Writing history

In his 1996 autobiography Before the Dawn, Gerry Adams reveals that his parents completed the papers for assisted passage to Australia but were turned down when it was discovered that Gerry Senior had a prison record for teenage republican activities. It is intriguing to speculate on what might have happened to the eldest of the ten children in that family if they had been brought up in Sydney or Melbourne. It is not fanciful to imagine that, given his record in the cauldron of Northern Ireland politics, the young Gerry would have become involved in public affairs in this country and might have progressed to the highest level. What is certain is that he would have had more opportunity to develop his considerable talents as a writer and might now be one of Australia’s most successful authors.

Hope and History is an account of the long, gruelling journey towards the uneasy peace in modern Ulster. It is the writing that strikes you first. This is the kind of book that is hard to put down. One wants to learn how this setback is dealt with; whether that sequence of tit-for-tat killings will derail the process; how in the aftermath of Enniskillen, Canary Wharf, Greysteel and a dozen other atrocities and in the face of condemnation from church, state and media, people still don’t give up. This is endurance raised to a cardinal virtue, described in prose that mixes tension, humour, emotion and honesty.

In Before the Dawn Adams describes a time in the 1970s when there was bloody strife between the Official and the Provisional IRA. Father Alex Reid, a Redemptorist priest from the local Clonard monastery, was acting as a peacemaker and suggested at a particularly tense point that they should pray to the Holy Ghost. Fr Reid appears here again, older and a nervous breakdown later, but now a central figure, a go-between trusted by all sides and a loyal critic-friend of Adams.

It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of what Gerry Adams has achieved in Ulster. When one compares the story with similar ethno-religious feuds in other parts of the world—the Balkans, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, a dozen forgotten places in Africa—the miracle of six years of fragile peace between long-lasting enemies becomes a wonder. It is still not secure, of course. It is like the alcoholic who can only take one day at a time and must realise that there is only one slip between calm and chaos.

There are other heroes: Martin McGuinness, John Hume, Fr Reid, George Mitchell, Albert Reynolds, even some of the non-political leaders on the unionist side. But little happened that did not involve Gerry Adams. He admits that this is his version of events, ‘my story, my truth, my reality’, and that there may be other accounts, from a different angle, telling the story differently.

And as in any good story, there are villains too: the IRA, the Protestant paramilitaries, the securocrats who could never see past a military solution. Adams tries to identify with all sides. He admits that the opinion, common among nationalists, that unionists are misinformed and incorrigible is paternalistic and condescending. He distinguishes between the ordinary loyalists and their belligerent, Old-Testament-righteous leaders. And even here, he manages to find good things to say. Ken Maginnis ‘eventually chilled out with us’; John Taylor ‘never took himself too seriously anyway ... most of his jousting was tongue-in-cheek.’ Adams refuses to criticise David Trimble although admits that they shook hands for the first time only in July this year.

One expects politicians to be dense and obtuse; Adams is not. One expects people discriminated against and harassed by officialdom to be bitter and vengeful; Adams is not. One expects those in the spotlight, whether loved or hated, to write self-serving accounts of their activities; Adams does not. What he has written is an enthralling account of a process which still teeters between historic success and murderous failure. It deserves to be read for its insights into Northern Ireland and can also be read as a fine piece of writing. 

Hope and History: Making peace in Ireland, Gerry Adams.
Hardie Grant Books, 2003. isbn 1 740 66120 6, rrp $45

Frank O’Shea teaches at Marist College, Canberra.



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