Find Your Course
Liverpool Hope Logo

Filter news by category:

print Icon print this page share this article

Expert Comment: Was Gerry Adams a member of the IRA?

Stephen Kelly Monday 12 May 2014

Dr Stephen Kelly, Lecturer in Modern History, looks at Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams's alleged involvement with the IRA.

Gerry Adams comments in an article for the Guardian, on 7 May 2014, that the PSNI’s four days of questioning of him was based on the clear objective to charge him ‘with IRA membership’ and thereby link him to the Jean McConville murder case, is not the first time that the Northern Ireland authorities have attempted – without success – to convict Adams of IRA membership. 

On a recent visit the National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK) in London while researching for my new book on Charles J. Haughey, I happened to have a couple of hours to spare. Consequently, I searched the NAUK website and found three files related to ‘Gerry Adams’. Unfortunately, one file (CJ 4/3393) remains closed for the next sixty-seven years. The two other files (CJ 4/2210 and CJ 4/3791) were, to my delight, available for consultation.

The latter two files contain some juicy, and until recently highly confidential, information on Adams and his alleged involvement with the IRA. For instance, there is a copy of a handwritten form by Adams, entitled, ‘Notice of appeal to the tribunal’, against his Detention Order, dated. 23 May 1974. There also exists a detailed summary of ‘Adams’s detention history’, from 14 March 1972 to 5 December 1975.

For the purpose of this article I wish to focus on several particular files, dating from the summer of 1978, related to Adams’s appeal against his Detention Order and imprisonment in that year. According to the files Adams was charged with membership of the IRA during the period 1 April 1976 to 25 February 1978. The case against Adams rested largely on ‘a video tape of a speech’ he made at a previous Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.

Despite the lack of evidence in connection to Adams’s involvement with the IRA, one point is clear from examining the files: the British and Northern Ireland governments believed that there was ‘… no doubt about the importance of the part of Adams had played since his release from prison in 1977 in reviving PIRA’s [Provisional Irish Republican Army] resolve and capability later in the year, or about the connection between his arrest in February and the comparative decline in violence since then’.

At the time, according to files from the Northern Ireland Office, Stormont Castle, Belfast, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) (NI), C. B. Shaw admitted that the case against Adams was ‘not a very strong one’. However, it was thought that Adams might be charged with IRA membership if evidence was forthcoming proving that he had been present at meetings between the British Government and the IRA, in 1972, which had led to an IRA ceasefire (Adams was actually released from prison to take part in the talks).

According to the mentioned files, the DPP (NI) was clearly eager to pursue the case and therefore asked the Metropolitan Police to take statements from serving senior British civil servants Philip Woodfield and Frank Steele; both men were present, on the side of the British, during the British Government-IRA secret talks in 1972. The DPP envisaged that Messers Woodfield and Steele would be called to give evidence; a view endorsed by the RUC. The files note that the ‘RUC hope they [Messers Woodfield and Steele] remembered Adams being a member of the Provisionals’ “negotiating” team in 1972 and – preferably – that they knew or believed this team to be presenting PIRA’. 

The Attorney General, however, expressed reservations. Because the 1972 meetings had been held ‘under a flag of truce’, it was noted that ‘it would be quite improper to call evidence leading to those meetings’. The DPP, the files reveal, ‘was seeking to use the information he thought he might get from these meetings to indicate that at that time Gerry Adams was clearly a member of the IRA – and indeed a very senior member of the IRA – and thus would be supporting evidence of later membership’.

The Attorney General informed the DPP that he could ‘not use evidence from this period’. The DDP, as the files reveal, then enquired what ‘would then happen if the defence sought to use evidence from that period to indicate that Adams had either been promised immunity or was clearly there in a representative capacity and not as a member, thus, presumably, supporting an argument that he is not now a member but only a sympathetic member of PSF’.  Again the Attorney General rebuffed the DPP’s line of questioning. He was informed that the ‘DPP has been given a note signed by Mr [William] Whitelaw [Secretary of State from Northern Ireland, March 1972-December 1973] to the effect that no immunity was given and that in no way in 1972 was Gerry Adams distinguishable from any of his colleagues’.  

Thereafter, the case against Adams fizzled away and he was subsequently released from prison. But the story does not end there. Jump forward to 2014, over thirty-five years later. Parallels can be drawn from Adams’s recent arrest and his detention in 1978.

The above information sheds new light on Adams’s alleged connection with the IRA; a connection which runs much deeper than Adams likes to admit. However, leaving aside Adams’s links with the IRA, the information provided shows to what extend the Northern Ireland state and security forces, working closely with the British government, wanted to convict Adams of IRA membership in the late 1970s.

Little it seems has changed in a generation. In his Guardian article of 7 May 2014 Adams – echoing comments he has habitually made over course of his life – accused the PSNI of seeking to outline a case that he was a member of the IRA and had a senior managerial role within the organisation in Belfast during Jean McConville’s abduction.

Most importantly, the DPP’s almost obsession with trying to convict Adams with IRA membership in 1978 focuses our attention to the role of today’s DPP (NI) in considering the Sinn Féin President’s current predicament. The DPP have acknowledged that it could be ‘many months’ before a decision is made on whether or not Adams will be prosecuted in connection with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972. To what lengths will the DPP go to secure a conviction against Adams? Will there be any political interference? Apart from the Boston Tapes does the DPP have any additional ‘new information’, which might lead to a conviction? These questions and many more, will go unanswered for the meantime. 

Show more