around: culture tends to trump class interests. (Indeed, after three centuries of exquisite conditioning, one might say that Protestant sectarian interests were its class interests.)
What does this mean? It means that prejudice is likely to be, in the short term, stronger than enlightened self-interest. The failure of idealistic social reformers to understand this occurs to a large extent because of a modern inability to understand the problem of aggression, and to recognize the existence of evil, especially systemic evil. Racial and religious prejudice is evil; people under its influence derive pleasure from the suffering of their perceived enemies: it is essentially a negative emotional orientation that affects all thought and behavior; and it is not—as many liberals believe—merely a failure to understand the other person’s point of view. Gerry Adams saw, and understood, that all the chatter of the Dublin IRA about making common cause with working-class Protestants was, at least for his generation, a pathetic exercise in folly.
Another influence on Gerry Adams was the general tone of rebellion that young people in Northern Ireland felt. Richard English stresses this point, quoting Adams in his book Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA:
“People [in Northern Ireland] did not live their lives in isolation from the changes going on in the world outside. They identified to a greater or lesser extent with the music, the politics, the whole undefined movement of ideas and changes of style. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, long hair and beads, the ‘alternative society,’ music and fashion were all markers put down by a new generation against [the] complacencies of the previous one, and one of the most important to come across was that one could change the world.”
Before 1969, the people of Northern Ireland had been caught in a kind of mental time warp, when any public discussion of institutional injustice was seen as tantamount to advocating the violent overthrow of the government. But the young generation of Catholics was desperate to find some way to fight the injustices that surrounded them and held them down. The irony that many authors have emphasized is this: even the staging of nonviolent marches stimulated the violent sectarian frenzies of the Protestant establishment. To the Protestant establishment, even the thought of changing power relationships provoked histrionics, provoking also the conviction that such thoughts should everywhere be met with violence. To the Protestant establishment, the Civil Rights marchers were criminals for even talking about their grievances, and therefore deserved whatever they got, because they should have stayed home, kept quiet, and allowed things to go on as before.
And was not the Protestant over-reaction, this determination to burn and wreak havoc and ultimately to kill Catholics who were marching peacefully, clear evidence of a profound spiritual and mental derangement that plagued the Ulster establishment and the Protestant mobs? Religious apartheid and discrimination cannot be tolerated in a modern industrialized democracy, and exposing it became the job of an entire generation of Catholics in Northern Ireland. This is in no way a defense of the later violence of the IRA, but it is a defense of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association that must be made, and often isn’t. However radical their politics may have been as individuals, the NICRA marchers were good people who were bravely addressing one of the most outrageous examples of social injustice in modern Europe, and they were trying to do it nonviolently, just as Martin Luther King did when he confronted segregation in the American south.
Then, in August 1969, came the ‘Battle of the Bogside,’ which occurred in the Catholic neighborhood in Derry known as ‘the Bogside.’ Wikipedia refers cryptically to this traumatizing orgy of violence as a “very large communal riot,” but in reality it was a three-day series of pitched battles between Catholics, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Protestant mobs. This, in turn, provoked resistance in almost all the Catholic nationalist neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. There was provocation on both sides, to be sure; but in almost all of these instances it was the RUC or Protestant mobs that entered Catholic neighborhoods and drove people—or attempt to drive people—from their homes. These incursions by Protestant mobs, which the Royal Ulster Constabulary either participated in or made no effort to stop, had the classic characteristics of a pogrom. Many people were killed, a great many Catholic homes were burned, and as many as several thousand Catholics expelled from their homes. On August 13, Jack Lynch, Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of the Republic of Ireland, announced on the radio that he “could not stand by,” and rather provocatively sent a detachment of medical personnel to the border of Northern Ireland, supposedly to treat wounded victims of police violence.
On August 14, the next day, James Chichester-Clark, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, asked British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send British troops. The 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire, soon arrived from the HMS Sea Eagle, where they had been waiting for some time. It is one of the great anomalies of this strange conflict that the Catholics of the Bogside at first welcomed the British troops, actually serving them tea, since their presence impeded the murderous assaults of the RUC. But the descent into madness was already well underway, and it would not be long before the British troops themselves became targets for IRA sharpshooters.
During the worst of the Bogside fighting in early August, 1969, the IRA was caught completely off guard. They had started to gather weapons, mostly ancient firearms left over from past IRA campaigns, many long buried in secret armories, but were otherwise unprepared: the armed defense of Catholic neighborhoods had not previously been a policy of the IRA, because this was the first time in modern times that large incursions—or pogroms—had occurred, with Protestants entering the Catholic neighborhoods on a mass basis. Still, a few IRA veterans gathered whatever weapons they could, and tried to defend some key Bogside areas. In his book Behind the Mask: the IRA and Sinn Fein, Peter Taylor repeats an account by young Brendan Hughes, later to be an important leader of the IRA, of his experiences as a boy caught up in the Bogside fighting:
“My old school was being attacked by loyalist crowds with gasoline bombs. One of the IRA men who were there at the time had a Thompson submachine-gun and asked if anybody knew the layout of the school. I did and I went with this fella. Gasoline bombs were coming in all over. There was a man on the roof of the school and people were shouting at him to fire into the crowd and he was shouting back that he was under orders to fire over their heads. That’s exactly what he did. He fired a Thompson submachine-gun over the heads of the crowd and it stopped the school from being burnt down. That was my first contact with the IRA.
After the fighting died down the IRA got little credit, however—signs saying “IRA, I Ran Away” appeared on some of the walls. A hard core of IRA fighters, mostly from Belfast, decided that as senior Republicans in Northern Ireland they had to take a central role in defending Catholic communities or they would become irrelevant. On 24 August, just a few days after the worst of the rioting, some leading Belfast IRA men met and determined to break free of the Dublin-based IRA leadership. On September 22, three armed men, including Gerry Adams, burst in on the Belfast IRA leadership and accused the leaders of not adequately protecting the Catholic neighborhoods.
An IRA convention was held in December, 1969, and after much argumentation the rebels split off into a new organization, called the Provisional IRA. Nine out of the thirteen units in Belfast sided with the Provos, as they were called, consisting of well over a hundred hardcore fighters and 500 trusted supporters. Over the next two years the Provisional IRA would inherit or create the vast majority of fighting Republican units, and weapons, in Northern Ireland. (For purposes of clarity, all references to the Provisional IRA henceforth will simply be to the IRA.)
Somewhere—perhaps during violent Protestant attacks on the early civil rights marches, perhaps during the riots of August 1969—Northern Ireland had crossed a line. ‘The Troubles’ were beginning.
For some Catholics in Northern Ireland, it still wasn’t too late to undertake the staggering task of trying to reform the country nonviolently, through agitation, strikes, demonstrations, informational prayer vigils and other tactics. And the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was very much still in the game, and still committed to demonstrating nonviolently—that would be its main tactic, to publicly articulate demands and grievances that had been virtually taboo before. Their goal was to end discrimination in housing and employment, and reform the corrupt electoral system. By way of demonstrating its tactical acumen, it did not address the smoldering question of eventually reuniting Northern Ireland with the southern Republic. Its main goal was to put an end to discrimination against Catholics on the ground and win civil rights based of a rule of law.
And as Richard English reported in Armed Struggle, although there were IRA members in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, most of NICRA’s activists were “people with far less radical views—people for whom the thrust of the campaign was the entirely reasonable demand for fair treatment within a state which had not hitherto provided it.” Rather than the IRA hijacking the nonviolent movement, as unionist politician Brian Faulkner thought, “it was the IRA that had helped to initiate a civil rights campaign which grew to encompass many people who did not share the IRA’s philosophy.” This was not a defeat, but a sign that it was not only the Republican groups that sought justice—and Northern Ireland would need precisely such people, those who sought peace through constitutional activism, if reform were to be achieved. But the ultimate failure of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association would come at the hands of the Protestant establishment and British troops. The peaceful marchers would become the victims of a horrible atrocity that changed everything, and convinced a great many people that nonviolent protest was no longer possible.
One reason this happened is that the Protestant establishment, entrenched deep within the Ulster Unionist Party—the main Protestant party—saw little difference between a Catholic with a picket sign and a Catholic with a gun. They were all part of the same subversive assemblage to the UUP, and therefore both were intolerable. To many of the unionist/loyalist persuasion, the Catholic with a placard was perhaps even more dangerous than a Catholic with a gun, because it was harder to justify killing or interning the nonviolent protester. For these reasons, Protestants in the Ulster Unionist Party saw no advantage in keeping the conflict nonviolent. Like the segregationists of the American south, to a great many people in the UUP any questioning of the prevailing system, however unjust that system might be, was unacceptable, and therefore deserving of violent retaliation.
There was sporadic rioting at various times in 1970, at least partly because the opportunities for nonviolent expression of grievances was drying up. For one thing, it was becoming increasingly dangerous to appear in a public demonstration challenging the status quo. Then, in July 1970, a government ban on ‘parades and public processions’ (that is, all demonstrations) was announced, and was intended to last until January 1971. In August 1970 the Social Democratic and Labor Party was formed, with John Hume and Gerry Fitt as leaders; it would draw most of the Catholic vote until Sinn Fein began to compete with it electorally. Despite some small reforms, in October serious rioting broke out in Belfast’s Ardoyne area, lasting three days. The IRA was buying and distributing weapons, and there had already been serious incidents—the IRA had begun operations in earnest. In 1971 an estimated 30 British soldiers were killed.
Throughout the first months of 1971, several small reforms in the area of housing were made, which raised hope that an end to discrimination in housing might be in sight. On 9 August 1971, however, the government, under the Special Powers Act of 1922, moved to intern 342 individuals. These were people that the British and Northern Ireland authorities considered dangerous, but the internment proceeded without trial. Gerry Adams was among those caught up in the sweep, and was held by the British on the HMS Maidstone. (In June he was released to take part in secret talks in Britain. The talks produced nothing, but it is highly significant that Adam’s IRA comrades insisted that he be released to be part of the negotiations.)
Instead of a body blow to the IRA, the August 1971 internment resulted in support for the interned and anger at the government and British troops who carried it out. Very bad rioting immediately broke out throughout Northern Ireland, the worst violence since August of the previous year. An estimated twenty-one people were killed in three days of rioting, and as many as 7,000 people, mostly Catholic, were driven from their homes. The fledgling SDLP withdrew all its representatives from public bodies and announced a campaign of civil disobedience. The real question, however, was how the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association would react. Certainly there could be no greater offense against civil rights than people being interned without due process. Furthermore, it had become known that only Catholics had been interned, and no Protestants, despite violence from recently-organized Protestant paramilitaries; and this caused support for the IRA to rise precipitously in the Catholic community, higher than at any time since the Anglo-Irish War of 1916-1921.
The NICRA, after much discussion, decided to march nonviolently against internment, despite the danger involved. How could they not meet the challenge, when people were being interned without trial and the window for nonviolent expression of grievances was closing? A small anti-internment march was held on January 2, 1972. On the 18th all parades and marches (that is, demonstrations) were banned until the end of the year. The NICRA promptly replied with another and larger anti-internment demonstration; this was met with severe beatings, as the demonstrators tried to reach the internment camp but were stopped by troops.
What to do? NICRA knew the risks, but the entire burden of seeking justice nonviolently had now fallen on them. They organized a mass march against internment without trial, while according to the Irish News [28 January 1972] “placing a special emphasis on the necessity for a peaceful incident-free day” on January 30. Countless books, films and articles have been written about the tragic events of that day, so this writer will not give a blow-by-blow description of the tragedy, but rather concentrate on its political fallout. Suffice it to say that on January 30, 1972, a day that would later be called “Bloody Sunday,” 26 unarmed Irish demonstrators were shot down, with 13 dying immediately and one dying later. It was one of the worst political massacres of modern European history. On 15 June 2010, almost forty years later, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the killing by British troops was “unjustified and unjustifiable,” and made a formal apology on behalf of the British government.
Cameron’s apology came thirty-eight years too late for the people of Northern Ireland. On 30 January 1972 the fate of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was sealed. The time of peaceful marches had now ended, because nobody could ever be sure again that they would not be shot down in the street for demonstrating, no matter how peacefully they did it. The British had driven Catholics from the streets, and into the arms of the IRA. The time of the gunman had arrived.
In his comprehensive study of the IRA, Tim Pat Coogan states that the entire IRA in Northern Ireland had exactly ten guns in their possession during August, 1969. A frantic search for weapons began, both by the IRA and Defense Committees that had begun to form in the neighborhoods. After the split in the IRA, the Provisional IRA took over all the arms depots, but found that they contained mainly leftover weapons from the Second World War, including Thompson machine guns and Bren light machine guns. During the period of 1969-1972, an arms purchasing operation was set up, run on the American side by George Harrison, an IRA man who had lived in New York since 1938. He bought guns from a Corsican arms dealer, mainly Armalite assault rifles. The weapons were then smuggled on the regular runs of the Queen Elizabeth II to Southampton, England, thence to Northern Ireland, where they were collected by an IRA cell in Belfast. The Armalite weapons could be folded, making it easy for IRA seamen to pack them in their lockers. The AR-18 was the IRA’s weapon of choice, since in addition to its folding stock, it was small, light, and fired high velocity rounds in rapid fire.
There was an enormous fetishization of the Armalite AR-18 among the IRA volunteers; there was the feeling among those same volunteers, especially the younger ones, that if they had the right weapons the IRA was sure to win. (“Winning” by that time meant driving Britain out of Northern Ireland so that it could be integrated into the Republic, after which the conditions of Catholics would surely be automatically improved.) Some of the young IRA recruits had an almost sexualized affection for the Armalite, which they were sure was their ticket to victory. Peter Taylor, in Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, quotes Brenden Hughes, who had become second in command in the Lower Falls area of Belfast:
“I remember sitting in a house and this guy who was in the Merchant Navy came back from America with this booklet on the Armalite. It really praised this weapon. It could be folded up, dumped in rivers, buried, almost anything. Everyone was talking about it—this “Super Weapon.” The brochure said if a person was shot in the arm, it would break every bone in his body. It was light and it was powerful. Everybody went wild about it because up until then there were only M1 carbines, .303s and old Second World War weapons.”
“Everyone was saying, ‘this weapon is going to change the whole war.’ The Armalites came in and that I think helped change the whole situation because then the IRA had a weapon that was effective, easily dumped, easy to handle and easy to train on. If it did half the things that it was supposed to have done, the war was going to be over in a couple of years. At that time most people didn’t think long-term. They thought of next year or next month or six months time. But that was it. No one was thinking of ten years, or five years or even three years.”
In Peter Taylor’s Behind the Mask, Hughes speaks of receiving the smuggled arms in Belfast:
“I remember a car driving up. The boot was opened and there were ten to fifteen Armalites in it. The magic Armalites were there. Fifteen of them. I remember the people who were there being amazed at their fire power. It was a big jump from a couple of M1 carbines. I know people felt, ‘This is it. We’re really moving up a stage here with these things.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Armalite rifle shows up in several songs from those violent times. It first makes an oblique appearance, for example, in the Gang of Four’s 1978 album “Damaged Goods.” But another reference is in the folksong “My Little Armalite,” in which the IRA volunteer articulates his affection for his weapon. Some words are below:
I was stopped by a soldier, he said “you are a swine”
He hit me with his rifle and he kicked me in the groin
I bowed and I scraped, sure my manners were polite
Ah, but all the time I was thinking of me little Armalite!
A brave RUC man came walking up our street
With 600 British soldiers gathered round his feet,
Come out ya cowardly Fenians come on out and fight
But he cried ‘I’m only joking’ when he heard my Armalite!
And it’s up along the bogside, that’s where I long to be
Lying in the dark with the Provo company
A comrade on my left and another one on me right
And a clip of ammunition for me little Armalite!
Note the heavily sexualized content. The British soldier emasculates the Catholic boy by kicking him in the groin, but later the lad gets his power back with his Armalite, even causing the Protestant RUC man to give up without a fight. In the chorus the singer imagines an idyllic situation—fraught both with danger and great tenderness—in which he lays in the dark with an IRA lad on either side and “a clip of ammunition for me little Armalite.” (Two versions of this song on the internet actually open with the distinctive hollow tapping sound of an Armalite being fired in short bursts. As in so many Irish songs about their wars, the tune to “My Little Armalite” is incongruously upbeat and cheerful.)
The ‘magic Armalite’ quickly assumed a transcendent importance to the younger volunteers. Terence “Cleeky” Clarke, who became involved in the IRA as a young man, was quoted by Peter Taylor in Behind the Mask as being typical of younger volunteers who simply wanted to fight the enemy in the streets, but knew little of the issues involved: “I remember on one occasion a certain person telling Sean MacStiofain [IRA Chief of Staff] that he was a gunman not a politician. MacStiofan hit the roof. He was going to have his scalp. But that was indicative of how we all felt then. We were gunmen and [Clark] was saying, ‘We just want to shoot. We don’t want to talk or find out.’ It’s a sad reflection on us at the time.”
Much of this excitement on the part of the IRA volunteers regarding the Amalite is painfully consistent with the phenomenon of young males with an entrenched patriarchal worldview, but who are themselves without any power. Above all there was the frustration of being Catholic in that time and place, and the hatred of Catholics that many of them had no doubt internalized, not to mention lack of work and skills, and an abiding grievance against a social system in which the cards are stacked against them…those are all ingredients that can, in times of social upheaval, lead to an apocalyptic love of combat and violence. Yet these same young males were eventually to learn that the power one felt while firing an Armalite also meant a slow and extremely agonizing death to the ones hit by its 5.56 rounds. And in and Belfast and Derry, the fighting was too close not to know—to see and feel—the impact of the high-velocity bullets on the people you were killing.
In 1971, the IRA killed 42 British soldiers. In 1972, it was 64, mostly the work of snipers. Brendan Hughes describes how daily operations were planned, with a strong emphasis on sniper attacks, both planned and opportunistic:
“There would probably have been a group of twelve to fourteen Volunteers in a particular area, plus back-up. Some would meet in a house that particular morning. [Operations were planned and staged at different houses to avoid electronic surveillance.] There’d be an Operations Officer there whose job it was to pick particular operations for bombings or for shootings or for ambushes or for robbing a bank if money was needed at that time. It was called ‘jumping the counter.’”
“It would be normal enough for five or six operations to go ahead in one day. Plus, they would put a ‘float’ out. There’s two men in a car with one man driving and one man in the back with a particular weapon. They’d be ‘floating’ around the area just waiting until targets came along. Men would be picked to do the particular operation. Someone would be sent to steal or highjack a car, someone else would hold the driver while someone else carried out the operation, whether it was a bombing in the town or a ‘float.’ The circumstances at the time would dictate what operations took place.”
As Northern Ireland descended into madness, the killing became nightmarish. Here is an account from a British soldier of the death of one of his mates on March 4, 1973:
“It was the very last patrol of their tour and they were suddenly called to an incident. When this happens, the Commander usually yells, “Follow me!” and they make off at a helluva rate of knots. Unfortunately this soldier was left behind. He didn’t think nothing of it. It was getting dark and he thought, ‘Well, it’s best to stop here. They’ll come back and fetch me on the way back.’ Of course, they didn’t. The women in the area very quickly realized the young lad was on his own. They surrounded him. I can’t understand what went through the lad’s mind, probably pure terror, but they held him there and ripped his face with their nails. There was no skin left on it. And they held him there for the local gunman to shoot with the soldier’s own weapon. The actual terror that this lad must have gone through while he was being held down by these women must have been terrific.”
Brendan Hughes, who was a commander with the IRA, remembers this incident well:
“There was a gun battle that took place that day and this young soldier was left behind. He was killed and I remember feeling very, very sorry for him and I don’t think it should have happened. He was killed by local IRA people and I am told by people who were there at the time, that he was only a kid and the young fellow was crying for his mother. It certainly had an effect on me when it happened. I always felt sorry for him and I regret it very much. It bothers me when I think about that young soldier sometimes.”
These are traumatic memories that aren’t easily banished. One must ask how it was that IRA volunteers stood up to the constant stress. Studies done by the US army during World War Two indicate that infantry soldiers became unable to function after about two hundred days at the front. Subsequent armies have made sure, when possible, that this limit is not exceeded. So how did IRA volunteers continue to function, under those conditions? According to statements made by Gerry Adams in a recorded speech, it was sometimes necessary to order volunteers to go to a neutral place—somewhere in the south, most likely, during ‘the Troubles’—simply to rest and recuperate emotionally. Furthermore IRA volunteers typically spent a great deal of time in internment or in prison; this created something of a break in urban warfare, although there was a tight IRA hierarchy in prisons and internment camps, and IRA volunteers were expected to do as they were told. Most important, however, was what IRA volunteers thought to be the sacred nature of their combat.
Interestingly, once they came out of prison, IRA volunteers were not necessarily expected to resume their IRA activities. If they wanted to—and many did—they could; but if they were not inclined to do so, they didn’t have to. That makes the IRA quite different from most disciplined criminal, paramilitary or underground terrorist organizations, from which it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to resign. If someone in a criminal gang or a terrorist group begins to drift away, their trauma bond will necessarily loosen, and they might be inclined to reconsider their loyalty to the organization, and reveal secrets to strangers. For that reason, then, once one enters one of those groups, they will be expected to stay with it for a lifetime. If their loyalties are seen to waver, their superiors in the group may assign them some egregiously violent task to renew the bond. But that level of discipline apparently did not exist in the IRA in Northern Ireland.
At the beginning of ‘the Troubles’ the IRA had a policy of not engaging in sectarianism in its urban warfare—that is, they would not execute Protestants just because they were Protestants, whereas the Unionist/loyalist paramilitaries often killed Catholics just because they were Catholics. The IRA would kill British soldiers and members of the RUC because they saw them as part of an apparatus of oppression; or they would kill a Protestant who was part of a mob in the act of attacking Catholic homes. For this reason, they denied being sectarian in the same way that the Protestant paramilitaries were. On the other hand, the IRA began at some point to use explosives and car bombs. How could you be sure you were killing only British soldiers or RUC with a bomb?
Obviously, you couldn’t, and many innocent people, both Catholic and Protestant, died horribly in these bombing attacks. The use of explosives in the 1970s crossed the line from supposed urban warfare into pure terrorism. On 20 March of 1972, the IRA set off its first car bomb, which succeeded in killing four innocent civilians along with four RUC officers and a soldier of the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a violent Protestant paramilitary. There would be many more bombs, from both the IRA and the UVF, the majority of which killed innocent people as well as military targets.
Trauma bonding was definitely operating in the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s and 1980s, but as mentioned before the psychological trauma of individual events would have merged with the traumatic memory—and the inter-generational trauma—that most of them had inherited. The psychological trauma came from two sources: first, simply the reality of being Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the oppression that involved; secondly, being the heirs, once they had joined the IRA, of what they regarded as the only true political authority in Ireland, an authority that had always been betrayed. According to the ideology in which their leaders believed, and which they internalized, the Free State had betrayed the Republic in 1922-23, as had the main government parties: since the IRA had always defended the Republic against those who would betray it, the IRA Army Council was the supreme political authority in all of Ireland. The individual became bonded first to aggression and to terrorism as a way of life, and then to a worldview and an ideology that attempted to rationalize that lifestyle.
And the IRA volunteers sealed that authority with their willingness to shed blood, their own and others. Were they not willing to kill, and if necessary to be killed, were they not willing to operate in total secrecy, to defend the apostolic authority of the 1916 Republic? The psychic energy that kept IRA volunteers going was the trauma bond of daily killing, the shared traumatic memory of growing up in a society where they were hated, and a shared traumatic memory of a betrayed Republic whose authority existed only in their minds. In this shared traumata the gun was the supreme and only arbiter of social life, and one’s personal authenticity was proven by a willingness to kill and be killed. One’s identity—and one’s worldview—didn’t arise from reason, but from an intense emotional orientation. The shared traumatic memory didn’t just accompany the ideology, it wasthe ideology.
In March 1972 Gerry Adams was interned for the first time without trial. By now he had become well-known as a top IRA commander. But as mentioned before, Adams was abruptly released from internment in June, so that he could participate in peace negotiations in Britain. The peace talks came to nothing, but it was a high-powered delegation of top Irish Republicans including Martin McGuinness, Sean MacStiofain (IRA Chief of Staff), Daithi O’Conneill, Seamus Twomen and Ivor Bell. The older IRA and Sinn Fein stalwarts insisted that the young Adams accompany them in their delegation—his talents as a speaker and writer had become known, as well as his physical courage. But there was probably another reason why the old-timers trusted the young volunteer: the fact that his family had been Republicans, and IRA members at that, for several generations. In any case, the stakes were high on both sides. In March 1972, the same month that they interned Gerry Adams, the British government dissolved Northern Ireland’s government and established direct rule.
With the breakdown of peace talks, Adams returned to Belfast, and immediately took up where he had left off. On May 13 and 14, after a unionist/loyalist bombing of a Catholic pub, gun battles broke out throughout Belfast, with seven people killed. On July 13 and 14, there were again gun battles all over Belfast, and again many casualties. On 21 July, the IRA detonated 22 bombs at different locations around Belfast, with the usual disproportionately high civilian body count—six civilians, two British army troops and one Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) volunteer killed. On Operation Motorman, on July 31, some 12,000 British troops, supported by tanks, opened up the ‘no go’ areas created by the IRA. The Republicans went deeper underground and continued their operations. Gerry Adams was probably involved with these events—although not necessarily all of them—on a daily basis.
Adams was again interned July 1973, and sent to the Long Kesh internment camp. While there he participated with IRA comrades in a mass escape attempt, for which he was convicted of a crime and sentenced to a prison term. While in prison he wrote a series of influential articles using the pseudonym ‘Brownie,’ in which he criticized some of the decisions of top IRA leaders, and was especially vehement in opposing assassinations of leaders of other Republican groups. There was also, in these articles, the beginning of his questioning of the policy of non-participation in electoral politics and the introduction of the idea of political involvement in tandem with the IRA’s traditional paramilitary initiatives. He was released in 1976, rearrested for IRA membership in 1978, and released again for lack of evidence.
It probably wasn’t hard for Gerry Adams, who was a part of the peace talks, to figure out why peace didn’t happen. The British knew that Adams, IRA and Sinn Fein were only one small, very fanatical and very violent part of Catholic nationalism in Northern Ireland, and at that time represented only themselves. Furthermore, since it was their violent paramilitary activities that made them different, it was easy to see them as a criminal or military problem, and not a political one. The problem, as Gerry Adams saw it, was not to give up their Republican heritage, but in some way to find a way to position Sinn Fein and the IRA as the representative of the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland. And the best way to accomplish that would be to create some common front with other Catholic groups. The time was not yet ripe for it, but that would eventually lead to working with the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which in the late 1970s represented by far the majority of Catholics.
Gerry Adams had married Collette McCardle in 1971, and both he and his wife had to adjust to the unique pressures of the family of an IRA commander, the main issue being that Adams was either in prison, interment or on the run most of the time. And it was a rare day when Adams wasn’t personally in some kind of dangerous or violent situation. He had made the mistake, when negotiating with the British in 1972, of saying that under certain conditions, “all bets are off.” The next time Adams heard those words were while lying on the floor in the Springfield Road Barracks being kicked by a Special Branch interrogator who was gleefully declaiming, “All bets are off, now, Gerry!” (Adams later claimed permanent kidney damage from that incident.) In fact, both the British and the RUC were developing new methods of interrogation that would easily fit the United Nations’ definition of torture.
The RUC would take away special category status for crimes committed by the IRA after March 1, 1976. The idea was to treat IRA members as simple criminals, in order to damage their morale and weaken group resolve. Both the British and the RUC had already made good use of informers, many of them recruited after violent interrogation. We still don’t know the exact contribution of Gerry Adams to the reorganization of the IRA, but he and other leaders completely overhauled the IRA structure. To defend against informers, the IRA now operated through Active Service Units, or ASUs; each ASU was a small cell of members on fulltime duty status—three, four, five or perhaps six—who were completely separate from the rest of the organization. No ASU knew who was in the other ASUs, or even where they operated. Brigades and Battalions were kept, but the cell leaders would interact only with the Brigade Operations Officer. This prevented leaks through infiltration and torture. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) suspects could be held and interrogated for a week.
Top IRA commanders had embraced the idea of a “long war,” but were now considering the possibility of a political component to it—a component that could lead to a mass movement. At about this time Brigadier James Glover of the British army’s intelligence staff did an analysis of the IRA, which was stolen by parties unknown, and somehow found its way into the Sinn Fein newspaper, the Republican News, where everybody in Northern Ireland had a chance to read it. Glover was sure that Gerry Adams was behind most of the reorganization of the IRA, as well as inventing and promoting new strategies:
“For some time we’d always thought that, sooner or later, a charismatic figure would emerge from within the ranks of the IRA who would succeed in transforming it from being the old-fashioned organization that it was into something very modern. It became evident that Adams was starting to fulfill this role, both when he was in the Maze [internment camp] and probably even more so when he was outside. One of the things I’ve never really quite been able to understand is how, while he was locked up in the Maze, his influence spread outside into the North and obviously trickled down to the South as well.”
Glover also predicted in his purloined intelligence report that the IRA would start targeting high profile individuals in government and elsewhere. And indeed, on 27 August 1979, the IRA killed a member of the royal family, Louis Mountbattan, first Earl of Burma, by blowing up his boat in the harbor of Mullaghmore, County Sligo; also killed at that time were Lord Mountbattan’s grandson and two other innocent people. This tragic incident infuriated the British establishment, since the last Viceroy of India was greatly beloved, and not just by the royal family—he was also a great favorite of the British people. This shocking incident also led indirectly to one of the most notorious public expressions of anti-Irish prejudice in modern history.
This contretemps occurred on the occasion of Princess Margaret’s visit to Chicago, where she attended a dinner party given in her honor by the Mayor, Jane Byrne. Ms. Byrne remarked that she had attended Mountbattan’s funeral in London, which elicited the following from Princess Margaret:
Princess Margaret: The Irish. They’re pigs.
Princess Margaret: Oh dear. You’re Irish.
Mayor Byrne was indeed Irish-American, and she spent the rest of the dinner party, according to eye-witnesses, in a state of intractable, silent rage.
Afterward Byrne—perhaps fearful of an international incident—attempted a little damage control by suggesting that the words of Princess Margaret referred only to the IRA, and not to the Irish as a whole. But it did not seem that way to the people who attended the dinner party, nor to most Irish readers, who received this juicy gossip in their newspapers. Therein lay a significant problem of the British Establishment, in which we may include Margaret Thatcher: many of the angry, dismissive or negative things she and others said in response to ‘the Troubles’ came across to the Irish themselves not as denunciations of the IRA—denunciations with which most Irish might have agreed, at that point—but of the Irish as a group. And very often the British government did not go out of their way to make any such distinction.
Meanwhile there were, by 1979, some 300 “blanket men” in the Maze—men who refused to wear the prison uniform. The protest wasn’t working, some felt, so there was much discussion about how it could be broadened. Beatings by prison guards were common, they said, especially when they went to shower. Therefore they stopped showering. For reasons this writer does not completely understand, the blanket men began to smear their excrement on the walls. (Some say it was because the guards deliberately spilled their chamber pots in the cells.) By January 1980 a consensus was growing among prisoners for a hunger strike. At first top IRA commanders were against it, but eventually relented. This, like so many tactics used during the civil war, would have repercussions that no one could have predicted. Before it would be over, ten men would die on hunger strike, and public opinion in the Catholic community would be deeply affected.
The main hunger strike began March 1, 1981, led by Bobby Sands, a committed young man who fully understood that people were going to die in this battle of wills. Margaret Thatcher, now British Prime Minister, was only too happy to let them die; the IRA was “playing its last card,” she crowed. Then there suddenly occurred one of those rare anomalies of history that changes everything, and in this case transformed not only the hunger strike but the entire Republican movement, and the future of Ireland. There would soon be a by-election for MP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, and at the last moment Bobby Sands was entered as the Sinn Fein candidate. Miraculously, on April 19, 1981, Bobby Sands won the election. Out of a massive turnout of almost 87 percent, Bobby Sands beat his opponent by almost 1,500 votes. On May 5, 1981, he died of starvation secondary to his hunger strike.
He was given a funeral with full military honors by the IRA. The amazing thing was that one hundred thousand people followed his coffin to its final resting place; there were media from dozens of countries. There was also an outpouring of statements from foreign leaders and movements in support of Sands and his comrades. The sight of one hundred thousand Catholics in Northern Ireland, marching in the streets, was a sight that Gerry Adams and the other leaders found astonishing. Here was what they had so laboriously been looking for—a way to create a mass movement! Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a co-founder of the Peace People and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for her peace-making efforts—and no friend of the IRA—was quoted in Padriag O’Malley’s The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today:
“I watched Bobby Sand’s funeral. The coffin stopped at the bottom of our garden in Andersontown. I saw at the funeral of Bobby Sands people who had been at my sister’s funeral, who walked at the children’s funeral, who marched in the peace rallies, walking by the coffin of Bobby Sands because people are emotionally tied into the prisons. It’s not that they support violence or the Provisional IRA. But they are all men from our community. We know how they have come to be there. And above all we don’t want them suffering within the prisons.”
“When Bobby Sands died, many of us felt, it’s back to square one. In fact, further back and further divided than even square one was. If you tried to call a peace rally now in Andersontown—and I’m from Anderstontown, so I know it—you wouldn’t get anyone to come. There is far more bitterness and a feeling of anti-Britishness in many communities. People who never even used the term Brits out started to use the term.”
Had Bobby Sand’s election to Westminster, while dying in prison, been the transcendent event that changed everything? If that were true, it was merely common sense for Sinn Fein to run more candidates. This all began in a completely anomalous situation regarding IRA hunger strikers, but with the stunning turnout at Bobby Sands’ funeral—and the fact that he had won an important election—everything changed; and the thought naturally arose that electoral activity could no longer be ruled out.
It was because of this that at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis [convention], IRA volunteer Danny Morrison stood before the assembled Republicans to ask, however rhetorically, a question no one thought they would ever hear: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a paper ballot in one hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”
“No!” the crowd roared, signaling their approval.
This became known as the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy. The astonishing nature of this abrupt change must be assessed in view of the fact that Irish Republicans had traditionally refused to cooperate in elections, regarding them as illegitimate. (Some participated, but refused to sit in the bodies to which they had been elected.) In 1981, it was assumed that those who ran for office would refuse to sit in the British House of Parliament or any power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland either, for that matter—but that, too, would soon change. Underlying all of this was the shock of seeing the mass turnout for the funeral of Bobby Sands—a hundred thousand Irish Catholics in the street, the largest march in Irish history!—and the outpouring of sympathy for the hunger strikers from people in struggle around the world. This was something that Gerry Adams and the other leaders couldn’t afford to ignore, and they didn’t.
But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did; her misapprehension of the Bobby Sands phenomena—and probably her unwillingness to find an accommodation to the IRA prisoners demand that they wear their own clothes—were more examples of British misunderstanding of the Irish. Allowing Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers to perish was an incredible windfall for the IRA. Hundreds sought to join the “ra,” as the IRA was called in the Catholic ghettoes; Sinn Fein was treated as though it had a serious chance of standing for, and winning elections. This happened because, just as it had in 1916, the British government supplied the key to success for the Republicans with their rigidity, behind which probably lay a certain dislike of the Irish as a people.
The war ground on through the 1980s, with the main change being Sinn Fein’s willingness to contest elections. The armed dimension of such a struggle, waged mainly by urban guerilla forces, depended heavily on terrorism. In a milieu of extreme daily violence, the amount of aggression internalized by combatants and their victims was enormous. Some psychological trauma can come from being attacked, some from witnessing armed attacks,and perhaps most of all from staging and carrying out those attacks oneself, particularly when one witnesses the agony and death of an enemy at close range. Even worse is the knowledge that with bombs one has killed innocent civilians. In this situation, the stress was compounded by the fact that nobody could see a way out of the cycle of violence. Worst of all was simply being there, witnessing the descent of two religious communities into madness, and hearing the stories, the gunshots, the explosions, the ambushes—all the appurtenances of war in poor neighborhoods, where people were simply trying to live.
In 1982, the IRA assassinated Lenny Murphy, leader of the ‘Shankill Butchers.’ This gang had been indicative of a new and frightening level of sectarian violence. He and his gang would drive through Catholic ghettos looking for Catholics, and would kidnap, torture and kill them, usually by slashing their throats. He and his gang were responsible for 23 known deaths, although there may have been many more. Interestingly, Murphy’s gang was ultimately so out of control that he also began to kill Protestants, either former members of his gang whom he didn’t like, suspected informers, or simply people who irritated him for some reason. Some investigators believe that the IRA hit squad that ultimately took his life was, in effect, given permission by Unionist paramilitaries to kill Murphy, particularly since the hit went down in a Protestant neighborhood.
An Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985, which Margaret Thatcher hoped would win some support from Catholics. This Agreement gave some consultative powers to the Republic of Ireland in the government of Northern Ireland. It sent the Protestant unionists into a frenzy of paranoia—all unionist representatives in Westminster resigned their seats—and the Republicans also refused to support it because they felt it gave legitimacy to the ongoing division of Ireland. Again, this represented yet one more failing of PM Thatcher to understand how people in Northern Ireland were experiencing events on the ground. She was aware that a traditional demand of Irish Republicans had been for the unification of Ireland, and thought that the consultative privileges of the Dublin government in Northern Ireland might suggest a move in that direction—or suggest it just enough for the Catholics to feel it was a concession.
What she didn’t understand was the ferocity of the daily violence in Northern Ireland. While the old demand for reunification was still there, it had been largely replaced in importance by the demand for Britain to leave Northern Ireland, and to create a timetable for its departure. The Republicans and a great many Catholic nationalists had convinced themselves that this would give them victory, and probably also the end of hostilities, because the loyalists would realize that they jig was up. Of course, Britain was not willing to contemplate such a move, and it is hard to see that Britain could have created any kind of a timetable for withdrawal, so enmeshed had in become in the fighting. Furthermore Britain knew that if it left anytime soon, the result would likely be an even more ferocious civil war. The irony here—one of many—is that eventually, after Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership had decided on peace, they would need the hated ‘Brits’ to enforce many of the provisions of the peace process.
At the November, 1986, Sinn Fein party congress in Dublin, the majority voted to end the policy of abstentionism—that is, refusing to take seats they had won in the Irish Parliament, or in any future power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland. This was a huge step for the party, but after the infusion of support and money as a result of the Bobby Sands election and funeral, such a move had most likely become inevitable. In 1988 Gerry Adams met with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party of Northern Ireland. John Hume had the idea that they should pool their resources to achieve something truly revolutionary—initiating a peace process. The people were getting tired of war, both men knew, and needed something to look forward to besides more killing; Adams wouldn’t have admitted it as openly as Hume, but he was in a position to know that it was true.
Could the two Catholic nationalist parties posture themselves as the leaders of a search for peace? The SDLP was the party that got the most votes from Catholics in Northern Ireland, but saw that the IRA and Sinn Fein had to see some benefit in peace, enough to contemplate it, or there would be no peace. Gerry Adams quickly saw that by cooperating with SDLP, he and Sinn Fein would achieve greater credibility, and would finally be seen as working more for the majority of Catholics, rather than the narrow historical agenda associated with the IRA worldview. Adams was now the President of Sinn Fein, and had, it seems likely, turned over operational paramilitary matters to other IRA leaders. This meant that the majority of people within the IRA-Sinn Fein spectrum were coming to believe that Adams could serve the movement better as a negotiator and politician than a gunman and a commander; and John Hume and the SDLP were soon to be of that persuasion too. As the new head of Sinn Fein, Adams was now free to work the political possibilities inherent in the situation, and he was free to come and go as he pleased, as long as he didn’t again pick up the gun.
Why would Gerry Adams want peace? To begin with, he was the first to understand the prestige—local and international—that would befall anyone who succeeded in stopping the hostilities. And the paradoxical reality was that one of the most violent secret armies in the world was in the best position to bring peace about, through negotiations leading to a ceasefire. If the Sinn Fein could bring peace, it would—precisely because of the violence of their guns—give them a prestige that the gun had never done. If the could at the same time change the laws that had previously barred full social participation for Catholics, they would be winning the war and the peace at the same time! Furthermore, Adams now saw something that John Hume had perhaps not yet seen: that in time Sinn Fein could, if it was serious about peace, successfully contest elections in districts that the SDLP had traditionally won.
Simply by voting for Sinn Fein, Catholics could demonstrate how fed up they were with the Protestant establishment, and signal conclusively that they would never go back to the old ways of discrimination against Catholics—and they could do so at very little personal risk, by utilizing the secret ballot. Adams well understood that the war would have to go on until enough people had decided they were willing to take some risk in stopping it. But the truth was that he, and many others, had become wearied by the extraordinarily bloodthirsty lengths that guerilla urban war had taken all parties in the conflict.
Of special concern was that the British Special Air Services had undertaken ‘shoot to kill’ operations, apparently approved by Margaret Thatcher. Roughly the same as the order to take no prisoners in a land war, it meant that even if during an operation an IRA volunteer attempted to give up, the SAS would still shoot and kill that person, even if they were unarmed. (It should be pointed out, of course, that the IRA had often done exactly the same thing—but most people would hold a democratic government to a higher standard.) These were basically assassinations, and the SAS was to some extent operating as a death squad. This was brought home to Adams by the deaths of three IRA volunteers on assignment in Gibralter. Planning to detonate a bomb at a British army ceremony, all three—including one woman—were shot dead by SAS operatives, despite the fact that they were unarmed. This shooting, called Operation Flavius by the SAS, was reportedly given the green light by Margaret Thatcher herself.
At the funeral of the IRA volunteers, at which Gerry Adams and Michael McGuire were present, a loyalist named Michael Stone mounted a pistol and grenade attack on the mourners, killing three people and wounding sixty. This surrealistic attack was filmed in real time by TV crews that were present, causing disgust and shock around the world. Two days later, two undercover British corporals somehow got caught up in yet another IRA funeral procession (for one of Stone’s three victims), and the mourners—fearing another attack by loyalists—pulled the men from the car, stripped them and shot them dead. Ironically, the priest who gave the two young British corporals last rites was a major contact between the IRA and the British government, and was himself a Republican. But he, like many others, had come to feel that finding a path to peace was more important than fighting.
But how could peace come about? There seemed no end in sight, and no way out. The fateful truth was, as the top leaders in both Sinn Fein and the IRA were beginning to see—even if they did not verbalize it—that there was no way they could win with the gun, the gelignite bomb, or the paper ballot. (Or even with the potent combination of all three.) The British weren’t leaving; the Protestants despised the Catholics, and would never be a part of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future; and nobody was winning. Militarily and politically, they were at stalemate. What to do? Adams was increasingly contemplating peace as a major goal: that at least might in the end be doable, and even if it wasn’t, it would make Sinn Fein and the IRA—and the Catholic leaders generally—look good, if they took the lead in demanding peace talks. It would also create a situation in which Britain would have to force the Protestant establishment to improve conditions for Catholics as part of any proposed peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
If Sinn Fein could be a major contributor to a peace process, they could take credit, first, for having defended Catholic neighborhoods with arms in hand during the bad years of ‘the Troubles’; and secondly, helping to bring the peace that everybody thought was impossible. Since the funeral of Bobby Sands, the far-sighted Gerry Adams had also seen something else: if Sinn Fein played its cards well, if it could deliver peace to Northern Ireland, it might find itself in a position to politically challenge the two older parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael; and in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein candidates would stand a very good chance of victory in elections for any power-sharing government. Adams might appeal to the anti-establishment Catholic young as an iconic Republican warrior who stood up to the British, while to others he might be seen as the soft-spoken negotiator who brought peace to a tortured country when nobody else could pull it off. In reality, both would be true.
But why would the majority of Catholics turn to Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein to lead them, rather than John Hume and the SDLP? Part of it was simply the way the ongoing trauma of violence had bonded people to the most prominent leader of the gunmen. Certainly John Hume was in many ways the better man than Gerry Adams, a man who had seen the need for peace earlier than anyone, and who was willing to step aside and give leadership to Adams to achieve that peace. Such men and women are rare in this world, and are therefore a nation’s most precious resource. But despite Hume’s clear moral ascendancy, Gerry Adams had the authority of the gunman, by virtue of having been the top commander in the thick of the war. If you want to get people to put down the gun, you must get the chief gunman to demand a ceasefire—that was the unspoken thinking of the time. Catholics were coming to see Gerry Adams as the only public representative of the gunmen who would have the authority to get them to dump arms, and give up armed struggle for political struggle.
The person mainly involved in bringing together John Hume of the SDLP and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein was the late Father Alec Reid, a Redemptorist priest whose parish was the Clonard monastery in Belfast, where he served for 40 years, through the worst times of ‘the Troubles.’ The Redemptorist Monastery at Clonard stood at the intersection of Shankill Road, a working-class Protestant enclave, and his strongly nationalist Catholic parish. Father Reid had sought to operate as a go-between and negotiator between the IRA and the British establishment, a position that was respected on both sides. It was Father Reid who gave last rites to the two battered British corporals shot dead by Catholic mourners, as mentioned above.
A photo was taken of him as he did so, which became iconic in its accurate representation of the futility and horror of the mayhem into which Northern Ireland had fallen. What most people didn’t know was that in his pocket Father Reid was carrying a letter from John Hume to Gerry Adams. Father Reid had become convinced that a way to peace had to be found—not least, one suspects, from the violent things he heard about in the confessional, and also by the many last rites that he had to administer.
His strategy at first was to encourage a ‘pan-nationalist’ grouping of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, which is why he first brought John Hume and Gerry Adams together. But that was the least of his involvement. In his obituary in The Guardian (he died on 22 November 2013) it was noted as follows: “He was especially energetic for many years in trying to obtain information about a dozen people abducted by the IRA and buried without trace. This confidential and delicate work in the shadows was never acknowledged in any way, save privately, by the beneficiaries.” In addition to his contact with the British government, he also functioned as a contact person with the Dublin government from 1987 until the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. He had numerous private meetings with Republic of Ireland government officials, including Charles Haughey, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, as well as with leaders of the Fianna Fail party. In all of these meetings, he tried to represent the ideas and interests of the wider nationalist community, which in practice means that he represented the thinking of John Hume as well as Gerry Adams, while being careful to emphasize the difference between the two.
Father Reid first became well-acquainted with Gerry Adams as a result of ministering to the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to his Guardian obit, he had become a trusted go-between. “By then Reid was at the epicenter of an undeclared cross-community peace movement, involving fellow visionary clergy from non-Catholic denominations and other community figures. Reid’s initial objective was to bind together republicans and nationalists into a single body to advance their cause. That achieved, he believed constructive inter-government and all-party negotiations could begin. Having slowly converted Adams to his view, Reid became the contact for private exchanges between Adams and John Hume, the SDLP leader and figurehead for peaceful nationalism, at first written, and later face to face.” Both Father Reid and John Hume were raising the same point with Gerry Adams—if your Republican principles are any good, they can win politically, if you’ve got the stomach to argue them publicly. And Adams was gradually being won over to this point of view.
On 29 April of 1991, the Protestant militias announced a two-month truce. There was no response from the IRA, which continued operations. On August 31 of 1994, the IRA announced a complete cessation of hostilities, a truce that would last for two years. On 13 October, probably in response to the IRA announcement, the combined loyalist paramilitaries also announced a ceasefire. A broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein was lifted in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, allowing Gerry Adams to articulate the evolving Sinn Fein position. And in 1995, a Sinn Fein delegation actually met with the Northern Ireland Office, something that had been unthinkable before. A Joint Framework document was agreed to by the Irish and British governments. And in the US, Gerry Adams was treated to a reception by Bill Clinton, President of the United States.
But peace, which seemed ever closer, momentarily slipped away. There was an unwillingness of the unionist parties to meet with representatives of Sinn Fein, or even to allow Sinn Fein into the peace negotiations, until their weapons were “decommissioned,” which lead to the freezing out of Sinn Fein from the all-party negotiations—which in turn lead to a resumption of hostilities of the part of the IRA, which (after a telephone warning) blew up the London docklands. Negotiations slogged on in Stormont, the Northern Ireland government, but without Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein responded by blowing up the city center of Manchester, England, the largest bomb exploded in Europe since the Second World War. A realization was setting in that the IRA would have to be included, despite the extreme repugnance of that idea to most Protestant loyalists, represented by the two main unionist parties.
To break the logjam, American negotiator George J. Mitchell devised a simple but clever solution to the “decommissioning” problem—all parties would decommission their weapons piecemeal as they negotiated a peace agreement. Meanwhile, momentum for peace was building. In November, 1995, US President Bill Clinton appeared as a humongous rally at Belfast City Hall, in Northern Ireland, proclaiming—in a phrase that might have come from Yeats—that terrorists and secret armies were “yesterday’s men.” There was another huge peace rally in Belfast in February, 1996; and in May, 1996, Gerry Adams announced that Sinn Fein would sign the Mitchell Principles, if all the other parties and paramilitary groups would do so. (The Mitchell Principles asked the parties to give up violence, and was especially concerned with stopping revenge killings.) The fact that Sinn Fein agreed first to these principles, and challenged the other parties and paramilitaries to the same, seemed to give credibility to Sinn Fein’s commitment to the peace process.
In 1997, Sinn Fein made significant gains in Northern Ireland elections; Gerry Adams was one of two MPs elected to Parliament in Britain (but declined to take his seat). On 18 July, 1997, John Hume and Gerry Adams appealed to the IRA to declare a ceasefire. The next day the IRA announced that a ceasefire was going into effect—and this one would hold. In August 26, 1997, in Belfast, the Irish and British government set up an Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. On August 29, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, announced that her government accepted the ceasefire by the IRA as genuine, at the same time inviting Sinn Fein into the multiparty talks at Stormont. Substantive negotiations began, as all parties signed off on the Mitchell Principles, which was basically an agreement to stop the violence. On January, 1998, the talks moved to London, and—clearly as a good faith gesture—Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to open a new investigation of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Derry in 1972.
Then, in a classic negotiating gambit, on the 25th of March negotiator George Mitchell announced a two-week deadline for all parties: this was to let them all know that the time of statements and photo ops was over, and the time for an agreement was nigh. On Good Friday, April 10th, 1998, a peace agreement was signed; it is generally referred to as the Good Friday Agreement, or GFA. Campaigning for approval by the people in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland was intense, with enormous international pressure for approval. President Clinton again came to Northern Ireland, and a few days before the referendum on the GFA—in a cultural event whose importance has not been properly recognized—the Irish band U2 played a concert for peace in Belfast, during which it invited onstage both David Trimble (a Protestant unionist) and John Hume (main Catholic parliamentarian of the SDLP).
The fact that both were willing to appear on the same stage together, at a rock concert, was typical of the fervor with which everybody in the political class had thrown themselves behind approval of Good Friday. It would either be peace, they realized, or perhaps a sectarian war that might last for much of the 21st century. The people agreed that it was time for peace. In the actual 1998 referenda, 94.39 percent of the people in the Republic of Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement; in Northern Ireland, 71.1 voted for the GFA. It was a tremendous victory for peace and common sense.
One outcome of the referenda was that the Republic of Ireland changed its Constitution, so that it no longer claimed sovereignty over the six countries of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland version of the referendum emphasized the role of ‘consent,’ specifying that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would be united only if a majority of the people in both countries wanted it. In subsequent speeches, Gerry Adams stated that Sinn Fein now found both the Republic of Ireland and the power-sharing arrangements of Northern Ireland to be constitutional and proper: this, too, was a huge change, since before Sinn Fein had considered both governments bogus for a variety of reasons.
Among other things, Adams’ statement signaled the willingness of Sinn Fein to compete robustly in conventional politics without raising constitutional issues going back to 1916. The ceasefire held, and on July 28, 2005, the IRA announced that it had “formerly ordered an end to the armed campaign.” It added unambiguously: “All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.”
There would be sporadic violence afterwards, of course; there would be tiny splinter groups that would continue the lonely, violent life of the bomb and the gun. Perhaps there always will be such groups, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, as it will be the job of law enforcement to track them down. Physically, these splinter groups could still do great damage, but they could not compromise the Good Friday Agreement, because the public overwhelmingly supported it; and that same public had decisively turned against the gunmen as representatives of Irish integrity.
There would be charges and counter-charges between Protestants and Catholics and their representatives in Northern Ireland, and there would be much posturing for the TV cameras. But it would be done in the context of running for political office, and not as a political adjunct to an armed struggle. Sinn Fein was becoming a professional, modern political party; it was attracting new members; and it had already successfully contested political districts that the SDLP had formally won. But there was an odd but welcome dichotomy involved: Sinn Fein was becoming popular to just the extent that the IRA was losing its luster. There had been too much killing, and a traumatized people desperately longed to be quit of it. The public supported Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein because it talked of a future of peace, and was only too happy to leave the war stories and songs of conflict behind.
In the same year that the IRA abjured violence once and for all—2005—many of its volunteers seemed to be struggling to find peace in their personal lives. Alcoholism had long been endemic amongst IRA volunteers and among the loyalist paramilitaries as well. In Belfast a man—an IRA volunteer—was killed by two other IRA men in an unusually savage pub brawl. This had the effect of greatly diminishing support in Belfast for the now at-liberty IRA men, at least partly because of the extreme brutality of the killing they had once engaged in. The IRA had difficulty coming clean about the fact that its men had been involved in the Belfast brawl, which further damaged its standing in the public mind.
From a secret band of brother-warriors arraigned against the British empire, it had come down to this: alcoholic, undisciplined and traumatized men involved in squalid quarrels in pubs over alleged insults to somebody’s girlfriend. Once feared and respected if not universally supported warriors, these pathetic and out-of-control individuals now seemed more like social parasites with psychological problems. It was truly now beginning to seem, as President Bill Clinton had said, that the gunmen of Northern Ireland were indeed on their way to becoming “yesterday’s men.”
Was civil war in Northern Ireland inevitable? We can never really know, nor can we really say how a continued campaign of nonviolent resistance would have worked if “Bloody Sunday” had not happened. The reality is that by the time of “Bloody Sunday,” in January of 1972, a majority of the Catholic people of Northern Ireland could no longer live under Protestant oppression; and after “Bloody Sunday,” those most involved in fighting for Catholic rights simply didn’t believe that further nonviolent resistance could be justified. In such a situation, a vocal and active minority will choose armed struggle; and so they did.
But why did so many young men make the personal decision to pick up the gun? To a very large extent because their history told them to do it, and that history consisted of one long, shared traumatic memory. That is what they had done before over the centuries, when the Protestant ascendancy shot them in the street and burned down their homes: they picked up the gun and the bomb, and learned the arsonist’s trade. Terrorism it was, indeed; but Irish terrorism did not arise out of a vacuum, but rather in response to a particularly claustrophobic kind of oppression. In Ireland, oppression was the terrorism of the rich Protestant ascendancy, and over many centuries terrorism became the oppression the poor visited on the rich. (Thus the pronounced British fear of the ‘wild Fenian’ with his torch and bomb.)
Terror it was, but it was also mixed up in the Irish mind with self-destruction through alcoholism, which is not surprising. This self-destruction came not just because of the Protestant ascendancy’s objective social exploitation of the Irish peasant class, but also because of Protestant (and British) prejudice against anything Irish, and the Irish people’s internalization of that anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice, whence it became an undercurrent of self-hatred expressed in violence against oneself, and against others.
How were Irish males to rid themselves of such a burden? Often with a kind of peculiarly Irish form of redemptive violence: self-destruction with the drink, and social destruction with the revolver and the AR-18. The gun was such a part of the Irish experience that even the centrist parties in the Republic of Ireland never tired to referring to it. “Thus, many see the Dublin government’s professed repugnance at the tactics of the IRA as at best self-serving and at worst hypocritical,” writes Padriag O’Malley. “For it was those very tactics—the clandestine bomb, assassination on the street, murder from a ditch, destruction of property, and random terror—that shaped the struggle between the IRA and the British in the years 1918 through 1921, and that led to the independence of the Twenty-six Counties and the foundation of the Irish Free State.”26
To a great extent the history of the Irish, to the Irish themselves, is made up of traumatic memory that is oddly amenable to dramatic treatment in the writing, speaking and singing of it. To be Irish is most likely to mean that one is a prisoner of history, or several histories, all of which are suffused with suffering and psychological trauma, and several of which are at war with each other. Because of the searing nature of the legends and memories of violence, the songs and stories and preoccupations with tragedy and oppression in generations past, the particular version of Irish history one embraces inevitably creates a profoundly conflicted identity. Such an identity suggests not only a certain kind of political affiliation, but—however unconsciously—some strategy for political and personal redemption, since so much of Irish history was associated with aggression, resentment, oppression and its accompanying pathologies.
Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland—as so often before in Irish history—personal redemption from real or imagined injustices came in the form of ever more social violence, the more ferocious example of which in Northern Ireland in the years 1968 to 1998 were “Bloody Sunday,” the use of torture and internment without trial, endless killing by IRA volunteers using the Armalite assault rifle and car bombs, the ‘Five AM Knock’ of the death squad at one’s doorstep, not to mention the kneecapping and murdering of heretical Catholics and dissident Protestants. ‘The Troubles’ were themselves nothing but mass trauma bonding in a very small country over a period of thirty years, a people born into the thick of traumatic memory who endured the daily experience of ever more traumatizing events, experiences that bonded them many times over to aggression as a way of life. It should be no surprise that so many young people picked up the iconic tools of death that long haunted the collective Irish imagination and the public mind, the gun and the bomb being the greatest of those.
The long wars the Irish always lost over a period of 800 years, the forced exile of its Catholic leaders, the lost Catholic aristocrats of the Wild Geese, the horrible Great Famine, and finally the shock of dying and killing for a Republic in 1919-1921 that turned out to be a Free State and not quite a Republic after all. And through it all a lyrical but unhealthy apotheosis of Irish suffering, and a deeply embedded, and deeply felt, sense of inferiority as a leaderless peasant people, especially when compared to other peoples, all of it based on the internalized hatred that had originated with the Protestant ascendancy throughout the land. Catholic Irishwomen and Irishmen internalized that tribal prejudice; and in the end the internalized hatred became a burning self-hatred, only partly ameliorated by a gift for poetry and song. The Irish responded to this dilemma with Irish nationalism. And what is nationalism but a form of mass narcissism, a desperate attempt to overcome a negative self-image?
The narcissist deals with his low self-esteem by creating a conception of the Self as a kind of privileged persona who isn’t required to follow the rules, but which is always right, and which transcends ordinary human categories. That is how individuals with narcissistic personality disorder often tend to deal with low self-esteem. The Irish nationalist deals with his low self-esteem by creating in his mind a national persona that doesn’t have to follow the rules, that is never wrong, and that transcends ordinary human categories—he creates in his mind a national persona that is, in fact, very much like God, in the sense that it transcends both the world and historical time. Therefore this national persona is always right, and cannot be contradicted. This means that it is deeply felt, and also becomes the touchstone for right and wrong. If something serves Irish nationalism it is right; if it contradicts Irish nationalism—especially the Republican variety—it is wrong.
But that is a dream of power, and if there is one thing the young Catholic men in Northern Ireland didn’t have very much of, it was power. They didn’t have personal power, and they didn’t have institutional power. For many of them nationalism was the ticket out of that cul-de-sac. For those attracted to the Republican version of Irish nationalism it was a dream of power, especially as acted out in the bold daring of the IRA; but it was also about the nobility of dying, which in turn is driven by a uniquely Irish form of death-worship.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, in a debate with a leader of the Official IRA in 1971, dealt with this directly: “For that movement true, legitimate authority is derived only from the generations of the dead who died for Ireland, and is properly wielded in the present by the organization of men and women [that are] prepared to repeat the blood sacrifice. To some people, and certainly to a significant minority in this country, that idea—of the authority of the dead and those who volunteer to die—will seem more noble than democracy. I would even agree. It is more noble. Being noble is what it is all about.”
“To belong to a military elite is noble—in the strictest, earliest meaning of the word—and the authority of a military elite is the real present-day meaning of this movement. The dead can only validate: real power is wielded by the living military elite. They decide who is to die and when, and they possess the prestige which the power to decide that confers.” [States of Ireland, 318-318] I would only add to Cruise’s observation that such a military elite manipulates the words of the dead, in an attempt to impose dead meanings on living situations. But Cruise O’Brien is right about the origins of the nobility that he deconstructs: it is indeed the warrior’s authority of being willing to kill and to die. It is the perfect dream of power—perhaps the only dream of power—available until recently to young Catholic men and women in Northern Ireland.
This inverted dream of death-power is inadvertently supported by a key idea of Christianity, the idea of Christ’s blood sacrifice to save the world from sin, which also sends a message that there is something redemptive about violence. Why does Jesus’ capacity to confer salvation come from being tortured to death in public, rather than through his teachings and his example? Because the idea of blood atonement has always been promoted as the central idea of organized Christianity, perhaps—this writer would argue—to distract from the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teaching. During the time of the long and very public death of Bobby Sands, it seems apparent that profoundly Catholic emotional orientations regarding death and redemption were being evoked in a very direct way. That is why 100,000 ordinary Catholics in Belfast—most of whom were not supporters of the IRA—took to the streets to bury him.
A paragraph or two ago I wrote that this dream of being able to kill and die deeply appealed to many young Catholic men in Northern Ireland. But it wasn’t just a dream of nobility available to all, nor was all of it an unconscious acting out of the Christian theme of redemption through suffering. The young men who became IRA volunteers were also affected by a third and very profound cultural tradition, that of rampant patriarchy. I won’t say that Irish Catholicism is any more patriarchal than any other religion, but patriarchy is there in all three of the world’s main Abrahamic religions, and there are strong strains of it in Irish culture generally. In addition, patriarchy is a dream of power that is very attractive to young males who are completely powerless.
Patriarchy is all about a small group of strong fighting men ruling all other men and women, and it idealizes and apotheosizes conflict as the highest good in life. It is also about controlling the sexual and domesticating power of women. That is exactly what the IRA was all about—the power of a few men who abjured ordinary family life, in order to assume power over who lives and who dies, that life-and-death power arising from their skill as clandestine guerilla soldiers—and, I might add, their willingness to die along with their victims. This is not fascism, because IRA ideology aimed at religious equality rather than religious discrimination; but there was a strong family resemblance between the violent means employed by fascism and those of the IRA. And there is also, I might add, a strong connection between fascism and Republican violence in the way young males are likely to find those violent means attractive, and the way those means can cause them to become bonded to aggression as a way of life.
Patriarchy is above all a dream of power, the power to control women (and to a peasant people afraid of sex, that is a heady temptation indeed); but also to be part of power to be exercised by a small male group over everybody else, both men and women—and this power is always defined and acted out in the arts of war. I say again, when men without power adopt the dream of total power inherent to patriarchy, they are likely to become very dangerous to themselves and to others. And in Ireland, because of the dense traumatic memory associated with its history, this small, brave, noble elite is also seen by some as the only legitimate source of power and therefore people who can do anything in the name of the nation.
There are other cultural factors that feed into the attraction to a clandestine army. One is a certain obsessive quality in Irish life; it is this obsessive quality that drove some people to believe that the IRA Army Council, at most representing a few thousand supporters, is—or should be—the only legitimate executive power in an entire island of six million people, without ever asking the opinion of the aforementioned millions. They could feel this way because the IRA did not represent the living, as Conor Cruise O’Brien accurately pointed out, but rather the sacrifices of the mighty dead, the heroes of modern Ireland: Connelly, Pearse, and all the others killed by the British in 1916.
It is this same obsessive tendency, however, which caused Conor Cruise O’Brien—whose loathing of the IRA gradually became an unhealthy obsession—to oppose the peace process in Northern Ireland, because Sinn Fein had been involved in negotiating it! People who have been overtaken by an obsession often have a tendency to adopt large, intricately reasoned but rather schematic perceptions that—despite being highly detailed—are nonetheless quite mad and therefore useless overall. Obsessions reflect the fixations and pathologies of the individual, not a correct perception of the shifting political realities of the real world; obsessive thinking gets in the way of one’s ability to assimilate new evidence, and adapt to changing situations. It almost always involves an element of grandiosity as well, frequently backed up by narcissistic traits. This appears to have been the fate not only of many IRA volunteers, but also of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who hated political violence all of his days but never ceased for a moment to oppose the Northern Ireland peace process
All these complex and sometimes terrifyingly irrational elements of Irish culture tended to support political violence in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but it was traumatic memory that bound these disparate elements together. Since Irish history is a history of oppression and defeat, Irish history is traumatic memory, whether in books, songs, poetry or the stories of elders. Irish history begins to make sense if you view it in that context, as do many of the main preoccupations of the Irish. Trauma and traumatic memory change the brain, and therefore affects everything else in the personality, including the things we believe, the way we define our identities, our ability to feel empathy and sympathy, and our ability to trust and form relationships. If you want to know how the people of Northern Ireland tend to view their own history, imagine how victims of trauma view their personal histories. Even those in Northern Ireland who were least damaged by the 30-year civil war tend to think of themselves in the context of the country’s shared trauma. Yet the extent to which both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were able to manage and overcome that shared trauma was truly astonishing.
Human aggression deeply affects one’s ability to trust other human beings, and interferes with one’s ability to create and affirm social contracts. It also interferes with one’s judgment regarding whom to trust, since even in the US—a hypercompetitive and often corrupt society—a great many people are not worthy of trust. The ultimate effect of psychological trauma resulting from human violence—war, sexual abuse, crime—is to make it harder to have relationships with other people, because the person beset by traumatic memory often doesn’t know how trust works, even if he is lucky enough to find someone trustworthy. The unwillingness of many Irish men to marry until middle age is undoubtedly based to some extent on this inability to form relationships and make social contracts, although it is doubtless enhanced as well by the dread of sexuality typical of peasant cultures.
Unfortunately, ideologies and theologies that arise from traumatic memory are not simply another point of view. They are that, but they are also—and more importantly—psychological problems that require attention and healing. Unfortunately, when traumatic memory is widespread, the people themselves must often struggle to find some method for treating and healing themselves, both individually and as a community. This usually happens when enough individuals start facing aspects of their own behavior that they wish to change. Through positive attempts to change behavior (in law, custom or through some aspect of the cultural apparatus), people can in that way follow the threads that lead back to the traumas they have assimilated.
In Northern Ireland, because of the intense divisions dating back to the late 17th century, and the modern influence of fanatics such as Ian Paisley, ideologies rising whole from traumatic memory are assimilated as the gospel truth. And they are felt, rather than believed—that is, they are emotional orientations as much as—and often more than—belief-systems. Beliefs arising from psychological trauma aren’t merely another point of view. They are efforts to act out the traumatic memory in the present moment, and they are usually acted out in violent, coercive and exploitive behavior. This is nothing more or less than an addiction—people cannot stop acting out their traumatic memories because they do not comprehend the inner and outward circumstances that cause them to behave as they do, and have in some sense cannot see beyond the circumstances of the world in which they are trapped.
The behaviors begin in traumatic memory, as the result of internalizing aggression from specific traumatizing events; but once the violent or coercive behavior gets underway it develops a momentum of its own. Traumatic memory is, because of the aggression inherent to it, the emotional equivalent to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the traumatizing events keep repeating themselves, and the violent actors become victims of their own violent personalities.
In Northern Ireland, traumatic memory became multi-generational trauma, transmitted from parents to children in families, promulgated by the Protestant parties in order to preserve their privilege, and likewise promulgated in a more secretive way by IRA and Sinn Fein adherents to protect their privilege, which was to kill when and whom they chose. It is consistently true that very poor people who inherit a certain traumatic memory at birth, and who are themselves victims of traumatizing events, have their own lethal form of ‘traumatic privilege.’ And ‘traumatic privilege,’ if not stopped early, is likely to be institutionalized as ‘destructive entitlement,’ which might be described as an institutionalized right to harm or kill whom one chooses.
So how did this play out during ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland? Catholics had long been traumatized by Protestant hate, by living in a ghetto, and finally by the guerilla war that surrounded them—and to survive emotionally, they internalized a great deal of the aggression that they witnessed. Aggression, once internalized, creates pressure to be acted out, especially in young males who have a hard time sublimating strong desires and feelings. And yes, many of the young men so affected in the period 1968 through 1998 in Northern Ireland experienced a certain ‘traumatic privilege’ in a powerful form. They had been hurt, and they felt they had the right to hurt others, even the innocent, and their history told them how to do that. It told them you could pick up the gun; and once these same young men got their hands on the ‘magic Armalites,’ their fate disappeared into the fog of war.
The problem is that as one’s profound exposure to violence is internalized, it becomes a kind of addiction, and it also become connected to everything else the gunman feels or knows in his bones. It’s not just that one always has to commit another murder, drive another bombing run, to blot out the pain from the last killing or bombing (although that too is true). The problem is the ‘traumatic privilege’ that the young gunman is acting out becomes the only source of power in his universe—it alone has the power to redeem him from the exigencies of the criminal and ghetto games into which he has fallen. ‘Traumatic privilege’ is his Higher Power, roughly commensurate to the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Trinity. It is seen by a corrupt world as a criminal power, but the young man knows it to be a noble and morally ascendant power. How many people have the right to decide who lives and who dies? The young gunman does. He may experience that as a form of salvation giving meaning to a violent life, suffusing him with a sweet albeit troubled personal integrity.
And it is not only a response to the circumstances that enslave him, but arises also from his sense that his ‘traumatic privilege’ is something that normal, average people don’t have, and is a form of power that only he—and people like him—can enjoy. It is his ticket to understanding and transcending his unjust and traumatizing world. The addictive nature of this privilege is something he tries to ignore, when he can—and his history tells him to persevere, to keep fighting, even though the Irish always lose. At a critical point the personal trauma merges with the shared traumatic memory of Irish history, and here is what it tells him: The Irish always lose because they are better than everybody else. (Certainly better than the money-grubbing, power-worshipping British, who conquered three quarters of the world only to lose their souls.) It is these things, and the ‘destructive entitlement’ that was institutionalization of murder-by-the-gun, that constituted the trauma bond of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland during the thirty years of ‘the Troubles.’ But none of this arose out of a vacuum. It was all there in Irish history, waiting to be unpacked and used.
The gunman and his fatal attraction was never put on display better than by Sean O’Casey in The Shadow of a Gunman, first performed by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1923. It is a play not so much about an actual gunman—although there is a couple of working-class IRA volunteers who are characters in the play—as about the enormous and dangerous prestige of the gunman in Ireland, who overnight became a figure of legend during the Irish War of Independence in 1919 through 1921. The play tells the story of the mistaken identity of a young man who is thought to be an IRA volunteer, but who actually has no relationship whatsoever to the ongoing street-fighting outside on the streets of Dublin. This young man fraudulently allows an attractive young woman in his rooming house to believe that he is a hardened gunman in order to impress her, when he is anything but.
The duplicity of the young man suggests a certain deceit in the way that Irish society lionized the IRA volunteer, as well as the dangers of identifying with a tradition that has, although it may have at times seemed justified, inevitably corrupted everybody. After all, had not those same gunmen engaged in an extremely bloody civil war, in 1922-23, when Sean O’Casey’s play was first produced, as part of which the Free State gunmen actually executed by firing squad scores of their own former IRA comrades? The Shadow of a Gunman evokes these tragedies in a delightfully colloquial and consummately ironic (and Irish) way, while at the same time exposing the hypocrisy and brutality of British rule. And it did this in a way that just about everybody could understand. Rarely has a prophet or poet eviscerated his own tribe’s totems and bloody fetishes with such a sure hand, while eviscerating his tribe’s enemies at the same time; and rarely have they done those things so thoroughly, and yet so gently, in a way that all the world, friend and enemy alike, could see the sorrow and irony of it.
Given all that, then, and given the intense negative charisma of the gunman’s place in the Irish half-conscious scheme of things, how, then, did the IRA leaders in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ break the trauma bond, abandon ‘traumatic privilege,’ and choose peace? We may never have all the answers to this question, but we know that the people of Northern Ireland were tired of war, tired of the bombs and the killings, the leaders no less than everyone else. And the leaders themselves had to face certain undeniable and terrifying evidence of the systemic evil with which they’d been complicit, not just in the larger society but also in their own families.
Gerry Adams’ encounter with the personal side of systemic evil after the Good Friday Agreement came not from the Protestant Establishment, nor even from his past behavior as an IRA commander, but from shocking revelations of incest and sexual abuse of children in his own family. The ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno is where the sin of treachery is punished, wherein the souls of spiritual traitors are frozen in ice for the crime of betraying humankind’s most precious relationships. There is no greater treachery to the modern mind, no greater betrayal, than adults who sexually exploit children; so it is natural, then, that the crime of incest and predatory sexual abuse of children set in motion shock waves of horror and disgust, both in the families personally affected and in society at large. The family, in this case, was perhaps the most famous Republican family in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a family under constant scrutiny by friends and enemies alike: the family of Gerry Adams. A country accustomed to odd and unprecedented horrors now had one more horrific mystery to deal with.
As often happens in such cases, the sexual abuse had been secret for some time, at least from the public. The accused were Gerry Adams’ father, Gerry Senior, and Gerry’s brother, Liam. In a TV interview in 2009 with Aine Adams, daughter of Liam, the painful allegations began to come out. In this program on UTV, Northern Ireland’s independent commercial TV station, Aine stated that she had been raped and abused sexually by her father, Liam, for about six years, from 1977 until 1983. Interestingly, she revealed that she had made a report about it to the police in 1987—the Royal Ulster Constabulary, at that time—when she was thirteen years old, but according to the BBC “she did not pursue it” until 2007, when her father Liam was arrested in Dublin.
Shortly after the UTV interview, in December 2009, Gerry Adams dropped a further bombshell. In a statement reported around the world, Gerry Adams revealed that his father—not his brother Liam, but his father, the IRA stalwart Gerry Adams, Senior—had sexually abused family members over an extended period of time. The first part of Gerry Adam’s carefully-worded statement reads as follows:
“In the late 1990s we discovered that our father had been sexually, physically and emotionally abusing members of our family. This abuse happened over many years. This discovery and the abuse that preceded it have had a devastating effect on our family. We are still struggling to come to terms with what happened. We live with the consequences every single day. We have been dealing with this with the support of a number of professionals who have the expertise to deal with these matters. We thank them for their help.”
“Abuse of any kind is horrendous but sexual abuse, particularly of a child, is indescribably wounding and heartbreaking. Our family have debated for some time whether we should publicize our father’s abusive behavior. We do so now in the hope that, in time, this will assist the victims and survivors to come to terms with what happened and help them to move on from these dreadful events.”
And there was more: “All citizens need to be educated and children need to be listened to, empowered and protected,” the statement says. “Victims of abuse in our family are still, years later, recovering from the trauma inflicted on us.” Gerry Adams observes that his family is now united, and that they have determined that “there is a way out of this awfulness.” All and all, the experience of sexual abuse in one’s own family comes across in this statement as something as overwhelming and difficult to extricate oneself from as any civil war. The statement closes with a cautionary note regarding sexual abuse of children in society: “Anyone affected by these issues should contact the Samaritans or any appropriate agency.”
It’s a good statement, balanced and compassionate. It’s easy to belief that the family is indeed immersed in treatment by counselors, psychiatrists or other professionals, because Gerry Adams uses many of the ideas and even much of the nomenclature of social work and psychological recovery, as well as the language often used by clinicians that specialize in abusive family systems. And his conclusions about what is important in this situation seem like the right ones. But the revelations raised new issues. What did Gerry Adams know, and when did he know it?
The timeline for these events is still a matter of controversy, but it can be set out in outline form as follows: Aine Adams, Gerry Adams’ niece, alleged that was raped and sexually abused by her father over a six-year period from 1977 to 1983. In 1987, she made a police report to the RUC, but didn’t follow it up. Sometime in the 1990s—the exact sequence here is foggy—family members compared notes, and the family—including Gerry Adams, Junior—became aware that Gerry Adams, Senior, had engaged in sexual abuse of children in the family, and that the abuse had continued for some time. Then in 2000 came the second bombshell: in Dundalk, County Louth, while Liam Adams and his brother Gerry Adams walked in the rain, Liam Adams confessed to a single incident in which he raped his daughter Aine. (Sexual predators may try to conflate many behaviors into a single incident in order to minimize their guilt, and thus their punishment.) By several accounts Gerry Adams then took his niece Aine and her mother to confront his brother Liam. After this encounter Gerry Adams became convinced of his brother’s guilt.
In 2007, after Sinn Fein had voted to accept the newly-reorganized police of Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Gerry Adams told them about his brother’s criminal abuse of his daughter. In 2009 he contacted the PSNI again to tell them that Liam had personally confessed to his crime to him in 2000—that would be important for the police to know, since Gerry Adams could testify under oath to hearing the confession. Liam Adams was extradited to Northern Ireland from Dublin in 2011. In October, 2013, Gerry Adams’ brother Liam was found guilty of rape and gross indecency and eight other offenses against his daughter, Aine, and on October 27 was sentenced to prison. Since Gerry Adams, Senior, died in 2003, his alleged crimes can never be adjudicated.
If Aine went so far as to make a police report of her father’s abuse in 1987, it seems at first hard to believe that Gerry Adams didn’t know about his brother’s guilt until 2000—hard to believe, that is, until one considers the extreme secrecy in which sex crimes against children are committed, and the cloak of secrecy that often remains after the crime becomes known in the family. (A deliberate secrecy, in fact, that was not unlike the extreme secrecy in which IRA volunteers learned to operate, and the way in which this psychic habit could be used to conceal crimes against children.) Abuse such as this can go on in a family for decades without the other family members knowing about it—and that would be especially easy in a family in which secrecy is placed at such a premium.
Some critics ask why Gerry Adams didn’t report the criminal offenses of his brother Liam as soon as he found out about them in 2000—why, they ask, did he wait until 2007? The answer is that Republicans—and most Catholics—did not trust the police in Northern Ireland when it was still the Royal Ulster Constabulary, because of its anti-Catholic and anti-Republican past, and because of its perceived collusion with the Protestant paramilitaries; and for that reason, the official policy of Sinn Fein was not to cooperate with it. The police were reorganized into the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001; and in 2007 Sinn Fein voted to treat it as a legitimate police, and cooperate with it. Critics reply that in cases of sexual abuse, one cannot pick and choose regarding the behavior of the police agencies responsible for receiving such reports, nor can one put the protocols of one’s political organization above the law.
Sinn Fein may not have voted to treat the PSNI as the legitimate police until 2007, say the critics, but according to some that was a case of putting ideology and party discipline above the needs of the sexual abuse victim, whose healing is partially dependent on receiving justice. No doubt the critics have a case here, although it is not a conclusive one. (There may have been other considerations that kept Gerry Adams from reporting the abuse until 2007, such as the need of some family members to receive counseling and psychotherapy before the case became a matter of public knowledge.)
Gerry Adams first became aware of his own father’s abuse of family members in the 1990s, according to what he has said publicly; and if that awareness had come before Good Friday in 1998, and he had told the RUC at that time, there is an excellent chance they would have tried to use the allegations of sexual abuse to turn family members into informers, probably by arresting them one at a time on the charge of failing to report the commission of a crime. I can see why Adams would have wished to avoid that. And after 2001, when the reorganization of the police in the Police Services of Northern Ireland was more or less complete, Sinn Fein had still not decided as a group to trust it. (Remember that it was not until 2007, when Sinn Fein had decided to accept the authority of the PSNI, that Adams reported the abuse of his brother.) Of course, Adams could have reported the abuse, first of his father and then of his brother, to a social service agency which could have maintained a certain level of confidentiality; but considering the extreme bitterness of ‘the Troubles,’ and the extent to which those troubles subsumed everything else, there is little doubt that it would have leaked out. And then, of course, it is always the case that there were family members who may not have been psychologically ready in 2001 for the world to know about what had happened.
In the end, I find that I cannot judge Gerry Adam’s decision, informed by the input of family members, to report to the police the criminal offenses of his brother when he did (in 2007); or the timing of their decision to make public the abuse of his father by releasing a joint family statement about it (2009). Yes, he may have put his Sinn Fein loyalties—and perhaps, without realizing it, his own political career—before the emotional needs of his niece. But that is all too typical of the mistakes people make in struggling to handle these kinds of problems. And like the psychic wounds sustained from thirty years of war, the Adams families will not heal faster by beating themselves up over past mistakes. Learning from their mistakes, and vowing to act differently in the future, is all we can expect of them, and of ourselves.
The reality seems to be that Gerry Adams and his family were all subjected to an unwanted tutorial on the problem that no family wants to have, the problem of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and how exactly one handles it, especially if one is in public life. This is a part of the larger issue of violence against women and children; but the disgusting injustice of sexual offenses against children is especially difficult to deal with. Why didn’t the family know? Why wasn’t more done to protect the innocent ones? In any family affected by this issue, the questions will keep coming for a very long time. And in roughly the same time-frame that Gerry Adams was learning how to deal with the revelations of sexual abuse, making mistakes along the way, so was the rest of Northern Ireland. In that part of the world that includes the industrialized democracies, as well as many places in the developing world, we are just starting to come to terms with sexual and physical abuse against women and children, and the family systems and patriarchal values that cause it.
One thing is sure: oppression, war and institutionalized aggression tend to exacerbate violence and abuse against women and children. In times of violent social upheavals, the ones who end up being victimized by aggression the most, in the form of rape and other forms of physical and emotional abuse, are women and children. Sexual abuse against children in families is hard to quantify, naturally, because it is typically kept secret by both predators and victims, and by their families. But when adults are born feeling powerless, or when they are reduced to the powerlessness in an oppressive society that practices extensive discrimination against their religious, racial or tribal group, abusive people within the aggrieved group will take out their aggressions on those that are closest and most defenseless; and some people, almost always men, will end up beating and abusing women and children and using them as sexual objects.
The blind man’s wife needs no paint, it is said; her husband’s hands already know the deeper truth about her beauty. If anything good came out of ‘the Troubles,’ it was that the people of Northern Ireland now appreciate peace in a way most people never will. In Belfast and Derry, they lived for thirty years with the most hideous kind of religious war, as people shot and bombed each other in the dense and impoverished neighborhoods in which they lived; and in that seemingly endless war of treacherous ambushes and monster bombs that could irrevocably maim and take lives in the twinkling of an eye, people lost brothers, spouses, children, parents to faceless assassins. That kind of war is felt in the gut and bones, and the peace that arises afterwards is likewise felt in the gut and bones. The Good Friday Agreement was the great redemption of Northern Ireland: and although it felt like a gift from God (and in some ways may have been), the miraculous reality is that it was made by the people of Northern Ireland themselves.
If there is an Irish tendency to blind and obsessive fanaticism, there is also an Irish gift for political negotiation. And the special truth that this book examines is the astonishing reality that the larger part of this negotiation came from men addicted to clandestine killing, not to mention worship of the dead. It was born of a traumatic history, this addiction, and acted out in an even more traumatic present. So how, on the Catholic side, did Gerry Adams and the IRA volunteers do it? How did they break free of the unrelenting trauma that bonded them to killing, death and fear? And how should we feel toward the gunman when he puts down the gun: does he redeem his former crimes in the eyes of society by rejecting political violence, or is he still guilty of his crimes?
First, we should acknowledge the centrality of the IRA/Sinn Fein in achieving peace in Northern Ireland. That is important to understand. The parties could have negotiated forever, but if the IRA did not choose peace, there wouldn’t have been any. Just as there would have been no war if the IRA had not chosen armed struggle in 1969, only the IRA could stop the war that arose out of that decision. The peace process could not have happened without the IRA. Therefore it was absolutely necessary to include the IRA/Sinn Fein in peace negotiations, because—as experienced negotiators are fond of pointing out—we do not make peace with our friends, but with our enemies.
And to get the IRA into the negotiations, it was necessary for the Protestant establishment to accept that they must remove institutional oppression of Catholics. One of the great ironies of Northern Ireland is that the Protestants, who thought of themselves as British, had for centuries benefitted from a most un-British religious apartheid. This they would have at last to give up—and the entire panoply of British institutions stood ready to explain to them, while listening patiently to their rampant fears and obsessions, the obligations of government in an industrialized democracy in the 21st century. The British played a critical role in helping the Protestants of Northern Ireland deconstruct the oppressive laws, customs and private arrangements that had constituted religious apartheid.
But again: how did the IRA break loose of the trauma bond that operated at the center of the maelstrom that was urban guerilla war? If you accept the fact that political violence in Northern Ireland had an addictive dimension to it, leading both Protestants and Catholics downward into a heart of darkness with each new escalation in violence, how did they recover from it? Part of the answer lies outside social psychology, in the personal human psychologies of the two peoples of Northern Ireland. It’s already been pointed out that much political struggle in Ireland contains an unconscious strategy for redemption, for Protestants as well as Catholics.
Even as ‘the Trouble’ raged, there were certain things that happened that made people acutely aware that redemption would come, at least for them, from hard choices that were simultaneously personal and political. There was the young girl who was blinded by a horrific bomb at Omagh (Claire Bowes, nee Gallagher) whose grace and spiritual beauty touched everybody around her. (George Mitchell, the American peace negotiator, was so touched by Claire Bowes that he named his daughter after her.) There was the Protestant man whose daughter was killed in an IRA explosion who subsequently begged the Protestant paramilitaries not to retaliate for her death. There were a multitude of such events, many unknown and most never to be known, in which individuals began to realize that they could not go on with their old retaliatory business as usual, and that their society had to change fundamentally in order to redeem itself. And something told them that the change, although it must be institutional, had to begin with them as individuals, in the very midst of their own troubled lives.
With each act of terrorism, the IRA volunteer’s thrill of exhilaration at a successful operation is closely followed by fear, depression and guilt. Those negative emotions can only be successfully repressed by engaging in another operation, which in turn enhances the internalized aggression, and reinforces the gunman’s violent lifestyle. But after each act of violence the negative emotions of fear (what if the enemy targets me tomorrow) repressed guilt (it could have been me) and hatred (the Brits/Prods make us do this because they oppress us) are also enhanced. These negative emotions can only be successfully repressed by participating in yet another violent operation, which after the first flush of pleasure leads to even more negative emotions. The addictive nature of that kind of violence is experienced on a personal as well as a society-wide level. It is the very essence of trauma bonding in civil war.
And then there were the claustrophobic pressures under which the IRA operated, which were probably almost intolerable, despite the momentary excitement of successful operations. (Thus the very high rate of alcoholism.) Above all was the fear of being killed at any moment. In an interview with Tim Pat Coogan, editor of the Irish Press and probably Ireland’s greatest living journalist, Gerry Adams casually mentioned that a few weeks before this the interview with Coogan, his wife and child had been subjected to a grenade attack at their home, luckily escaping injury; the casual way Adams mentioned it left Coogan with the impression that such attacks were simply a part of his life, and that he accepted them as such. Adams was shot at innumerable times; in March 1984 a squad of Ulster Freedom Fighters almost took him out for good, putting three bullets into him, from which he recovered.
The descent into political violence can be accompanied by alcoholism or other substance abuse, or—as in the case of two of the men in Gerry Adams’ family—by predatory sexual abuse. This latter trauma has many levels, beginning with the abuse itself, and creating more shock waves as knowledge of it percolates through the family and the tribe, and then becomes public knowledge; then, if the family has some special fame or notoriety, the affected family must confront it along with the effect it is having on the public at large. It is an extraordinary thing to realize that at the very time that Gerry Adams was fighting other men in a guerilla war, the cancer of incest was eating away at the core of his family, with its horrible toll on the mental health and self-esteem of the children involved. How could he know? He was too busy with other things—and there are indications that Adams himself understands his culpability in that regard. In familial as well as political aggression, there is always ‘collateral damage’—a horrible phrase that simply means that violence is experienced in different ways, but most traumatically by the weakest, the women and children, who are ironically the most innocent.
Alcoholism is part of the Irish story, and one senses that Gerry Adams had his struggles with it. What we know for sure is that he started his working life as a barman in a pub, and at some point along the way became a teetotaler. One of his big complaints after entering the Irish Dail Eireann in the Republic of Ireland was to remonstrate against the parliament’s habit of leaving the Dail’s pub open until four AM on the nights of important votes. When did Gerry Adams stop drinking, and why? How did he do it? We don’t know and probably never will, but there is enough anecdotal evidence among former IRA volunteers to know that alcohol and alcoholism is a huge untold story in the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership. (One thinks of the 2005 drunken brawl in which two IRA volunteers killed another, and tried to cover it up.) And the progressive nature of alcoholism—progressive in the sense that it always gets worse—often seems to run parallel to the progression of political violence.
There comes a point in the course of an addiction—let us say alcoholism, because of its cultural relevance to the Irish—in which the addict reaches a point where he simply can’t go on. He will either go mad, kill himself (often with an overdose), or act out some gratuitous physical violence that will put him in prison for life. Or he will try to recover from his addiction. What awaits him if he tries to live without his comfort drug he does not know; all he knows is that he cannot go on as he has before. This is commonly known as “hitting bottom” in recovery circles. To get better—that is, to recover—he will probably have to receive help from others. This often includes help from other alcoholics or addicts who have similarly chosen to live without the substance that was once at the center of their lives.
Once the alcoholic has crossed the line into alcoholic drinking, or the addict traverses into addictive rather than recreational use, the only safe way to live is to never use the drink or the drug again. If alcoholism and addictions are, as this writer believes, something very close to a personality disorder, the decision to put down the drink or the drug is an unbelievably wrenching one. The most painful part will be living a daily life in which the person in recovery can no longer use the substance as a sedative for emotional pain. He is entering a completely different kind of world, the world of sobriety, with its own byways and hypocrisies, its own conventions and privileges. It will feel different, and its values are different. All the traumatic memories the alcoholic or addict had repressed and anesthetized must now be faced and dealt with in real time; it becomes a time for looking in the mirror, and the long conversations with bottled-up demons. All these things start to happen when the alcoholic “hits bottom.”
That is the reason why the IRA/Sinn Fein was able to make such a dramatic turn in its fortunes: they were addicted to political violence, and then, after the addiction threatened to destroy them, they—to their own endless surprise—hit bottom. Imagine: here is an organization that long demanded (throughout most of the whole 20th century, in fact) that Northern Ireland had to break off its connections to Britain, so that Northern Ireland could become part of the Republic of Ireland. That was demonstrably impossible, but countless IRA volunteers died making exactly that demand. And now, the IRA/Sinn Fein itself acknowledges that it cannot be done at the present time. (For one thing, everybody needs the Brits to make sure that the conventions of the Good Friday Agreement are followed.)
Of course, Gerry Adams believes that his organization can use politics to make the case for eventually reunification of Ireland, and hopes that over time the Protestants of Northern Ireland can be convinced to give up their ancient cultural and political identification with Britain. But by adopting peaceful means to make their case, IRA/Sinn Fein acknowledge, without saying as much, that unification may never happen. There are no guarantees, one way or the other. That is cultural and emotional growth of a kind the world rarely sees.
And all this happened, this writer believes, because the IRA/Sinn Fein hit bottom in their addiction to violence, arising from their 30-year war of attrition in Northern Ireland against the Protestants and the British. To be sure, the position of Catholics in Northern Ireland was greatly improved, to a great extent because of the insistence of the British government that the Protestants reform their society, as well as pressure emanating from Catholic parties to the conflict. But the other demands, the demands that could never be met in the real world, had to be given up. The horror of the war could not be sustained. The gunman could either recover from his addiction to violence and coercion, go mad, or die—and if the war had gone on, Northern Ireland would surely have died, slowly and agonizingly. So the gunman had to lay down his gun.
Of course, there were distinct benefits awaiting Sinn Fein as a political party. Sinn Fein has become the third largest party in Ireland as a whole, and the second-largest party in the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, with four ministerial posts. Adams and his Sinn Fein comrades apparently decided that his notoriety had become a distraction in Northern Ireland, and that he would be better employed in the Republic to the south. In the election of 2011, Gerry Adams left Northern Ireland to effortlessly win a seat from Louth in the parliament of the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Fein is the fourth-largest party in the Oireachtas, the parliament of that Republic, but with excellent prospects for the future—health and education seem to be its main issues. Click on the website of Sinn Fein, and you’ll likely see some very nice-looking young people standing around Gerry Adams, both women and men, and a great deal of thoughtful information about various political positions they are promoting, positions that could be described as progressive in the liberal or social-democratic sense, but not necessarily radical.
In short, in the words of the Wikipedia entry regarding Gerry Adams, under his leadership Sinn Fein has gone from being a revolutionary movement to becoming “a professionally organized political party in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.” Indeed. Gerry Adam’s personal political prospects are rocky in the short term, because other politicians are afraid of him; there will be a long period in the Republic during which no other party will dare make a coalition with Sinn Fein. But if Sinn Fein continues to pursue thoughtful policies, feelers will gradually manifest themselves.
Her majesty’s government made its contribution to the 1998 peace settlement (after a discreet interval) in a uniquely understated British way, by raising to the peerage anybody likely to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. By so gentrifying the rough cobs in the equation, so to speak, the occasional contrarian opinion or lunatic behavior might be made to seem eccentric rather than sinister, and then politely ignored. In June 2006 David Trimble was created Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey in the County of Antrim, and was made a lifetime peer. Lord Trimble (whose full title is the deliciously lugubrious The Right Honorable The Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey) promptly bailed from the rowdily sectarian United Unionist Party to join the much calmer, predictably patrician Conservative Party, and has furnished the world with a website outlining his adventures in the House of Lords. These consist mainly of making speeches and writing short articles of a surpassing, but not unpleasant, mediocrity.
The scabrous Ian Paisley was created a life peer as Baron Bannside, of North Antrim in the County of Antrim, in June 2010. In a speech to the House of Lords later that year he interrupted the afternoon slumbers of the assembled peerage by mysteriously revealing that there were certain Secretaries of State that he would have liked to “punch,” but that “we neither punched them nor disagreed with them in a muscular fashion, and today we are here in the quiet of this House.” Nor was John Hume bereft of honors—both he and David Trimble shared a Nobel Prize for their labors on behalf of peace.
I have seen film footage of Gerry Adams speaking in the Republic of Ireland, in the Dail Eireann, for more transparency in the government management of charities in Ireland. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, courteous and sometimes politely ironic. He throws in a sentence of two in Irish from time to time, an implicit rebuke to many of the mainstream politicians in the Republic who have perhaps let their Irish language skills lapse a bit. He presents as very much like most of the other politicians in the chamber, although better-looking and somewhat better organized; his gentle demeanor seems to say, this is business as usual. Yet people are quiet when he speaks, and there are probably few people who can forget the tumultuous events of which he was lately a part. Some fault him for betraying the revolutionary nature of Sinn Fein to improve his personal political opportunities, and perhaps there is some truth in that. But most people will tolerate and even celebrate personal ambition, if it will lead from killing to peace without killing. And they are right to do so.
So how does one regard Gerry Adams, the former terrorist and IRA commander who became a statesman? Did he redeem himself for rejecting violence and adopting the arts of peace? He has indeed sought and achieved redemption, although not quite in the way most people might imagine. Peace with justice was the great prize; and the cost of it—and it was a cost that had to be paid—was an amnesty for both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries, which meant leaving unpunished untold thousands of crimes committed by those that murdered in the name of the armed Protestant and Catholic groups, of which the IRA was one. The people of Northern Ireland had no choice but to accept that as a price that needed paying; and if possible forgive their enemies—and themselves—simply because that was the best way to move on. That is not acquiescence but acceptance, and is the hard compromise that must sometimes be hammered out when people go from war to peace. Some can do it, and some can’t; but the truth is that there was no other way to make peace in Northern Ireland.
As for Gerry Adams, there is little doubt, we now know, but that he was the most energetic and articulate advocate for a peace agreement within Sinn Fein and in the Irish Republican Army, and played a major role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. Yet even many who agree with this advocacy, and are profoundly grateful for it, will long continue to have their nightmares and their shadow encounters with the demons of traumatic memory, because for them there is no forgetting the past. Nor will those blinded and maimed by terrorist bombs long be able to forget their wounds. But it is the people of the future that will benefit from the transformation of Sinn Fein from a party of guerilla war into a “professionally organized political party,” and the peace that followed logically from that transformation. Some people will be uneasy with this, and they are welcome to their unease: there’s plenty of it to go around in Ireland. But the hard home truth is that achieving peace in Northern Ireland was more important than the settling of scores, whether on the street or in a court of law.
Gerry Adams fought his way out of the deep trauma of the Irish quagmire, and brought countless others along with him. He did this, first, by talking openly about the unacceptable condition of Catholics in Northern Ireland, and then about the necessity of achieving IRA/Sinn Fein goals politically. In seeking peace, he challenged the traumatic memory of centuries and by so doing disestablished the ‘traumatic privilege’ of the gunman. He also spoke out publicly about the sexual abuse that had occurred in his family. Second, he acted in a socially-beneficial manner to lead the campaign for the Good Friday Agreement, first within Sinn Fein and the IRA, and then in Northern Ireland as a whole. Countless generations of the future, especially the precious children and young people, will be spared the horrors of sectarian guerilla warfare because of the Good Friday Agreement. It is because of what Gerry Adams did for them that he, and others that accepted political compromise in order to negotiate a lasting peace, have achieved redemption.
This essay appeared in a slightly different form in my book How Finkelstein Broke the Trauma Bond, and Beat the Holocaust: Traumatic Memory and the Struggle Against Systemic Evil.