Irish nationalist leader, born 1948

Biography in brief

Born in Belfast on October 6th, 1948, into a working class family with a long history of involvement in Irish republicanism and nationalism. Worked as a bartender as a young man, but has apparently devoted himself full-time to the republican cause since joining Sinn Féin and/or the IRA at the outset of the current troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. When the republican movement split in the early 1970s, he sided with the "Provisional" wing, who largely eclipsed the "Official" wing over the course of the conflict. Interned without trial by the Northern Ireland government several times during the 1970s. Elected vice-President of Provisional Sinn Féin in 1978, and has been its President since 1983. Survived attempted assassination in 1984, sustaining serious wounds. Elected to the British Parliament in 1982, although in line with Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy he never actually took his seat. Remained an MP until he was defeated in 1992, but regained the seat in the 1997 election. Has been a member of the new Northern Ireland Assembly since its institution in 1998.

Has been involved in key negotiations with the British government and others throughout the conflict, often in secret. At the age of 24, he formed part of an IRA delegation that travelled to London for secret talks with British government representatives in 1972. Held secret discussions with John Hume over an extended period since 1988, leading to contacts with the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds, and British Prime Minister John Major. These contacts led ultimately to the IRA ceasefire of 1994 (which was broken in 1996, but reinstated in 1997), and subsequent peace process. Led Sinn Féin into all-party peace negotiations sponsored by the two governments, culminating in the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Adams convinced his party to unequivocally back this accord, despite the fact that it enshrined the principle of consent as the basis for deciding the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, a concept the republican movement had always rejected. Has worked since 1998 to obtain the implementation of the Agreement most favourable to republicans, and to maintain unity within the republican movement.

Adams is married to Colette McArdle, with three children, and lives in Belfast. Author of several works of fiction, political commentary, and autobiography.

Who is Gerry Adams?

The bearded, bespectacled, buck-toothed visage of Gerry Adams is the most recognisable public face of violent Irish republicanism, and has latterly been associated with the transition of this movement to ceasefire and peace negotiations. Despite his apparent omnipresence in the media when events in Northern Ireland are being discussed, however, Adams is a frustratingly opaque character. One of his favourite phrases is, "Let's be perfectly clear about this...", but generally this is deployed for obfuscation rather than illumination. In writing about Adams, It is possible to list the important events of his life, rehearse his birth date and marital status, and so on, but any assessment of his character will inevitably be coloured by one's political perspective. At the extreme ends of the political divide, there are those who see him as either an Antichrist or a saviour. More moderate political opinion provides several possible perspectives on this controversial figure:

  • Peacemaker: It is possible to see Adams as the man who changed the republican movement from within, slowly (oh so very slowly) turning it from its determination to end partition through violent means, first to a twin-track approach combining both politics and armed struggle, and ultimately phasing out the violent aspect of the campaign. If this has been his true motivation, however, how could he, for 30 years, have stayed at the centre of a movement responsible for an estimated 1,700 deaths and countless maimings? Did it really take this long to convince his recalcitrant comrades that the armed struggle could not ultimately succeed? Or was his conversion to the cause of peace a more recent occurence?

  • Terrorist: Adams has always denied ever being a member of the IRA. If this is true, his non-membership is almost certainly a mere formality. As the BBC's Stephen Grimason says:

    ...to this day - and it is one of the more unfathomable aspects of the man - he denies ever being in the IRA, even though it would have been impossible for him to have risen to the position he now holds if that were not the case.1
    Even if Adams does not sit on the IRA's seven-man army council, as many security sources believe him to, it is clear that Adams is much closer to the IRA's commanders than any regular IRA volunteer, and must hold a degree of responsibility for their 30-year campaign of terror, vigilantism, extortion and simple robbery. Although he is closely associated with convincing the IRA to declare a ceasefire, support the Good Friday Agreement, and begin decommissioning their weapons, many still see him as a representative of an active terrorist organisation, who are simply involved in politics ("war by other means") for as long as it suits them.

  • Republican Hero: While it is difficult for this writer to get into the head of somebody who could believe that the IRA's campaign since the 1970s has been justified, let alone productive from the point of view of achieving republican aims, it must be acknowledged that there are those who hold these views. Most of these people seem to live in the USA and Australia, but the IRA has many supporters in Ireland, chiefly Northern Ireland, and an increasing number of younger people, with no first-hand memory of IRA atrocities, are willing to accept this version of history. To most of these people, Adams is the man who has brought Ireland closer to unification than at any time since the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. The methods - political, military or otherwise - are not of concern, what matters is that concessions have been won from the British, Unionism is on the defensive, and Sinn Féin speaks of unification being achieved in time for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The counterargument to this view, of course, is that there is nothing to suggest that the IRA's campaign did anything other than delay the reforms demanded by the Civil Rights movement since the 1960s.

  • Traitor: Not every republican, of course, is convinced that Adams' path has been the correct one. What concessions have been won, they point out, have been at the expense of successive compromises in republican doctrine. In 1986, for example, he convinced Sinn Féin to end the policy of abstaining from participation in Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the Irish republic. In 1998, he convinced the party to participate in the newly established Northern Ireland Assembly, despite the fact that the party had just a year previously rejected the creation of such an assembly as part of its General Election manifesto. Perhaps the most significant deviation from republican doctrine, however, is the acceptance, through the Good Friday Agreement, of the principle of consent, whereby change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only come about through the consent of a majority of the people of that part of the island. Republicans had always rejected this formula, as the borders of Northern Ireland had been originally designed to ensure that the province contained a Unionist majority. The principle of consent, however, as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, gives the Unionists a veto on the creation of a United Ireland for as long as they remain in the majority. Crucially, however, this state of affairs has been overwhelmingly endorsed by all the people of Ireland in the dual referenda which ratified the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

    For die-hard republicans, however, ideology and doctrine have always over-ridden democratic concerns. Although the majority of the republican movement have remained behind Adams and his strategy, there have been splits, and dissident groups such as the "Real IRA" continue an armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. To these groups, Adams and his colleagues are turncoats, and enemies of republicanism. When the IRA announced it was decommissioning some of its weaponry, Republican Sinn Féin, which is seen as the political wing of the Continuity IRA, issued a statement condemning the act as treason, saying that the weapons had been obtained for the purposes of freeing Ireland, and the Provisional IRA had no right to destory them while this aim remained unattained.

  • Politician: Nobody can deny that Adams is as slick a politician as they come. His powers of spin, public relations, electioneering and fundraising would put Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Charles Haughey to shame. If he weren't shackled to such a small-minded ideology, it is frightening to contemplate what he could achieve. Nowhere have the dark arts of electioneering been refined further than in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin, despite being a late entrant into electoral politics, play this game with the best of them. Sinn Féin have used Adams' high profile to great effect, and make sure that he is always flanked by a couple of lesser-known candidates when appearing before the media. This method has become known as "Doughnutting", as the great statesmen Adams and Martin McGuinness always appear at the centre of a doughnut of republican non-entities seeking a higher profile.

    In politics Adams has very nearly achieved the ability to be all things to all people. To the world at large he has built up an image of international statesman, flitting between the White House and 10 Downing Street in search of the elusive peace. In the Republic of Ireland he attempts to portray himself not only as peacemaker, but also as an opponent of the corruption which has blighted politics in the South in recent decades. In Ireland he continues to espouse the establishment of a Marxist republic, although it is unlikely he stresses this aim too much when meeting American Republicans on Capitol Hill. Crucially, he has been able to proclaim his party as entirely separate from the IRA, while acknowledging their close ties when it suits him, with a nod and a wink to his own constituency of die-hard republicans.

    In the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, and indeed in subsequent talks and political manouevres, it is clear that a large part of Adams' clout comes from his perceived ability to keep the IRA on ceasefire. When it suits him, however, he has been able to disclaim any responsibility for the IRA's actions or lack thereof. When the peace process became hung up on decommissioning, Adams was able to state that the IRA were not party to the Good Friday Agreement, and had therefore never agreed to decommission anything. He was able to claim that Sinn Féin were fulfilling their responsibilities under the Agreement by "using their influence" to attain decommissioning, something which could never be measured, given that the nature of the Sinn Féin-IRA relationship remains hidden.

    In public, then, Adams claims that Sinn Féin stands entirely on its electoral mandate, but it is clear that the IRA's continued existence strengthens his hand immeasurably in private political negotiations. However disingenuous this strategy, however, Adams has been able to translate perceived political power into genuine electoral gains, overtaking the SDLP as the main party representing nationalists in the 2001 Westminster elections. Under Adams, then, Sinn Féin has attained electoral success unprecedented in this phase of the conflict. This can be largely ascribed to the adroit way in which Adams and his colleagues have reflected the credit for the recent peace onto themselves, and deflected the blame for the imperfect nature of this peace onto just about everyone else.

Conclusion

We will probably have to leave it to historians of subsequent generations to knit these various perspectives together to create a portrait of this contradictory character. One thing which can be said, however, is that Adams is the most remarkable leader the republican movement has produced since Eamon de Valera. Now that he seems likely to follow de Valera's lead and make the move from the shadows of violent republicanism into the bright lights of constitutional politics, it remains to be seen whether he can bury his past as effectively as did de Valera in the late 1920s and 1930s. It would appear that he has already convinced the bulk of his followers to abandon the absolutist position of the 32-county republic or nothing, in favour of a "stepping-stone" approach based on the ballot box rather than the bomb or the bullet. We cannot be certain how genuine or lasting this conversion will prove, but it can't be denied that it is strongly reminiscent of de Valera's own belated conversion to the analysis adopted by Michael Collins in 1922. One is bound to point out, however, that it only took de Valera a year to realise that his aims could not be attained by armed struggle, while it has apparently taken Adams and his cohorts the best part of 30 years to appreciate the futility of the conflict.

1. Profile of Gerry Adams on http://news.bbc.co.uk/

URLs:
Sinn Féin web site: http://www.sinnfein.ie/
CNN profile: http://www.cnn.com/resources/newsmakers/world/europe/adams.html
Guardian profile: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/person/0,9290,-17,00.html
Princess Grace Irish Library datasheet (highly recommended): http://www.pgil-eirdata.org/html/pgil_datasets/authors/a/Adams,Gerry/life.htm

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