When the world learned of the capture and subsequent death of Muammar Gaddafi on Oct. 20, 2011, academics and pundits and political leaders looked to official responses before framing their own. The United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, and the National Transitional Council of Libya all weighed in on the deposed leader’s capture and death.
I, however, wanted to see what kind of rhetorical response came from organizations that had less clear-cut opposition to Gaddafi’s 42-year regime. Over the last 20 years, it seems to have been forgotten that Gaddafi was a major supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the organization responsible for the period of political unrest and violence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s known as “the Troubles.”
So, how did the political party associated with the IRA, Sinn Féin (translation: “We Ourselves”), handle talking about Gaddafi? The question is interesting to me as a rhetorical scholar because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader and newly elected member of the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (parliament) as of February 2011, flatly denies any personal involvement with the IRA, much less with Gaddafi.
It has been clearly documented that Gaddafi was an ardent supporter of the IRA, supplying the organization with money, explosives, and weapons. Reports from some Irish media outlets even claim that as late as June 2011, a Libyan government courier flew $2 million to London for the IRA. The latest report aside, the rhetoric of the IRA during the 1970s made explicit reference to Gaddafi’s wisdom and vision as a political leader. In the IRA’s publication, An Phoblacht (translation: The People), Gaddafi is praised for the political ideas in his Green Book.
While the IRA looked to Gaddafi and other Arab leaders like Algeria’s Houari Boumedienne for a framework for the kind of Irish political system they envisioned, Gaddafi supplied them with weapons against the British, not because Gaddafi had any concern for Irish history, culture or language, or even for the Irish people themselves, but because he hated in the Brits what he saw as western cultural and economic imperialism—a similar reason why al Qaeda is at odds with the United States today.
Within six hours of Gaddafi’s death, a simple Google search of “Sinn Féin Gaddafi” yielded countless returns from Irish media outlets and blogs about the relationship between the two. As of this writing, neither Sinn Féin nor Gerry Adams had officially made comment.
Politically, Adams was wise to say publicly on Feb. 25, 2011, “My sympathies are with those demanding democracy and freedom. What is happening in the Arab world and in North Africa is a popular outcry for democracy and political reform, which should be supported by the international community. Sinn Féin supports the right of all people to democratic rights.” From a rhetorical/public relations perspective, this is a smart move given the political situation: Gaddafi had begun committing atrocities against his own people, and Adams was up for election to the Dáil that same week.
This, however, causes an ethical problem for Adams and for Sinn Féin’s PR machine. One can’t expect an audience (especially an Irish audience who lived through the Troubles) to grant ethos to a rhetorician/politician who has flatly denied an affiliation so clearly documented.
Not many in the West are denying that Gaddafi’s removal from power may be good for freedom and for the natural right of human beings to political self-will. Adams’ problem—and Sinn Féin’s—is a rhetorical and ethical one. One might effectively argue that Adams would have been further ahead to admit an organizational affiliation 30 years ago while explicitly making clear that Sinn Féin had distanced or even ended a relationship with Gaddafi in recent years, given the atrocities he committed later in his rule. Adams’ credibility—along with Sinn Féin’s narrative of political self-will—might be strengthened by such a rhetorical admission and subsequent condemnation, as opposed to the distanciation tactic they chose.