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This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)
This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)

The real threat to peace in Northern Ireland Add to ...

But back to 2001 and the project’s beginnings. The first archive dealt with Irish republicans, primarily but not exclusively with the IRA. Another principle behind the project was unique. I had decided that the sensitivity of the subject made it impossible to use conventional oral-history researchers; they wouldn’t know whom to interview or what to ask, and the participants simply would not trust them. So we would need to recruit former combatants who were academically qualified – and, crucially, trusted and knowledgeable. Anthony McIntyre, an ex-member of the IRA who spent 18 years in prison, had later earned a doctorate in political science and his thesis dealt with the IRA in the 1970s. He was an ideal candidate.

We also started an archive dealing with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a ferocious pro-British, Protestant group that killed many people, mostly Catholics, often in awful ways. It, too, was part of the story, and we hired Wilson McArthur, a politics grad from a pro-UVF family. There also were plans to create an archive for the police, but the promised funding dried up.

By 2006 we had created a valuable archive from both sides of the conflict. While small – perhaps 40 interviewees altogether – it was unique and contained insights that would be valuable to historians.

That is when the college suddenly stopped funding. It had asked us to alter the terms of the contract to allow publication while the interviewees were still alive, and we’d refused. A few weeks later, the cheques stopped. We never did understand why but disappointment at our response was clearly a possibility.

IRA leadership a greasy pole

At the outset of the project, we faced a tricky dilemma. The UVF leadership had no problems co-operating with the researchers, but the IRA’s command would never have allowed its rank and file to take part. So it had to be kept in the dark.

The IRA is a much more controlling organization, and no one more so than Gerry Adams. He has been the president of Sinn Fein since 1982 and a member of the IRA’s leadership since the early 1970s. The IRA is a very greasy pole and to stay at the top as long as he has requires particularly sharp claws.

For reasons that even seasoned observers cannot understand, Mr. Adams decided, when the peace process began to get serious, to deny any and all association with the IRA. Now, while it is customary for members never to admit belonging to the IRA, not least because that would mean a jail term, they never deny it, either, because to do so means disowning their beliefs. If asked, IRA members usually refuse to comment or tell reporters to mind their own business.

Mr. Adams decided to deny his past completely, the first ever to do so. It may turn out to be the greatest mistake of his career.

To many of those in the IRA who had killed or maimed and gone to jail for lengthy terms, it looked as though he was seeking respectability, as the peace process brought him into the White House, to Hollywood and to the homes of the rich and powerful in the U.S. and elsewhere. Meanwhile they lingered in Belfast, disowned by their leader and with little to show for years of fighting.

One of those most upset was the late Dolours Price, famous for having led a bombing team that devastated the centre of London in 1973. Caught and jailed, she then embarked on a hunger strike for more than 200 days, kept alive by force feeding and nearly succumbing to anorexia.

“We had worked so closely with him and taken orders from him on many occasions,” she told a reporter in 2010 (three years before her death), “and then to deny us … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny belonging to the IRA. He is a liar.”

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