For three decades, from the late 1960’s to the 1990’s, Northern Ireland saw violent political conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities, resulting in three and a half thousand deaths. Catholics considered the British government dictatorial and biased towards the Protestants in areas such as housing, employment, education and policing. Normal interaction and friendship with people from the opposite side of the religious divide was near impossible because of the fear and mistrust the Troubles generated.
Gerry Adams was one person who fought against the oppression of the British government. He was born in 1948 in Ballymurphy, the Catholic working-class area of Belfast that witnessed one of the first massacres of the Troubles in 1971, when eleven innocent civilians were murdered by the British Army. His parents and both sets of grandparents came from strong republican backgrounds. During the 1970’s Gerry spent long periods in prison during the internment era, when civil rights’ activists were falsely accused of IRA membership and held without charge. It was this background that led Gerry into the political arena. In 1983 he was elected an MP and the following year, after four years as vice-president, became the president of Sinn Féin. Under his leadership he has made Sinn Féin the largest Northern Ireland Catholic political party and the second largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Gerry paid the price of war on a personal level. His father and a brother were shot and injured. Several of his uncles and one of his brothers-in-law were shot dead. Gerry’s home was bombed, his wife and one of his children only narrowly escaping death. In 1984 Gerry was badly injured but survived an assassination attempt by loyalist extremists.
Many consider him a man of mystery and intrigue. This is partly because of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which stopped his voice being heard on TV and radio broadcasts, but more significantly, there was the difficulty people had in differentiating between his association with Sinn Féin and the IRA.
Not everyone likes Gerry Adams, but few would doubt his commitment and determination to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. In fact some political commentators single him out as one of the most influential politicians (apart from John Hume) in brokering the pathway to the peace process and the IRA ceasefire, which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with joint power sharing between unionists and republicans.
In addition to a lifetime in politics, Gerry is an accomplished writer. He is a member of PEN, the international guild of writers, having written fourteen books, including autobiographical works and texts on Irish politics and history.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gerry Adams for the Irish Community News at his constituency office on the Falls Road in Belfast. I was surprised to find him very different from his perceived stern presence on television. Instead, I found him to be a friendly, likeable and down-to-earth man who projected a calm aura. We spoke about the Good Friday Agreement, dissent groups and his work as an MP.
The following are the answers Gerry Adams gave to my questions.
DH: With regards to the Good Friday Agreement, where does it go from here? What is the next step?
GA: The Good Friday Agreement is not a political settlement. It is an accommodation and a basis for political advancement. It also introduced fundamental political change into Northern Ireland from what had been the status quo.
If you want to get some sense of the depth of the problems arising from British government involvement in Ireland and the partition of the island then look at the breadth of the Agreement. It had to deal with constitutional and institutional equality, justice, and policing matters. It established power-sharing institutions rooted in an all-island structure.
Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. We believe in the right of the Irish people to freedom and independence and Irish reunification. Our strategy is to achieve a united Ireland. That is our goal. The Good Friday Agreement is a means through which, democratically and peacefully, that goal and all of these matters can be discussed, agreed and can progress.
DH: Do you think that Republicanism and a united Ireland must be relevant to modern day life – and if so can you expand a little on this?
GA: Fine rhetoric won’t bring about change in the lives of citizens. We have to make republican politics relevant to people in their daily lives. We have to demonstrate through the work of our activists, the policies we advocate, and those we pursue in government, that Sinn Féin can deliver real and progressive change for people.
That means tackling poverty and injustice and defending public services and promoting economic justice and equality in society.
DH: Do you think a united Ireland is achievable in your lifetime?
GA: Yes. But it is not inevitable. It won’t happen because it is right. It will happen because Irish republicans are focussed and determined and have a strategy that can make it happen.
DH: Sinn Fein did badly in the last 2007 General Election in the Republic (blamed on the increased prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, resulting in fewer people, particularly young people, interested in a united Ireland) How do you feel about this – and what plans do you have to make Sinn Fein more electable in the Republic and would you consider going into coalition with another political party?
GA: People voted in the belief that the prosperity they had enjoyed as a result of the Celtic Tiger would continue. All of the parties on the left were hurt in that election, including the Labour Party, which failed to take an expected and sizeable number of new seats and in fact lost one of its existing TDs.
At that time Sinn Féin warned that the government was wasting public money. That it was squandering the prosperity that was being created by the Celtic Tiger. We argued for investment in public services. In hindsight, and with the collapse of the southern economy, many people now accept that our analysis and proposals were accurate.
We have also brought forward thoughtful costed and effective alternative economic proposals that can take the state out of recession.
We are also underdeveloped organisationally in the south and that has to be addressed So, there is a lot of work ahead for the party.
In the north Sinn Féin has emerged after two elections as the largest party – in terms of votes – that is a considerable achievement. But we have to keep building the party in the north and attracting more votes and new members in the south.
DH: Are you pleased with the results of the Bloody Sunday enquiry? Do you think there should be an enquiry in the Ballymurphy massacre? How helpful are these enquires in speeding up the healing process?
GA: The decision by Tony Blair to hold the Bloody Sunday inquiry was a courageous decision, which was clearly taken by him as part of the evolving peace process and the negotiations that were then taking place in early 1998 prior to the Good Friday Agreement. But the length of time it took to conclude and the enormous cost are down directly to the machinations of the British Ministry of Defence and others within the British system who worked hard to subvert and prevent the Inquiry from getting to the whole truth. They sought to do this in a number of ways, including failing to provide essential materials and destroying other evidence. These same elements will continue to seek to prevent further inquiries or the creation of any serious effort to uncover the truth.
The Ballymurphy families are campaigning for a full, international investigation into the events of August 1971. Many victims and victims’ groups want the truth. Sinn Féin supports the establishment of an international truth recovery mechanism which examines the causes and consequences of the conflict and which is independent of the state, combatant groups, political parties, civic society and economic interests. That is the only way to ensure maximum confidence and maximum participation.
DH: Are dissident republican groups a headache for you? What percentage of republicans do you think are ‘dissident’ and against the Good Friday agreement and have you ever had any talks with them – is your door open?
GA: There are a number of so-called dissident groups. They are small and unrepresentative and have no popular support. Their actions are opposed by the vast majority of citizens. And while they have the ability to carry out occasional actions they are not the IRA and do not have the popular support or organisational or resource capacity to engage in the sort of armed struggle that went on for almost three decades.
Recently Sinn Féin has sought to engage with these groups in order to put very directly to them our view that ongoing armed actions have no place in the struggle for Irish unity.
I accept that other republicans have the right to disagree with the Sinn Féin strategy. They also have every right to oppose us politically and in elections. Indeed they have done so in the past and the republican community has delivered their verdict – they received a derisory vote.
However, they do not have the right to engage in armed actions. There is now a peaceful and democratic path available to a united Ireland – the vast majority of republicans are on it.
We want these groups to reflect on the political realities of Ireland in 2010. That is the purpose of our efforts to meet and talk to them.
DH: Please tell me a little about your work as a Sinn Fein MP – what sort of social problems do your constituents bring to you? Have you seen any differences in the social problems since the peace process? If so – what are the changes?
GA: Sinn Féin has a strategic plan for west Belfast, which brings together our councillors, MLAs and me as MP. It is about ensuring maximum investment in infrastructure and employment and housing while seeking to tackle the many difficulties that beset citizens; unemployment; poverty; suicide; anti-social crime; drug and alcohol abuse and so on.
The problems confronting citizens in west Belfast are similar to those faced by urban working class communities in many other countries. However our difficulties are made more difficult by generational discrimination and decades of war.
One change that it now quite stark is the number of people from the Shankill part of the constituency who are coming to Sinn Féin seeking help.
DH: You speak Irish fluently? Would you like to see more investment put into the language in the Northern Ireland educational system?
GA: I have a good working knowledge of it now and I strive to improve it each day. Under Martin McGuinness in his time as Education Minister and now Caitriona Ruane, the Irish language is receiving as of right significant investment but the DUP are in breach of their obligations to introduce an Irish Language Act to give legal rights to Irish speakers.
DH: If you were to recommend just one of your favourite books by an Irish author – what would this be and why?
GA: Call my Brother Back by Michael McLaverty. Because it captures Belfast and County Antrim and tells a story vividly and with wonderful under stated skill.
Gerry has since left politics in Northern Ireland and moved across the border where he because TD for the constituency of Louth in 2011. He was lovely to interview and came across as a genuinely warm man.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine