Malachi O’Doherty BBC Talkback Radio Ulster 4 September 2017

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BBC Radio Ulster

William Crawley speaks to journalist, broadcaster and author, Malachi O’Doherty, about his new book, Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life.

Where’s the Audio? This interview is not available for download. Please click here to listen as you read along to get the full effect of the interview.  (begins time stamp ~ 5:22)

William:   Many people regard Gerry Adams as an enigma – a mystery wrapped up in a political personality. Few could argue with his success as a politician. He has outlived generations of politicians in Britain, in Ireland and in America and he enjoys a rock star reputation amongst Irish Republicans. But who is he? What makes him tick? And how has his personality played a role in his survival as a political leader? In his new book Malachi O’Doherty tries to get under the skin of the Sinn Féin president through a detailed life-narrative from his childhood in West Belfast to his current role as leader of ‘an all-Ireland party’ with an international name recognition. It’s a fascinating book about an intriguing life, Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, and Malachi O’Doherty is with us in the Talkback studio. Good Afternoon to you!

Malachi:  Good Afternoon, William.

William:  (William announces programme’s telephone number.) And I’ll get this kind of question out of the way first of all: We’ve got a small shelf of books now, gathering, about Sinn Féin and about Gerry Adams…

Malachi:  …Yeah, I’ve got a whole ton of them.

William:   There you go!  Why another one?

Malachi:   Why another one? Well there hasn’t be a biography of him since Mark Devenport and David Sharrock did one in the ’90’s. He’s done his own, now – some of his own have come out – and he has another one I believe coming out even in November with Mercier. So you know, I think there – and there has been a ton of journalism done about him, which I’ve contributed to as well, and of course you’ve had him on the programme so we all have a sense that we know him because we see him in the screens, we know his devices of dissembling, we know his convictions, we know his achievements and we know what we believe of what he says and what we don’t believe of what he says.

William:   We think we know him…

Malachi:   We think we know him, you know…

William:   …But it’s one of the themes throughout your book. You quote a lot of people saying there could be two Gerry Adamses. There’s a public and there’s a private Gerry Adams. Who is Gerry Adams?

Malachi:   (laughs) Who is Gerry Adams? Well Gerry Adams is nearly seventy years old. He was born in West Belfast. He grew up – well he grew up in various places – he grew up first of all with his in North Abercorn Street as was on the Falls Road and the family moved up to Ballymurphy after his sister, Margaret, was born – I think Paddy was born by then as well. And then he lived away from the family mostly in the Lower Falls and went to St. Finian’s. He was an active Republican by, I think, the age of sixteen…

William:  …It was in the family DNA.

Malachi:  That was in the family DNA. I think Margaret, his sister, was even involved before he was – she stayed with ‘the Stickies’ – he went with the Provos during the split in ’70. His closest friend as a young man was Joe McCann. There were others, one of them was a classmate of mine at school, I don’t mention him in the book. And you know the interesting thing is that I suppose the division within in the IRA put him at odds with people that he’d been very, very close to. He showed himself at that time to be a man with I think quite extraordinary chutzpah, if you like, you know that even during the negotiations on the split in late ’69 you know where it was known that he would go with the Provos actually turning up at a meeting and confronting O’Sullivan and the others you know and them kind of looking at him and saying: Well, what the hell’s he doing here? So you know, he had that kind of personal nerve to go at things. And…

William:  …Whatever you think of Gerry Adams, whether people loathe him, whether people love him, when you read this book you get the very clear idea that he’s a very canny operator, a strategist. Someone who can be quite calculating. Someone who knows what he wants and he goes for it. Where does that come from in his story? Because you spend a lot of time there at the beginning of the book on his backstory, the family.

Malachi:  Yeah. Well you know, I don’t know. How did he become such a, such a deft dissembler, if you like…

William:  …Or strategist? If you want to put it more positively…


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Or strategist, yeah. I mean part of the thing is when you grow up in a large family, as I did myself, you have to make yourself heard and that’s it. But I mean he came out of a family in which there was, we now know, sexual abuse of children. We don’t know to what extent that was or who was particularly and individually affected by it but that was a family with secrets, you know? So maybe a family with secrets, a man with secrets – it extends out into the real world. The question with Gerry Adams when you look at him and you see the trajectory that he took and the trajectory which he took Sinn Féin on is: To what extent was this foreseen, you know? At what point did Gerry Adams realise that the IRA and Sinn Féin would be incompatible with each other and that the baton would have to pass from the IRA to Sinn Féin? I mean it became absolutely clear in 1992 when Danny Morrison wrote to him, and would tell us from prison to say, look, after Joe Hendron had got West Belfast and Adams had lost it, that you know the political project and the military – well they call it military, I wouldn’t – the armed campaign, the campaign of protest through murder and sabotage – that that could not continue, these could not continue. The IRA was costing Sinn Féin votes, you know? There might have been an earlier stage at which Gerry and others were saying: Well, the IRA is the ‘cutting edge’ – I think Danny Morrison was the one to use that phrase and you know – and the rewards or the opportunities would be reaped by the party and the two could, in some sense, be synchronous or symbiotic. I think at a certain point it became obviously clear they could not be synchronous, they could not be symbiotic. The question is when you see Gerry moving to build the party from the very early years, say you know round the time of the hunger strike and immediately after, are you looking at somebody who’s a brilliant strategist who knows that one day he will have to separate these two or are we looking at somebody who’s just unraveling the game as it unfolds?

William:  More of a pragmatist responding to events. (Williams invites listener comments and gives programme call in/contact information.) When in your life were you first, personally, aware of Gerry Adams?

Malachi:   I don’t think I heard the name until I came back from India in 1979, you know. I mean I go back to the old newspapers that I worked on in the early ’70’s and there are the occasional story about him in the Sunday news in reference to him there at the time that I was working there but I wasn’t all that conscious of it then. I didn’t know – I knew a man in Na Fianna in the 1960’s at school who’d come back to do, you know to repeat exams, and I knew that he was a man inside a disciplined organisation. I didn’t know at the time that he was a friend of Gerry Adams. This is a man who took me into the Felons Club, who was active in some measure in August 1969. But I didn’t know Adams himself and I didn’t have any clear notion of the man or the family at any stage until, really, the ’80’s.

William:  John in Portadown straight in with a question a lot of people are asking and it’s a text question – but it’s a question I guess you had to deal with and you deal with it pretty much throughout the book but also in the last chapter of the book: Was he in the IRA? How, as a biographer, do you deal with that kind of legally fraught question actually?

Malachi:  Well it is a legally fraught question. I mean if I state an honest opinion that he was a senior member of the IRA for many years and that he was a decisive operator within the IRA in bringing the IRA away from armed struggle into politics then you will have to add the legally required…

William:  ….Gerry Adams always denies it.

Malachi:  Gerry Adams always denies it. And I’ve had to do that through the book. The book has been ‘legal’ to the kind of standard that the BBC uses all the time you know, so…

William:  …You do look at evidence to try to deal with that question.

Malachi:  …I summarise. Well I mean the Special Branch thought he was in the IRA. The de Silva report into the murder of Pat Finucane refers to Gerry Adams as a member of the IRA. Jonathan Powell told Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that he didn’t believe for a minute that they weren’t in the IRA. So there’s tons of that stuff. But actually you know, there’s qualifiers to this and one of them is when I spoke to John Bruton, you know? And I said: You know well he was in the IRA, wasn’t he? He said he was representing the IRA. And he says: Well, I wouldn’t say that. And I said: Well, you had access to the intelligence. And you know Michael McDowell, the Justice Minister, said plainly: Gerry Adams is a liar. He was a senior member of the IRA. Bruton said: Well you know sometimes the intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bill Clinton, in a communication to Tony Blair, said it would help if we knew Gerry’s game with the IRA, you know? So, and, and…

William:  …George W. Bush you quote as well.

Malachi:  Well George W. Bush said to Bertie Ahern: You know, your guy’s a murdering thief, isn’t he? So George W. Bush had the understanding that Gerry Adams was a killer and a thief.

William:  And what about the story of Liam McParland? Just go through that with us.

Malachi:  Liam McParland – you know again, this is ‘legal’ – but essentially Gerry Adams was involved in a car crash in 1969, the Autumn of 1969, on the M1 coming back into Belfast with Liam McParland. Liam Parland was injured in the crash and died in hospital two weeks later. The Tírghrá, which is the Provisional IRA’s record of its dead, attributes, names, McParland as one of their dead – even though the Provisional IRA had not even been formed at that stage, the split had not taken place, but they accord him the stature of a fallen comrade if you like. And the record says that he was on active service. So when he was in that car, whatever they were doing, they were on active service and Gerry Adams was in that car with him.

William:  His personality – I mentioned at the start…

Malachi:  …Can I just make one point in response to that text about the question of whether he was in the IRA? I met members of the IRA who were saying: You know, Gerry wasn’t really one of us – do you know?

William:  He had a different role.

Malachi:  Well, not that he had a different role but he wasn’t – for instance in Ballymurphy in 1970 Gerry was undoubtedly involved in organising protests against the Army – there was that whole series, you would remember it as well as I did, I was up there, but there was that whole, those weeks of rioting at the top of the Springfield Road you know and Gerry was involved there as was my friend from school. And you know, IRA men said: Look, we wanted to go up there. We wanted to bring guns into that situation and it was Gerry who stopped us and they didn’t like him for that. And there’s another incident in the book which where Gerry’s in Long Kesh, interned, and there’s a workshop on how to strip, I think, an Armalite or an AK-47 and Gerry arrives into the workshop for this exercise and they laugh at him and say: What are you doing here? And he says: Oh, I’m just keeping my hand in, you know? And he gets laughed at. You know, he’s still being mocked by certain members of the IRA for not having really been a militarist. Now, that’s not to say – and I don’t know that he never had a gun in his hand or whatever and it’s not to say that he lacked personal courage in dangerous situations but certainly there were senior members of the, or very, very active gunmen and bombers within the IRA, who would say: You know, he wasn’t really like us. He was working moves, he had these political theories, he was going somewhere else with this and they would say, ultimately, he sold us out.

William:   Talk to us about his relationship with Martin McGuinness – two very different personalities – one often hears that suggested.

Malachi:  Yeah, yeah I know and it is and you would like to know who was the senior party there. I remember one day up during the talks at Stormont and I had published an article that day in the (Belfast) Telegraph which was very, very critical of Adams and Sinn Féin and I’d basically forgotten about it – because you write the article the day or two days before and I had forgotten it was in there – and I saw Gerry and Martin going towards the stairs and I walked over to basically to put a question to them. And they had the article in their minds, I think, because Gerry looked at me with this kind of scowl and Martin looked like the wee schoolboy checking with Gerry whether it was okay to speak to me. That’s what it looked like to me. Now, that’s me reading a lot into body language at a moment but it just gave me the instant impression that the senior person between the two was Gerry. And we saw, later, indications of that when McGuinness had to withdraw his whole decision to approve the welfare reform procedures up at Stormont – you know he went to the Ard Fheis in Doire, he comes back and then he changed his mind and the whole thing’s off, you know? And again, I think last year when McGuinness was ill it was very much when Gerry Adams came back into the scene and I think what happened then was Gerry looked at the situation and he said: Look, we’re losing a share of vote as a party here. We’re being laughed at in the street because you’re posing beside portraits of the Queen and shaking her hand every chance you get and we’re taking a slagging for this. And I think that was, I think it was very much illustrative of Adams’ seniority to McGuinness there.

William:  (William takes a listener’s call.)

Caller John:  I have a question for Malachi. Some time ago, some years ago I remember a reporter asking on the television: Was Martin McGuinness an informer? I wonder would Malachi maybe say if Adams could have been an informer and this is why he might’n’ been lifted by the authorities long ago?

William:  Incidentally, I need to point out that no one from Sinn Féin was available to come onto the programme this morning…

Malachi:  …No one’s available today, yeah…

William:  …They said they didn’t want to discuss your new book with you and, of course, that’s been denied over the years by both gentlemen…

Malachi:  …And when Adams – of course it’s being denied. And when Adams came out of Antrim custody suite in 2014 after his arrest there he said actually that the police there had put it to him that he had been an informer, that he’d been recruited by Special Branch as far back as into the 1970’s. I have no insight into that but I do think that he’s lived a charmed life, you know. When you look at, for instance, when you look at the court case which was brought against him for membership of the IRA in 1977 – a most extraordinary management of that case, you know?

Paddy McGrory, the lawyer for Adams, before the case could even proceed, did something which had not had been done before, and I’m going to try to get my legal terminology round, but he looked for an order of ‘no bill ‘ – he wanted the judge to determine before the case was even heard, before anyone was charged or asked to plead guilty or not guilty, he wanted the judge to determine on the basis of evidence that there was no case to be made. Now the evidence was, and the charge was membership of the IRA, the evidence was that Gerry Adams had been seen in Long Kesh receiving a salute, an Easter salute from massed ranks, from an assembled rank of IRA men, you know. That they lowered their flags and saluted Gerry Adams, right? Who was the OC (Officer Commanding) later of the prisoners in Cage 11. Another part of the evidence was that Gerry Adams had, at an Ard Fheis in Dublin, said words to the effect of: ‘We’ would get nowhere but for the people lending us their homes and giving us support and so on. And another…

William:  …Well let’s just say that salute, you mention this in the book, Lord Justice Lowry ruled that that was not an indication of membership of the IRA…

Malachi:  …That was not an indication of membership of the IRA. Well…

William:  …that was the judicial reading of it.

Malachi:  That’s the judicial reading of it. We have to accept that. And another item of evidence of it was that he had been involved, while in detention, in a ceremony in remembrance of two IRA members who’d been killed. So I think that’s extraordinarily fortunate that Adams had such – that the judge had such a benign reading of the circumstance. Another case, the case after Adams had been tried for disorderly behaviour in the Magistrates’ Court by Tom Travers, Travers – he asked at lunch time if – Adams, Gerry Adams asked Travers if it would be okay for them to stay in the court building ’til after lunch because they had their own security to consider. I personally think that was a very reasonable request and Tom Travers probably should have said: Well actually, yes, why not? But he didn’t. He refused to allow them to stay in the building. They left the building, they traveled up Howard Street in a car which was opened fired on and they were wounded. So Gerry Adams was wounded in that – there’s all kinds of questions about collusion and so on around that – but essentially he was wounded, therefore, he could not return to court that afternoon for the rest of the hearing.

Tom Travers went home and had lunch with his daughter, Ann, told Ann that he was going back that afternoon to send Gerry Adams down for three months, right? The case is rescheduled for when Adams is fit enough to go back into court and days before that Tom Travers and his family are coming out of church in Derryvolgie Avenue and two IRA men open fire on them and they wound Tom Travers badly, they kill his daughter, Mary, and they attempt to shoot his wife and the gun jams, right? Then Tom Travers goes to hospital and when Tom Travers comes out of hospital says: What happened to that case against Gerry Adams? No file – nothing – the case doesn’t proceed. It’s simply forgotten about. Now that’s, you know, that’s indicative of a charmed life on behalf of…

William:  …What do you conclude from that, from those episodes, what do you conclude?

Malachi:  I don’t conclude anything from them. Do you conclude anything from them?

William:  What? You don’t conclude anything or you don’t share your conclusions? Because we’re talking about someone who’s still alive and there are legal questions around all of that.

Malachi:  Yeah. Well I mean it does kind of look like somebody was looking after him, you know? Now that would be, I would have thought, a reasonable inference, you know. But whether that’s true or not I don’t know with absolute certainty that it is true. He says himself that the suspicion that he was an informer is one which was actually put to him by the police under interrogation. It may be that he was simply lucky a few times. It may be that there were smart heads in the British Establishment who were saying: You know, you have to look after this guy, you know? He is somebody with a ‘political nous’ who could take this movement somewhere.

William:  Again I have to reiterate, we have invited Sinn Féin to be on the programme or to put on a representative and they’ve declined our invitation. Are you a hostile biographer of Gerry Adams?

Malachi:  I don’t think so I mean I was quite pleased when one of the reviewers yesterday said that one of the strengths of the book was that was its fairness. When I was writing the book, an earlier draft of it, I had a meeting with an editor at Faber and we went for lunch and he said: Look, this book – there’s two way this book could go. You can write a j’accuse – I attack Gerry Adams – here it is – here’s the goods, throw it at him and hammer it, you know? Or you can stand back from it. He said I had basically seemed, as a writer, not to have quite made up my mind at that draft stage. Or you can go the other way. You can stand back from this, you can be more measured. You can allow for the other point of view. You can show some respect for the man and allow for the fact that people who have regard for him and do respect him and do follow him might read your book as well. And that’s the way I went.

William:  (William takes another listener’s call.)

transcript pauses  (at time stamp~26:21)

Audio:  Caller Jim from West Belfast, Malachi and William.

transcript resumes (at time stamp ~31:06)

William:  Malachi, speaking of money, you do say in here that you think Gerry Adams is a millionaire.

Malachi:  Yeah. I surmised that from the…

William:  …Any evidence to back that up?

Malachi:  Well I didn’t do the research into his account or his records or anything like that. But basically the allowances that he received from Westminster adding up to a million pound, the two properties, the return on books, the salaries – you know if he’s not, he’s not invested his money very well but I don’t have the – it’s not something I dig investigatively into.

William:  Have you come to a respect for him as a politician?

Malachi:  I see him as somebody who has resources that I don’t have, put it that way, you know? I see him as somebody who came out of a background fairly similar to my own. I see him as somebody whose vocation in life might have been very similar to my own in different circumstances. I mean I think he is quite naturally a journalist, you know? I think if he wasn’t a politician he would be a journalist. I think politics spoils him as a writer – spoils him as a journalist. I think that’s inevitable, I suppose, you see that in some of the wee yarns that he tells and the kind of vanity in his writing and the way in which his writing is always tilted towards serving a political agenda, a political project. But yeah, I think in another…

William:  …Isn’t that the inconvenience of conviction?

Malachi:  (laughs) Is that what you call it? But I do think that in another…

William:  …Not everybody wants to be a journalist. Some people actually want to do something else with their lives – driven by a political perspective.

Malachi:  Yeah. But I think he’s driven to write as well – I do think he is, in his DNA, is a writer, as am I, and I think in another world – as are various others around that whole scene, you know?

William:   How do you explain the endurance of Gerry Adams over so many generations?

Malachi:   Incredible, you know? It is incredible. I mean one possibility is that he simply had so much to trade with in terms with, you know, he could go to the governments and say: Look, the IRA is ‘deliverable’, you know? And the governments are going to do a lot for that, you know? And I think he built Sinn Féin up to the point where Sinn Féin became a veto on change to the extent that the IRA previously had been and the IRA became expendable at that point.

William:   What do yo think Sinn Fein’s strategy is now as it’s been, presumably, directed principally by Gerry Adams?

Malachi:   A lot of it is if you go back to Gerry Adams and his whole account of his strategy or of his thinking you could interpret it in two ways. Essentially what Gerry Adams says over and over again is the Northern Ireland state is irreformable. (Well he doesn’t call it the Northern Ireland state, the Six County state) But it is irreformable. It is constituted to oppress Nationalists. If you – the old theology of the IRA, before Adams, was: Don’t be looking for reform. Don’t be getting caught up in issues like equality or rights for women or housing or anything. Stick to the point. Free Ireland. And do it by the gun. Adams comes along and says: No, there is a point to going for reform. The point in going for reform is that the Northern Ireland state cannot bear it. That if you go for reform you will break the state. And that is a point he repeats over and over again in his writing. Now, you can interpret that two ways: You can say he actually believes that, he believes that Northern Ireland is irreformable and the more you push for reform the more inevitably you just break that state and bring a united Ireland closer. Or you can say, because we don’t know the man, that this was the line that he was spinning to his followers to get them to move away from armed struggle towards politics. But there is an incredible parallel today with the events of the 1960’s when he was involved in the civil rights movement.

And you get a lot of people saying: Oh, Gerry wasn’t in the civil rights movement. Gerry was in the civil rights movement. That whole argument when he said he was one of the founding members well, he might’n’ been one of the founding committee but he was in the room, under IRA instructions on how to vote, when they were appointing members of the civil rights committee with Liam McMillen and Betty Sinclair and others. But there is an interesting parallel between those days and the present day because you’ve got an equality issue being used as the wedge to push the thing forward. Most of the people in the civil rights movement, like myself involved in protests in the streets, were only interested in civil rights. But there were people there who thought they were using this as a wedge to produce a Republican revolution. And you have the question mark over whether the equality issue today is ‘about what it’s about’ or whether it has that deeper meaning.

William:  As a coda to all of this we should say, probably, Gerry Adams would deny most of what you’ve said in this interview…

Malachi:  …deny? He wouldn’t deny that…

William:  …No, not the factual, in-public domain details but some of the interpretations. Do you think he’s ever likely to read your book?

Malachi:   I think he’s probably read it already. (laughs) I mean, we are talking about a man with a big ego, you know? Takes one to know one.

William:   Well I mean, is he the kind of person, from what you know – having been through his life from primary sources and secondary sources I guess – is he the kind of person who would see a book published about him and would find it impossible not to read it?

Malachi:  Well…

William:  …Because there are some people who just – Tony Blair said he just doesn’t read books about him.

Malachi:   He has, he has, you know he has self-discipline. He has self-discipline you know I would say if he thought – yeah, I suppose if he looked at it and said: That’s only going to annoy me. I think he’s got the power of concentration and the self-discipline to put it aside. But there are times when this man is, in his own estimation, the centre of the known universe with one shaggy dog story after another about how wonderful he is.

William:  Though you do say he’s impervious to criticism – that way it wouldn’t annoy him. He would just say: Well what do you want? That’s Malachi O’Doherty writing a book…

Malachi:  …Yeah, or the old line that you’ve got an agenda, as Malachi, always…

William:  …That’s what a lot of people say about Malachi O’Doherty writing a book…

Malachi:  …no love lost – you know, the assumption that Malachi’s got an agenda, too.

William:   Well look, thank you very much for coming in – really fascinating book, really interesting backstories and novelistic detail across many of the incidents that you relate to us there. The book is entitled: Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life – there may be a double meaning for all I know…

Malachi:  …(laughs) Never even thought of that. All my other titles are awful – I don’t have another book with that title.

William:  Well it’s straight to the point, isn’t it? And the author is, of course, Malachi O’Doherty – thank you very much. (end time stamp ~ 37:27)