Interview: Gerry Adams

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
June / July 2005

As we go to press, Northern Ireland is immersed in elections, the outcome of which could mean serious implications for the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin is expected to emerge as the dominant nationalist party, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will likely end up as the leading Unionist party.

Under the peace agreement, this should lead to the province’s suspended government being revived, and led jointly by the DUP and Sinn Féin. But such a prospect is scarcely conceivable.

While Sinn Féin’s leaders have called for the Good Friday Agreement’s full implementation, the DUP, led by the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, opposes the Agreement. The DUP wants a new peace deal that guarantees Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, and has refused to serve with Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Talks of reinstating the Assembly, which was suspended in October, 2002 (for the fourth time), collapsed over the DUP’s insistence on photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning of weapons. And whatever slim hope Sinn Féin has of the Assembly being up and running this year was further dashed when the Northern Bank in Belfast was robbed in a pre-Christmas raid. Though no evidence that the IRA is responsible has yet been made public, Sinn Féin was charged with sanctioning the robbery and penalized by the House of Commons.

The death of Robert McCartney in a pub brawl in February, allegedly at the hands of republicans, again put Sinn Féin on the defensive, as the “Justice for Robert” campaign by McCartney’s sisters and fiancée made its way to Washington, D.C., in March — during St. Patrick’s week.

The McCartneys where invited to the White House, Gerry Adams was not. And for the first time since 1994, when Adams was granted a visa to enter the U.S., Senator Edward Kennedy did not meet with him.

On a grassroots level, Adams was made more welcome, particularly in New York City where he spoke to the Transit Workers Union, an event which was attended by John Sweeney, the powerful head of the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, the Irish media, particularly the Irish Independent (which incidentally, is owned by Anthony O’Reilly, founder of The American Ireland Fund) has been vicious in its attacks on Sinn Féin.

The Irish government has also been hard on Sinn Féin. And in what was perceived as a votecatching exercise for the SDLP (Sinn Féin’s rival nationalist party), Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell — who claims the IRA is planning to create “a state within a state” — and Foreign Minister Dermot Ahem, went north to meet with SDLP candidate Alasdair McDonnell.

This was seen as the Fianna Féil’s answer to the significant gains Sinn Féin has made in the 26-counties. The only all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin now has five TDS in the Dail, and one European Parliament member, Dubliner Mary Lou McDonald.

Despite its troubles Sinn Féin is upbeat about the future. As the election campaign heated up, Adams made a historic appeal to the IRA to disband and embrace a political way forward (see sidebar), and on the morning of our interview, April 21, he called on the Irish government to begin the practical planning for Irish unity now.

Patricia Harty: How’s it going with the election?

Gerry Adams: I have to say that in all the places I’ve been, the canvassing returns have been very encouraging. I’ve stayed away from any speculation about how well we are going to do or not, but I think that we are going to have a good election. We don’t take the voters for granted, but people do seem enthused.

The language that has been appearing in the papers is that the DUP will not sit with Sinn Féin at least for another generation. What do you say to that?

Well, they haven’t quite said that, but whatever they say, it was quite predictable that the battle within Unionism in this election will lead to the hardening up of the language. I actually think that [making sure there is power sharing] is a bigger challenge for Tony Blair than for anyone else. I don’t have any illusions about the DUP. I think that the DUP does want to do a deal on its own terms. Those terms cannot be acceptable, so it’s up to the British prime minister and the Taoiseach to bring them to the position where they accept that the terms are the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

There’s a lot of talk about criminality. How does it make you feel to hear that language coming from the Dublin government, when Bobby Sands and nine others died on hunger strike in a fight against being labeled criminals by the British?

Well, it doesn’t surprise me. I have said that the Dublin onslaught, the Irish government’s onslaught, is electorally driven. I don’t think that we should be too defensive. Sinn Féin is opposed to criminality of any sort. And because of the sacrifice of the hunger strikers, republicans do feel very sensitive and quite angry when they hear the stuff that is coming out of the Irish establishment. But May 5th was the day Bobby died, and also by complete coincidence, it is polling day in this election. So the electorate will have their say on it and I only hope that the Irish government and the rest of them accept the outcome.

Why did you feel that it was necessary to make that address to the IRA now?

For two main reasons: one, my view that the peace process was going down the tubes because of the poisonous atmosphere that had been created in recent times — the attitude of the two governments, the anger which is building within republicanism, and the vacuum which has been there for some time. I thought, as I said earlier, that we would get a hardening of position within Unionism during the elections. After the elections you’re nearly into the marching season, and before you know it it’s the autumn and the vacuum continues. So I thought it needed a bold initiative. Was Ian Paisley going to give you such an initiative, or David Trimble, or Michael McDowell, or Paul Murphy, the British Secretary of State?

The other motivation was my very clear view that the IRA was being used by those who are opposed to the process, or who want the minimal change. When we failed in December because of Unionist intransigence and the two governments, in my view, taking up the wrong position in supporting the DUP, we had a choice — either let the whole thing wither, with a disastrous outcome for everyone, or take the initiative to leapfrog over all the difficulties — and that’s what I tried to do.

In reality, what will Ian Paisley accept other than, people seem to think, public humiliation of the IRA?

Well, that doesn’t matter. The fact is that those who want the greatest change have to be able to make the biggest move — the biggest effort. We want the peace process pinned down and stabilized. We want the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented, and we want beyond that, a United Ireland. And it is going to be a battle a day with the DUP, on all the issues, not just on power-sharing, but on equality, on economic rights, on cultural rights, on political rights, and Sinn Féin is up for that. Sinn Féin has confidence in its own position.

If you are privy to what’s been happening here for a long time, you know now that the agenda is all-Ireland, that all of the Dublin parties are at least having to deal with that issue. So we don’t think we have all the answers, but we have confidence that there’s a political way forward, and that’s what I was saying in my remarks to the IRA.

So what is the reaction of the Dublin government to your call for a Green Paper on Irish unity?

Their reaction thus far has been fairly predictable. They haven’t responded in any positive way. The fact that it takes a political party to demand and to campaign for a Green Paper by the Irish government points to the failure of the Irish government thus far.

What we are asking the government to do, and we have no copyright on the issue of independence or Irish unity, is to debate these issues out. To look at why, on a small island like ours, you have a duplication of services. Why can’t people avail of decent health services North or South, if their illnesses so demand. Why you can’t build upon implementation bodies, and have a decent engagement for humanism?

Are you disappointed in the British Labour government? Have they been any better than the Conservatives who needed the Unionist vote?

Well, they have been. Again, I don’t have any illusions. I would say to republicans what do you expect a British government to do? The British government is there to uphold the union. So what Tony Blair has been, if you like, is a more benign prime minister, but in a lot of the fundamentals he hasn’t shifted. He needs to be shifted but I would argue if the Taoiseach isn’t putting it up to him on these issues, and if the SDLP isn’t putting it up to him on these issues, why should he listen to Sinn Féin? The British government will always take the easiest option.

So is it time to stop blaming the Brits and start looking to the Irish government to step up to the plate?

Well, I think that the British government obviously has a responsibility, and can’t dodge its responsibilities, but when you look at how you get a British government to face up to its responsibilities, we who live on the island of Ireland, and who are in political leadership, have to get our act in order, and the first line of that has to be the Irish government.

You said the Dublin onslaught on Sinn Féin is electorally driven. Can you talk a about that and Sinn Féin’s role in the Republic of Ireland?

The fact that Sinn Féin is growing right across the country presents a real threat to the election of Labour [the Irish Labour Party]. We out-polled Labour in County Meath, in what was the most vile, nasty, untruthful campaign against Sinn Féin. And the fact that Labour couldn’t outpoll us shows that they feel threatened. Fianna Féil also feels threatened.

I do think that the Taoiseach gets numerous complaints from backbenchers and from his party activists on the ground. I think [the threat] is exaggerated, and I said that to the Taoiseach, because we have to develop our party and our organizational base. But the fact that Grainne McGeady was selected in the Údaras na Gaeltachta elections [Údaras is the government agency charged with supporting employment in the Gaeltacht and this is the first time that Sinn Féin has put up a candidate in Donegal] shows that there is a Sinn Féin seat in the Dail in the next election. That’s on the back of Pearse Doherty’s European union achievement. [Doherty narrowly missed being returned as an MEP for the constituency].

Sinn Féin is active when it can be. We’re also the only all-Ireland party. But if you ask me how to judge Sinn Féin’s success, it isn’t just on electoral achievements, it’s in how we can bring about change, and how we can affect the agenda, and all of that is aggravating the minds of the more conservative parties in the South.

Is it possible that Fianna Fail is forming an alliance with the SDLP?

I don’t really know. The SDLP was bad mouthing the Irish government in December, and in November the Irish government left the SDLP out of discussions against our wishes. And while I welcomed the visits of the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, I made the point that the Minister of Justice could usefully have gone to the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry, which opened up in Craigavin this week. A ministerial visit to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal may have been a useful intervention, and people in the Short Strand and the Garvahey Road or Ardoyne would have welcomed Dublin ministers.

But then Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labor, and the PD’s have always campaigned against Sinn Féin in the North, always. Their very senior party leaders were here on the ground in all of the constituencies, in all of the elections I’ve ever contested.

Why is there an unwillingness to put the peace process above local politics?

Well, it’s as old as politics, I suppose. The partitionism, the existence of the two states, people being cozy in their little positions, the revelations of corruption, the peace process, the growth of Sinn Féin, all of those are reasons. And I’ve said this directly to the Taoiseach; they have the ability to do focus analysis of the elections so they are looking ten years down the road. They are looking at Mary Lou McDonald’s vote, and the fact that she couldn’t have been elected without preferences from the other parties, and they are looking at the trends. It isn’t about the last election or even the next election, it’s what’s going to be the situation in ten years’ time. We get things stabilized in the North. We get the peace process moving forward. Sinn Féin continues to make gains here. Sinn Féin is the only all-Ireland party. Sinn Féin keeps building in the South, and that is what they are trying to stop. And Sinn Féin is the only party with an actual strategy towards Irish unity.

Seven years after the Good Friday Agreement, how much time has the Assembly been in operation?

The institution has not been in place for any period longer than 18 months, that’s been like Humpty Dumpty, punctuated by period of suspension.

There gas been some criticism of Sinn Féin not taking up their seats in Westminster. Do you think that that will ever change?

No, I don’t think so, and I would certainly be opposed to it. We developed a strategy of active abstentionism. In the past when republicans or nationalists were elected as abstentionists, they were elected and then they went home. We’re actively abstentionists. We got the British to give us, as per our rights, our facilities as MPs. We make representations. We lobby. We do everything except go into the chamber and take the oath to the English queen. The fact is that even though the SDLP may argue [against Sinn Féin’s absentionism], it has the worst attendance record of all the parties.

The trust of politics in this island, the political center of gravity in the island, is Ireland. We have succeeded in getting the Irish government, and the constitutional reform, the subcommittee of the Oireachtas, to agree to Northern representation in the Southern institutions. So hopefully, it will not be long before you get Northern MPs debating in the Dail. We don’t have the right to vote at this point, but symbolically that would be a very important development. If the Unionists want to continue going to Westminster, fair enough, but for the rest of us, the center of political gravity has to be the island of Ireland. I don’t dismiss the idea that even while attending Westminster, Ian Paisley will come to put his case in the Dail, if the Taoiseach moves to bring about Northern representation.

So essentially you would have one Ireland?

Oh, absolutely. The whole thrust of what should be a sensible Irish government position at the moment would be to expand the all-Ireland dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement. There is no reason why a person from the North requiring treatment for cancer or cardiac couldn’t get it in Cork. Or, given the lack of facilities for women in West Galway, they couldn’t be flown up here to West Belfast to avail of facilities here. There is no reason why in education, tourism, transport all of those, we can’t share whatever happens to be the expertise on each part of the island.

Getting back to the the issue of policing, and building trust in the community. Will Sinn Féin be joining the policing board?

We will be joining the policing board but not until it is the type of policing board that allows us, and everyone else on it, to have more authority than the current board has. When it comes to the point where we have the framework, I’m very strongly of the view that we need to have a community debate. There is no point in Sinn Féin going off and having its own little discussion on this. The people who have suffered from state policing need to have their views heard.

What challenges present themselves for republicans in the time ahead?

One, to deal with the issue of the IRA. Two, to deal with the DUP in terms of sharing government with them, and then three, the whole issue of policing. So there are big challenges. We are living in interesting times.

What about the possibility of an IRA split? When we interviewed you in 2001 you said that the most important thing with the IRA constituency is to avoid any serious split.

That still is my contention. I would characterize any split or schism within the IRA as a failure of leadership by us. There are people within republicanism who disagree with our positions on a lot of issues. I validate their right to have a different view. I think dissent is entirely legitimate. I like to believe that we create an atmosphere where people are empowered enough to disagree with the leadership, and I would always uphold people’s right to do that. It is a matter of us all staying together and having thorough debates and discussions, and united — I know it is an old cliche — united we stand.

So I would be very, very focused, on bringing as many people as possible with us. In terms of what service I can be to this process, I would say it is my ability and the ability of people like Martin McGuinness to bring as many other republicans with us. Once we lose the ability to bring other people with us, then we are of no good service to this process.

How did you feel about your last trip to America?

I thought it was good. I’m glad I went. I was very focused. I have a great affection for Irish America. I think that there has been a huge bond built up between us. Certainly, in my personal experience in the time that I’ve been going there, the meetings at grassroots level were bigger than they would have been otherwise. I found the experience similar to what’s happening here with our grass roots — that the attacks on us have galvanized supporters. And I’m glad that we were there dealing with people at government level and people within the media, who would not necessarily be supporters. We were taking it on the chin and we were giving our responses, but I’m glad we were there and I came away with a feeling that it was a very important visit.

Thank you very much, Gerry Adams. 

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