You ask the questions: (Such as: Gerry Adams, was your decision to join the peace process strategic or moral?)

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Gerry Adams, 50, has been president of Sinn Fein since 1983. In 1971 he was interned for suspected terrorist activity. He is now MP for Belfast West, and was an active negotiator for Sinn Fein during the forging of the Good Friday agreement.

Who has been the greatest influence on your life?

Cecile Stewart, Chippenham

There have been so many people... my parents, my grandmother, Colette, Christ, Mairead Farrell, Bobby Sands and many more. It would be wrong to single out a particular individual.

Do you see an end to the punishment beatings?

Helena Jack, Edinburgh

Yes. They should stop immediately. We also need a new policing service and criminal justice system, as well as the involvement of the community.

Until the Police Commission has reported and until we have a proper policing service, we still need to tackle in a non-violent, legal but effective way the problem of antisocial and criminal behaviour. Some elements have sought selfishly to exploit the existing gap in the justice system. One response to this in the last two years has been the formation of a number of community/neighbourhood watch groups. They have significantly improved the quality of life of people living in areas of Belfast like Twinbrook and Poleglass and the Whiterock.

Nor is the problem resolved by vigilantism or by battering young people, some of whom are unfairly categorised as "hoods". The notion of restorative justice is required, in which the community plays a proactive role in reforming and rehabilitating criminals. The community must agree the principles underlying any restorative justice programme.

What is your opinion of Michael Collins: hero or traitor?

Steve Holloway, Nottingham

I don't see people in that context. Everyone has to be judged in their own time, and while I believe that Collins should not have accepted the treaty in the way he did, there were many, many other leaders involved. His death during the Irish civil war was tragic proof of the efficacy of the tactic of divide and conquer which has underwritten Britain's involvement in Ireland.

Have you ever thought of packing it in, and going to live in America and earning a fortune?

Student, University of Ulster

I have never thought of going to live in America, though I would like to visit there and many other places in a more leisurely and more casual - anonymous - way. Nor have I thought of earning a fortune. But I have thought of packing it in...

I live in Warrington and I'm of Northern Irish Catholic descent. I was in Warrington with my young son on the morning of the bomb attack. My relatives in Northern Ireland and myself were deeply affected by the event. Do you think that it was a catalyst in the rapid progress of the peace agreement in the aftermath?

Thomas Conlon, Warrington, Cheshire

The killing of Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry in Warrington, though it was clearly a mistake, was wrong. I know I was deeply moved by the death of the two boys. It is difficult to know exactly how much of a catalyst this particular incident was, because unfortunately there have been many such tragic incidents involving young people killed by either the IRA, the loyalists or the British Crown forces.

The families of the two boys killed at Warrington, like many of the other families of victims, behave with great dignity and courage. I like to think that all of these killings are an incentive for those of us who are committed to building a lasting peace settlement. Unfortunately, and regrettably, the horror of these incidents appears to be forgotten or ignored by some elements. For example - despite the cruelty of last summer, when three little Catholic boys were burned to death in Ballymoney at the height of the Orange marching season - the siege of Garvaghy Road has continued unabated. And the awfulness of the Omagh bomb seems now to have been forgotten by some elements.

What we all need to do, and this includes the British and the Irish governments, is to ensure that the peace process works, that not a single other person is killed, and that a lasting peace is established.

Which historical figure do you admire most?

John Lister, Cornwall

On a global scale, I am a huge admirer of Nelson Mandela. And in my own life, I like to think that history is made by little people who rarely get mentioned in the history books, but who day in and day out make their own history. In this phase of Irish history, I meet such people every day and they are generally good-humoured, dignified and unassuming as they go about the task of creating a new society. I have huge admiration for these people. Interestingly enough, I find at a community level that most of the most radical and modest activists are women.

Was your decision to join the peace process strategic or moral?

Anne Sheehan

There is a moral imperative to find an alternative to conflict. Irish republicans have always recognised this and Sinn Fein's involvement in the search for a peace strategy sprang from that necessity.

Sinn Fein wants to demolish the physical, psychological and political barriers which divide the people of this island. These owe much to the legacy of our past and continued British jurisdiction in Ireland, as well as to partition.

The peace process is about tearing down these barriers. It is about creating a new dispensation on this island in the new millennium which raises our common humanity above the prejudices and divisions of our past.

Sinn Fein's political objective is a united Ireland free of British interference. Everything we do is intended to advance that entirely legitimate and realisable goal. We see a 32-county republic as the best way to eradicate the range of political, social, economic and other inequalities which affect the people of this island.

Have you lost friends and relatives in the troubles?

Margaret Collins, Pinner, London

Yes. There have been over 20 members of Sinn Fein killed, and another similar number of family members, many of them personally known to me. My brother-in-law, Patrick Mulvenna, was shot dead by the British Army in 1973. My cousin Kieran Murphy was mutilated and killed by the Shankill butchers, and in January of last year my nephew-in-law Terry Enright, a young man with two infant children, was killed by loyalists in the killing spree around Christmas. My brother was very seriously injured when shot by the British Army and I also was wounded when a loyalist death squad shot me. Numerous friends have been victims of loyalist and British forces. In my constituency of West Belfast hundreds of people have been killed.

What women's issues do you support? And which do you oppose?

Jane Clark, London

Equality. In Ireland women are discriminated against in every facet of our society - an experience common throughout the world. It is wrong. It is an intolerable situation and one which must be challenged at every opportunity and changed. Equality is a basic human right and it must be applied and defended.

The issue of what is described as a woman's "right to choose" is an important matter with serious implications for Ireland. Every year in Ireland at least 5,000 Irish women travel to Britain for abortions. While not supportive of abortion on demand, our party policy on this issue recognises a range of social and medical circumstances which can give rise to women having abortions, such as where a woman's mental and physical well-being of life is at risk, or in grave danger.

What books and political events have had the greatest influence on you?

Patrick Fox, Basingstoke, Hants

I suppose the writings of Alice Walker had a big influence on me in terms of feminism, and Labour in Irish History by James Connolly, which is a socialist republican analysis of our history.

On the international stage, the achievement of democracy in South Africa, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the USSR, are surely indications that no situation is intractable and that everything is possible.

Locally, in my teens in 1964 when the RUC, at the behest of Ian Paisley, smashed into a Sinn Fein election office on the Falls Road and seized the Irish national flag which was displayed there. This event kick-started my sense of political consciousness. Five years later, the pogroms in Belfast which were the reaction to the civil rights struggle here. The seminal event for all republicans of my generation were the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 in which 10 prisoners died.

Is the Good Friday agreement more at risk now than it has ever been?

Anon

The onus for delivering and implementing the agreement during this period will be very much on the British Government. The success of the agreement will depend upon Britain establishing the agreed structures so that power can be transferred from London and Dublin within the time-frame outlined, by 10 March. If they fail to do this, which I think most unlikely, then the Unionist veto will have prevailed and the wreckers and rejectionists will have won.

We must not allow this to happen. The Good Friday agreement is what we have. It represents what is possible at this time; not the preferred option of any of the participants - certainly not Sinn Fein's.

Who is your favourite comedian?

Adrian O'Grady, Ulster

I enjoy John Cleese very much. Patrick Kielty can be funny the odd time. The Hole in the Wall Gang aren't bad. On reflection I probably prefer comedies to comedians.

Can you describe yourself in two sentences?

Judith Mahoney, Strabane

Yes. Tall, bearded and bespectacled.

Next Week

Bobby Charlton, followed by Clare Short

SEND ANY questions for footballing legend Bobby Charlton and Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, to: You Ask the Questions, Features, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail yourquestions@independent.co.uk), by 12 noon on Friday 19 February

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