The Guardian Saturday Interview: Gerry Adams. 17 December 2005

The first thing you notice when having lunch with Gerry Adams is that people are prone to stare in the most peculiar way, as if the president of Sinn Fein were part celebrity and part leper. We have, however, chosen to eat at one of the restaurants in the House of Commons. Given that many of our fellow diners are parliamentarians and their guests, and that Adams’s comrades have devoted much of their lives to blowing them and their government to kingdom come, they have more reason than most to be giving us a sideways look.
It is fitting that we have chosen the Strangers’ Dining Room because it is not often that the member for West Belfast makes it over to his Westminster office. He was supposed to be travelling to America several weeks back to attend a Sinn Fein fundraising dinner, but had to pull out when the US slapped restrictions on his visa for failing to speak positively about the new, Protestant-dominated Police Service of Northern Ireland. Given the havoc it’s playing with his travel arrangements, I wonder if he feels inclined to say anything nice about the PSNI, or even give it his approval. “Of course progress has been made,” he says. “But we have a right to be policed by our peers in a transparent and democratically accountable way.”
Surely that leaves a hiatus over policing in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland, given that the IRA has been stood down but the PSNI has not yet been approved by Sinn Fein? Not at all, says Adams. The devil, he thinks, is in the detail. “I think certainly if the British government gets to the point of doing what they are supposed to do, then republicans would be challenged.” Will that be a huge issue? “Probably the biggest.”
To talk to Adams nowadays is to be privy to the strange dialect and theological subtleties of peace-process politics. It is like lip-reading, like learning a new language. Despite the scepticism of just about everyone outside his circle, Adams continues to deny that he was ever a member of the IRA, and that the IRA had anything to do with the Northern Bank robbery last December. To press him on the subject would be fruitless: Adams will not budge. Years of interrogation by journalists – and before that, the RUC and the British army – make it unlikely he will tell you anything he doesn’t mean you to hear. Slainte , he says, raising his glass of house red with the traditional Irish toast, and follows it with something else in the Irish language that I don’t understand. Like Adams, I’m a Catholic from Belfast, but I tell him I was kicked out of Irish class after a year – that the teacher had called me a lemon. “A lemon? That’s a big disclosure. And it’s on the record – I have this recorded, you know.” Adams’s sense of humour is drier than dust.
Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 declared that Britain has no selfish interest in Northern Ireland and that it could become part of the Irish Republic if a majority of its citizens wished it, the place has been stuck in a kind of constitutional limbo. It is no longer an ordinary part of the UK, but neither is it not a part of the UK. The Good Friday agreement, he says, recognises that the state needs to be embedded in an all-Ireland political architecture. But so did the Anglo-Irish agreement back in 1985, I say. It is not the same, he replies. “There are now Irish civil servants working every day of the week in Armagh.”
Adams says the relationship between Northern Ireland and the UK reminds him of a couple who decide to divorce but agree to wait until the children are grown up. It is a clever and persuasive analogy, but it is also an unfortunate one, as it reduces the people of Northern Ireland to children, and that is how they are too often portrayed. The problem with the new arrangements, I suggest, is that they add a new kind of sectarianism to the old. At least in principle, during the bad old days, the battle was between Irish republicans and the British state, even if the rural Protestants who were often on the receiving end of it did not see it that way. But under the new dispensation, Adams wants the British government to become “persuaders for Irish unity” among the Unionists.
Will this further flame suspicion between orange and green? Adams doesn’t see it. In his latest book The New Ireland: A Vision for the Future, he describes the arrangements as a “new phase” – but how long is this new phase going to last? “It is a work in progress,” he says. “We could be, for all of our active political lives, involved in various phases. There are so many factors.” You have to look, he says, at where the situation is today compared with 1968 to see how much progress has been made. “In the history books, this last decade will be reduced to a single page.”
Many Unionists are convinced that secret deals have been made, that the inscrutable Adams has more up his sleeve that he is letting on. But whatever people’s grievances about the past, it is obvious that Adams and the political machine that surrounds him have turned from poachers to gamekeepers within the new Northern Irish state.
Can he envisage the circumstances in which Sinn Fein might take its seats at Westminster? “No,” he says, “there is just no point.” It is a pragmatic answer. For all its proud history and its apparently rigid dogmas, Irish republicanism has always been a pragmatic animal, endlessly malleable under the weight of different historical circumstances. How much have circumstances changed, and how much has the strategy of Irish republicans changed? “I would argue that the objectives remain the same, that the broad principles remain the same. Of course the tactics have changed. But the classic republican position and the strategic position was always to get the maximum number of people to your position. Now Sinn Fein is the largest pro-agreement party in the north of Ireland and the third-largest party on the island of Ireland.”
The history of Irish republicanism is also the history of betrayals or perceived betrayals on the part of the leadership. I wonder whether Adams ever fears being seen as another Michael Collins, as someone who compromised on the idea of a united Ireland and was subsequently viewed by many of his peers as a sell-out. “Like any thinking human being,” he says, “I have doubts about many things. But a lot of what happened in Ireland was as a result of the militaristic tendency being in the ascendancy most of the time. I don’t want to glamorise, but there was a lot of bravery, determination and courage. But what was the outcome? A divided Ireland. What was lacking was the political ideology, the unity of purpose, the coherency of a vision and of objectives.” It is, I think, the closest Adams will get to an admission that the years of armed struggle failed.
Adams is part of a generation of republicans whose political education was forged in the Maze prison in the mid-1970s. Their internment taught them to be less parochial and more worldly in their politics, and one school of thought suggests that, as they got older and the international political scene changed, they started to accommodate the possible. The raciest of these accounts, such as that in the journalist Ed Moloney’s recent book A Secret History of the IRA, has Adams singlehandedly plotting to steer the IRA towards peace over the past few decades, even when he was talking war. Does he see any similarity in the roles played by him and Tony Blair in nursing their respective organisations through a long period of difficult change? Adams concedes that it might contain a tiny grain of truth. “There are obviously matters of broad political management, issues which are common to all organisations which are in a process of change.” He says he “absolutely” respects the prime minister and has a good working relationship with him. “He made the Labour party electable and he gave them a huge majority.”
We have finished our food, and it is nearly closing time. We walk out of the House of Commons to look for the photographer. As soon as we find him, he asks Adams and I to chat while he takes his pictures. Adams wants to talk about music – he’s an opera fan, apparently – and so I ask him to give me a few bars of the famous Protestant ballad The Sash. Gallantly, Adams proceeds to sing a little of it through his fixed smile for the photographer. He has a good voice, but he’s singing it in Irish, and as I don’t know the words he knows I won’t be able to sing along.