‘He was my friend,’ wrote Gerry Adams in 2008, on the death of Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, IRA hero. ‘Tá sé ar an slí an fhirinne anois.’ To those of you who know Irish, that is an appalling mangling of what should be ‘Tá sé ar shlí na fírinne’. To those who don’t, it means ‘He is on the way of truth’. Adams was trying to pretend he and Hughes - a trenchant critic of the peace process - were friends again at the end. But it was an unfortunate choice of words considering Adams’s reputation now depends on persuading us that Hughes was peddling ‘untruthful and very very vicious and malicious allegations’ in the interviews he secretly gave to Boston College between 2001 and 2002. The IRA had prevented him from writing his memoirs.
But then Adams has as uncertain a relationship with truth as he has with the Irish language. Did this grow out of his life as an unusually astute paramilitary who was always keeping his eye on the wider political picture? Reading the transcripts of Hughes’s fascinating testimony in Ed Moloney’s Voices From the Grave, what struck me most was how precocious Adams was as a strategist. He was only 21 when in 1970 he held colleagues back temporarily from killing soldiers because he wanted to keep rioting going for propaganda reasons.
Always calculated, cautious and never allowing his emotions to interfere with his judgement, Adams impressed his colleagues by his rationality. But along with that went a growing capacity for deceit that would alienate many of them later.
Hughes says he and Adams agreed that Jean McConville must be murdered because they believed her to be an informer and informers must be ‘executed’, but it was Adams who ruled she should be disappeared by ‘the Unknowns’, his personal squad, because of the negative PR of leaving on the street the body of a widow and mother of ten. He was less happy with the order Adams transmitted to Long Kesh inmates to make an example of 23-year-old Paddy Joe Crawford - who had no family to make a fuss - for the crime of having cracked under interrogation, and to make his hanging appear as suicide.
Bloody Friday, in July 1972, when nine people were killed and 130 injured in Belfast by at least 19 car bombs, was intended to put pressure on the British government. The strategy was sound but the overloading of the emergency services led to unintended carnage and public opinion turned against the IRA. Hughes, the Belfast Brigade organiser, regretted it; Adams, de facto O/C at the time, denied any involvement whatsoever.
Of course no one could have expected Adams to make confessions that would have landed him in jail, but what disgusted Hughes was that his lies were so shameless. To have published three volumes of autobiography denying his entire IRA career was deeply hurtful to those brothers-and-sisters-in-arms who had suffered for a cause they believed he had sold out. To hear a man he would have died for, says Hughes, ‘stand up and deny the part in history that he has played, the part in the war that he has played, the part in the war that he directed, and deny it, is totally disgusting and a disgrace to all the people who have died.’
How bleak life must be for Adams as his lies unravel. In 2005, in Blanketmen, Richard O’Rawe claimed six hunger-strikers were sacrificed by the Adams leadership for political advantage. Rubbished by Sinn Fein, O’Rawe is now backed by the posthumous evidence of Hughes, who had given his evidence privately four years earlier.
Dolours Price was soothingly dismissed by Adams as traumatised when she claimed he had been her commanding officer in 1973 when she was sent to bomb the Old Bailey; now she is backed up by Hughes. And, of course, simultaneously there is the embarrassment of Adams’s cover-up of the allegations of rape against his brother Liam. So much under pressure has Gerry been at the revelation that he allowed Liam to work with children and operate in Sinn Fein, that he had to resort to seeking public sympathy by outing his father as a child abuser and his wife as a cancer-sufferer.
And now, the Hughes family is infuriated by Adams’s claim that Brendan was mentally ill and those who knew him as a brave and uncompromising republican socialist, and who flocked to his funeral in their thousands, are confused and angry. Adams will win his seat in the forthcoming election, of course, though he no longer has Hughes to organise the brilliant personation campaign he so well describes. But there can’t be anyone left even in tribal West Belfast who truly believes Adams walks ar shlí na fírinne.