On Facebook, there’s been a lot of comment on Trevor Birney’s documentary on Gerry Adams, which aired on BBC Northern Ireland earlier this week. I’m not sure I agree with the narrative thrust of the programme (that Gerry is a man who has become reconciled with his own past). And it revealed few genuinely fresh insights into a man who may familiar to many of us, but few really know.
Some personal detail was new to me. The idiosyncratic humour, the guerilla tree planting, and that bizarre episode over the hugging of trees with Tony Blair. But the passage most worthy of note came from Jonathan Powell, a man who had both Adams and McGuinness at his country house wedding within months of leaving Downing Street in the summer of 2007:
“Do I know Gerry adams, properly? No, I don’t think I do. I think [with] anyone who has lived a clandestine life for a long period of time – and I have seen this in other parts of the world – you adopt certain characteristics that other people can never break through. You have to [do it] for survival”.
A few years ago, back in Sinn Fein’s annus horribilis of 2005, I blogged about the irresistibility of fact in story telling. When it comes to Adams as a subject, everything, it seems, is relative and contestable. For instance, Adams adopts ‘positions’ on his past, rather than revealing it.
This is deeply problematic for any journalist who must work towards something approximating the truth. And regarding Adams, the clandestine leader of a supremely clandestine army, there are too simply few incontrovertible facts to be sure of anything reported about the man.
And yet the closing sequences contain one small but interesting and incontrovertible fact. It’s an old black and white photograph that I’ve seen dozens of times, of a young Gerry Adams dressed in the distinguishing black beret of the IRA: the organisation which he aggressively contends to any serious journalistic inquiry that he was never a member of.
The ‘forms of words’ he carefully choses to evade the precise biographical ‘facts’ of his own past are a great deal less convincing than the liminal traces he leaves behind him, however indistinct they may appear…