Better known publicly in 1970 for his letters as a Sinn Fein cumann PRO, protesting British Army harassment, Adams was nevertheless assiduously developing his tactical nous within the ranks of the Ballymurphy IRA where he was the local commander. In a calculated bid to build up a reservoir of community resentment that would morph into support for a revitalised IRA, he smothered the impulse of armed IRA volunteers to engage British troops during serious rioting over Orange marches.
It was the type of tactical ingenuity that would repeat itself a year later when the second battalion of the Belfast IRA, which he now commanded, orchestrated a bombing campaign against military and police installations in a bid to force Stormont’s hand on internment. The calculation was that the draconian measure might be introduced long before RUC Special Branch mastered the intelligence terrain. As anticipated, internment was an intelligence debacle with most senior IRA personnel and the bulk of volunteers evading the dragnet. Its one-sided application followed by torture in Palace Barracks and other holding centres, so enraged the nationalist community that the IRA found a surplus of eager youth from which to recruit. Already it was clear that the strategic intelligence of the IRA was coming to reside within the circles peopled by Adams and his coterie.
With the removal through arrest of Billy McKee as Belfast brigade commander, his replacement, Joe Cahill was a figure who valued the advice of Adams in a way that McKee was reluctant to, making the second battalion even more influential. Arrested in March 1972, Adams’ June release from internment was secured only after the new leadership of the second battalion made it clear that there would be no ceasefire if he was not freed to take part in negotiations. That Belfast was now becoming the power house of the Provisional IRA was to be seen in the presence of three Belfast IRA leaders in the six-man delegation that travelled to London for talks with the British secretary of state for the North, William Whitelaw. On the return journey to Ireland, despite chief of staff Sean MacStiofain preferring a prolonged truce, the Belfast delegation decided that it would be broken, as it duly was.
On his release from internment in June Adams had moved into the Belfast Brigade adjutant slot, a position he held at the time of the Bloody Friday bombings the following month. The first of the disappearances also began in June when Joe Lynsky a Belfast Brigade intelligence operative was killed and secretly buried. More such acts would follow and while the smoking gun was never found in the hand of Adams, his handpicked squad, colloquially referred to within the IRA as “the Unknowns,” was tasked with this most sensitive and heinous of tasks. The three people who accompanied Jean McConville as she stood trembling at her secret grave side were members of the Unknowns, including the man who led the group and answered directly to Adams. Prominent IRA figures, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price both now deceased, were firm in their contention that their military commander, Adams, was the architect of the disappeared as well as being the IRA leader who took the bombing campaign to London. By now, with the departure of Seamus Twomey to GHQ staff in October 1972, Gerry Adams was the Belfast Brigade commander.
It was while in charge of the Belfast IRA, that he won the unalloyed admiration of the people who worked closely with him. Despite being on a British Army shoot on sight list, and billeted outside West Belfast in the evenings, each morning saw him travel into the heart of the constituency he would later become a Member of Parliament for, “to run the war.” One colleague who later turned out to be an implacable opponent observed that whatever attributes he lacked, “courage did not figure amongst them. He took serious risks.”
Running concurrent with much of this, Adams was registering his implacable opposition to IRA sectarian assassinations. Scathing of the Orr Brothers killings in North Belfast during the truce, he underwent an estrangement from the man responsible. His pragmatism would later kick in when he placed the same figure at the heart of his security entourage. This opposition to the targeting of Protestant civilians came to the fore later in 1976 when, from within the prison, Adams fumed at the Kingsmill massacre of ten workmen.
On release from prison in early 1977, a vehement critic of the 1975 IRA ceasefire, he went almost immediately to meet Seamus Twomey, by now serving a second term as chief of staff, with his plans for a long war. This was a military strategic vision for the most part put together by the late Pat Ward. When Twomey was arrested towards the end of 1977 Adams moved into the vacant chief of staff spot. His tenure came to be defined by the La Mon bomb attack which saw twelve Protestant civilians incinerated. The event brought his chief of staff spell to a close as he was arrested the following morning. There is no reason to think that Adams personally ordered the attack or knew about it. The most that can be said is that the operation was part of a wider incendiary grill bomb campaign approved by the army council of which Adams was a member. The former senior SAS officer Clive Fairweather told me over drinks in Edinburgh many years later that while he felt that Adams, in terms of ability, had no equal, his first instinct after La Mon was to shoot him.
Released from prison six months later, his return to the army council was delayed due to there being no vacancy. Martin McGuinness was IRA chief of staff and Adams soon became his adjutant general, a position he was to retain until the Assembly elections of 1982 by which time he had long since recovered his seat on the army council. It was an important period for the IRA and cemented the credentials of its increasingly northern leadership. Major operations like the killing of Lord Mountbatten and the Narrow Water attack on the same day in 1979 which claimed the lives of eighteen British forces personnel, signalled the military acumen of the Long War leadership that had resolutely positioned itself against any form of ceasefire.
It was also during his time as adjutant general that the hunger strikes occurred. Adams developed a practice that would become most pronounced during the peace process. the authority of the army council was gradually usurped as its power incrementally haemorrhaged to committees managed by Adams. Richard O’Rawe has persuasively demonstrated that the offer to end the hunger strike which Danny Morrison claims to have “described to the hunger strikers, including Joe McDonnell”, was rejected by the Adams committee and the prisoner’s acceptance overruled.
Adams retained the adjutant general portfolio until the Northern assembly elections at the end of 1982. The IRA decided that its members holding elected office could not at the same time hold down “army briefs.” This did not affect either Adams nor McGuinness in respect of their army council roles. But it did bring to a close his hands on day to day management of the IRA organisation.
At this point the balance of power in the army council was 4-3 with those not enamoured with the electoral strategy in the ascendancy. That changed courtesy of the RUC’s supergrasses strategy. The arrest of Ivor Bell and subsequent detention in prison for six weeks was according to British security strategists the key moment in the ultimate defeat of the IRA campaign. With shifting allegiances Adams now had five in favour of the electoral strategy. With the side-lining of Bell and others inside two years, substantive obstacles to the emergence of a peace process had been removed.
From that point on Gerry Adam’s position on the army council remained for the most part secure up until 2005 when the IRA announced an end to its war. The one serious challenge to his hegemony from those who went on to form the Real IRA was averted by a unanimous decision by the army council in February 1996 to end the ceasefire it had declared two years earlier. The result was the devastation of Canary Wharf.
Even though Manchester in the same year would be subject to a similar attack, there was only one direction in which the Provisional Republican Movement was headed, the road of peace. The IRA’s key military strategist was now its foremost political strategist. As a leading British security figure observed, the Titanic had indeed truly been turned in a bathtub.
An article by Anthony McIntyre which appeared in the Irish Times