GERRY ADAMS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY,
'BEFORE THE DAWN'
December 17th 1920 beneath the Galtee Mountains in County Limerick,
a relation of mine, Major General Donncadh O'Hannigan, and his IRA
men shot dead 4 British soldiers. In doing so he acquired the title
'terrorist' and faced the prospect of execution as a traitor. Following
the truce O'Hannigan chose the path of the Free State and watched
forlornly as the British government, in defiance of the will of
the people, partitioned Ireland. Regrettably, most commentators
cannot or simply will not consider this context, choosing instead
voyeurism -'has he ever shot anyone?', or sensationalism - 'the
book will make him a millionaire', when they cast an eye over Gerry
Adams' autobiography, 'Before the Dawn'.
Adams' life, beginning in the economic austerity of Ballymurphy
from where he gravitated towards hard-line republicanism and by
definition a life on the run and inevitable arrest and imprisonment
for membership of an illegal organisation, is recounted quite matter
of factly. The pressing of triggers, the detonating of bombs, the
routine bashings at the hands of the security forces, and the death
of volunteers on a political hunger strike or from the bullets of
the British Army and the RUC which, says Adams, only 'stiffened
the people's resolve to resist oppression' - it's all there, told
with a remarkable absence of rancour and at times a disarming humour.
The secrets as to how the IRA, described by Adams as 'an undefeated
army', operates and has survived against one of the most sophisticated
war machines in the world remain buried in the mystique.
I met the real Adams on a miserable, cold Easter Monday in the
Sinn Fein office on the Falls Road in 1994. Although he didn't offer
me a list of names of volunteers on active service or document his
role in the armed struggle, he was gracious and uncomplicated, articulating
Sinn Fein's one-Ireland agenda with consummate political skill.
Outside, members of the occupying army, guns on the ready, nervously
patrolled this most intransigent of republican territories having
already been told to 'piss off' by Adams' minders. As the meeting
revealed and Adams' book confirms, sentimentality and the divulging
of secrets is a luxury guerrilla armies and their soldier statesmen
leaders can ill afford.
'Before the Dawn' is an acutely political text designed to enhance
and ultimately materialise the republican movement's dream of a
unified Ireland. 'It's a long held republican aim to abolish the
memory of past dissensions and to substitute the common name of
Irish person in place of the denomination of Protestant, Catholic
and dissenter,' writes Adams, delicately marginalising his Loyalist
opponents. Under Adams' pen the past becomes the reason for change,
not the source of moral superiority or triumphalism.
The problem for Adams, as documented by the polarised reception
of his autobiography, is that declarations for peace in the context
of civilian bombings will always be difficult to reconcile. Explanations
such as, 'The IRA made a mistake in putting out so many bombs, and
civilians were killed who certainly should not have been killed.
This was the IRA's responsibility and a matter of deep regret,'
will continue to leave those who believe the means justifies the
ends at best jaundiced and at worst pathological about the republican
Some will believe, as W.B.Yeats lamented in 'Easter 1916', 'Too
long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart', and deduce that
Adams is a callous man of violence under a veil of rhetoric. Few
however who read this autobiography could claim that the Nationalists'
call for fundamental political reform of a State founded on privilege
and discrimination is unjustified or that Adams is palpably wrong
when he says, 'The British government responded in a very negative
way to the IRA cessation'. Whether they conclude that Adams is a
saint or a sinner will have little to do with the book and more
to do with which side they're on, which is why Prime Minister John
Howard should read it.
BY PHILIP CLEARY
3 October, 1996