In public, Gerry Adams talks about `my Protestant brothers and sisters'
In 1983, John Ware produced a World in Action profile of Gerry Adams so damning that the IRA blamed him for a subsequent attempt on Adams's life. Tonight, the picture he paints of Adams for Panorama is very different. Times have changed and so, ar gues Ware, has the man ``What do you want to do with this man?" David Frost asked Gerry Adams in 1983. "Take him behind a wall?" The man in question was me; Frost was referring to my television profile of Gerry Adams, made for Granada's World In Action programme.

The profile was unremittingly hostile. It accused Adams of, amongst other things, planning and organising terrorism in England and Ireland, of being prepared to wade up to his knees in Protestant blood to achieve a united Ireland, and it mocked his pretensions as an aspiring politician.

At first the President of Sinn Fein's schoolmasterly guise, with his tweed jacket, simply made him appear even more sinister. Then something began to counter that image.

"Of course not, David," said Adams soothingly. "That's ridiculous ... " as if the idea that the IRA ever took anyone behind walls was nonsense. "If I could just explain to John Ware ... " I sensed that Frost was caught off-guard. How could a man under such vicious character assassination be so even-tempered, so reasonable?

But in those days no one was prepared to give Gerry Adams the benefit of the doubt. Besides, a few days before, a bomb had killed five people outside Harrods. When Adams said it should not have happened, no one thought he meant it.

Yet the clues to the emerging statesman that is Gerry Adams today were all there in Frost's studio. He was patient and calm, he gave the appearance of being reasonable, he disowned the killing of innocent civilians and he did not resort to personal abuseagainst me. I confess it was unnerving, and fleetingly caused me to wonder if I had been fair. But then I decided that fairness probably did not matter to a man who had brought the IRA back from the brink of defeat in 1976 and built it into a powerful killing machine.

It certainly matters now. Because, having marched the IRA to the top of the hill in the mid- 1980s, the real story of Gerry Adams is that he has been marching it down again ever since - so skilfully that some of them don't even know it.

The 64-million-dollar question is: why? All Adams says publicly is that "a jigsaw fell into place". I have tried to provide the pieces in an updated profile, to be screened on the BBC Panorama programme tonight.

In the first place, Adams has never been an out-and-out militarist. He has never believed in violence for its own sake. In 1976, under a pseudonym, he explained in a republican newspaper that violence would cease to be justified when it failed to advancethe nationalist cause: "I am an IRA volunteer. The course I take involves the use of physical force. But only if I achieve the situation where my people genuinely prosper can my action be seen by me to have been justified."

Gerry Adams decided his people were no longer prospering through violence in the late 1980s. It was actually inhibiting the advance of Irish unity: the political landscape was changing and the IRA's military campaign was at a stand-off. We may condemn him for not coming to that view earlier. But to his eternal credit he came to it before almost anyone else in the republican movement. Without Gerry Adams there would have been no ceasefire. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, says he stilldoesn't trust him. But his predecessor, Peter Brooke, is positively fulsome: "He had a leadership role. He performed it. And I think the whole of Ireland and the whole of these islands and, arguably, the whole of the world is grateful to him for having done it."

This is a remarkable statement from a recently-retired British cabinet minister. It would have seemed inconceivable in 1983. Adams may never have pulled a trigger, as his IRA comrades are always keen to point out. But at that point in his career, he carried an even greater responsibility than any single gunman for all the bloodshed and agony that the IRA had inflicted. From an early age he was a planner and a leader.

The intelligence services believe that his first IRA command was as OC of the Ballymurphy company at the age of 21; then he graduated to become OC of the IRA's largest Belfast battalion. In the 10 months under his command, 52 civilians, soldiers and policemen were killed in his operational area.

A former IRA man, Peter McMullen, who knew Adams in those early days, told me in 1983: "As commanding officer he was ultimately responsible for everything which goes on within his battalion area: discipline (i.e. kneecappings and executions), shootings, bombings, and robberies (for fund raising)."

McMullen also says that Adams was involved in the planning of what became Bloody Friday. On 21 July, 1972, the IRA exploded 26 bombs in Belfast, six without warning. Eleven people were killed, 130 injured. Intelligence reports listed Adams's post as Adjutant-General, responsible for the running of the Belfast Brigade. McMullen told me that the day before Bloody Friday he attended a "Brigade Ops" meeting and that Gerry Adams was present: "There was great concern [that] ... we had everything ready; cars, timing devices, detonators, everything like that ... I remember Gerry saying that he was also concerned about the routes to and from the bombing ... have them checked for road blocks etc."

The security forces say the warnings were either muddled or non-existent; the IRA says that security forces reacted too slowly. Either way it is fair to assume that Adams would have been horrified at the outcome. His regret at the loss of civilian lives is a continuing theme throughout his speeches and writings. He has never glorified violence.

But it was in jail from 1974-77 that Adams began to exert a lasting influence on the IRA. From his Long Kesh "cage", he helped rebuild the IRA after its near-defeat in 1976. He knew the British would not be driven out by military means alone. So he planned for the Long War by restructuring the IRA from large battalions into small, informer-proof cells, and by turning the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, from a small protest group into a properly organised political party, to generate support from nationalists on the ground.

By 1983, Adams had helped create a war machine that seemed poised to eclipse constitutional nationalism in the North. They were reaping the benefits of the hunger strike and Adams himself had developed a huge personal following in West Belfast. He was elected MP. Then he still talked about armed struggle as "a necessary and morally correct form of resistance in the six counties ....''

Adams was emerging as the IRA's most influential strategist. He was now seen by Dublin and London as a threat to the stability of both parts of Ireland. Four months after the programme, loyalists made an attempt on his life. They shot and wounded him in a car. The IRA newspaper blamed my television programme for demonising him.

Thank God they didn't kill Adams - because just two years later came the critical turning point in his attitude to violence.

It is now clear that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was the inspiration for Adams's reappraisal of the Northern Ireland conflict. In public he excoriated the Treaty as a sell-out and a sop to Unionists. He based that on Article One, which said that the border would remain so long as the majority wanted it. In private we now know that Adams took much more notice of the passage in the Treaty that said if a majority wanted the border to go, Britain would facilitate this.

Late the following year, Adams began a secret search for credible alternatives to violence. A priest confidant, Father Alec Reid, had opened a private channel to the soon-to-be Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey. The message that Father Reid carried from Adams was that he would be prepared to consider recommending a ceasefire to the IRA Army Council if Dublin agreed to pursue unification.

Adams was in the process of accepting that Britain was, in essence, neutral on the question of reunification. For a man steeped in republican ideology, exorcising the imperial bogey required a considerable act of intellectual honesty.

The logic of Adams's thinking, encouraged by the SDLP leader John Hume, had begun a momentum of its own: if Britain was neutral, then the challenge, as Hume repeatedly told him, was to persuade the one million Protestants of the merits of a united Ireland. And they were never going to listen while the IRA was killing them.

This revealing glimpse into the private thoughts of Gerry Adams comes from Michael Lillis, the former head of the Anglo-Irish Section in Dublin's Department of Foreign Affairs.

Lillis was the principal architect of the Treaty. Since then he has had a number of private conversations with Adams. He says that despite Britain's public statements, Adams has come to the view that although Britain is not about to leave Northern Ireland, its heart is not in staying. "I've spent a great deal of my life talking to politicians," says Lillis. "He impressed me as one of the most serious and intellectually gifted political people that I have met."

The real testament to Adams's courage and political skill is that he has brought the IRA leadership with him. But he is patient. He has played a long game. He has refused to be deflected by catastrophes like the October 1993 bombing of a Shankill Road fish shop that killed nine ordinary Protestants. "These are my people," said Adams, of the Shankill victims. "It was wrong. It was inexcusable. I don't want to see it happening again." And he meant it.

Most Protestants didn't believe him. At the IRA funeral of Thomas Begley, the 19-year-old Shankill bomber who blew himself up, Adams carried the coffin, knowing that this would cause widespread offence. But his priority was to move the IRA with him. To have distanced himself from it at such a critical time for members' morale, could have destroyed his credibility with them.

The Shankill bombing also nearly destroyed the bridges that Adams had been so carefully building to Protestants. For in 1991 Adams had begun yet another secret initiative, talking to a group of Protestant churchmen at the Clonard Monastery in West Belfast. They say that as a dialogue unfolded, Adams's respect for their Protestant tradition was evident. In public, Adams now talks about "my Protestant brothers and sisters".

These churchmen believe that Adams had moved significantly towards their point of view: that Protestants could not, and should not, be coerced into a united Ireland. "He showed himself to be a pragmatist," says the Rev Ken Newell, a Methodist minister who spent many hours with Adams. "When he talks about reaching out the hand of friendship I think he's genuine."

This initiative by Adams undermines the credibility of a key allegation in my 1983 profile, made by one of his political opponents with whom he was interned in the early 1970s. He accused Adams of being sectarian and claimed he had once said he was "quite prepared to wade up to his knees in Protestant blood to achieve a United Ireland".

Knowing what I do about Adams now, I find that hard to believe. However, lest his halo burn too brightly, I should also say that his attitude to violence has not undergone a Damascene conversion. Like Eamonn de Valera, he has not renounced the principle of armed struggle. But he is now more pragmatic than revolutionary. He believes the tide of history is with him and that, with his powers of persuasion, it will advance the goal of Irish unity more effectively than bloodshed.

The most critical months of the peace process are now approaching. The word is that for IRA hardliners, Easter will mark the point of no return. If they don't move then, their murmured threats of war will ring increasingly hollow. Their war machine will have wound down too far. The miracle of this peace process is that it has lasted so long. For, in his heart, Gerry Adams must be aware of one uncomfortable truth that dares not speak its name: that Irish re-unification may very well not be achieved in his lifetime. Conceding the principle of Unionist consent has seen to that.

Adams now talks elliptically about "changing the border" - not removing it. His courage and skill as a politician has been to persuade the IRA that in his new so-called "unarmed strategy" all things are possible. We must pray that the wild men of Tyrone,Armagh and parts of Belfast don't see through the "Adam Speak" before the next anniversary of the Easter Rising.

John Ware's profile, `Gerry Adams - The Man We Hate to Love', is broadcast on `Panorama', BBC1, tonight at 9.30 pm.