Gerry Adams talks to Hunter Davies in Belfast
The local Sinn Fein headquarters in Andersontown Road, West Belfast, is in a converted suburban house. Must have been quite nice, once. Today it still feels part of a war zone, despite the huge changes in Belfast street furniture since the IRA ceasefire last September. Two layers of 12ft high metal fences have to be passed, before you reach the front door. Identities are checked. Hidden cameras watch from inside.

Gerry Adams was running a bit late but was on his way, so could I wait in the front room. I tried to peer through the window, hoping to see him arrive in his allegedly bullet-proof London taxi with his alleged personal guard. You have to say alleged because personal details about the Sinn Fein president and his private life these last 25 years are very, very few.

The window was boarded up, wood inside, metal without, so no chance of a peep. Crammed into the room was a large conference table with 12 chairs, plus a TV and video.Very hot room, badly lit, rather eerie. What sort of conferences, or even inquisitions, have taken place here? On the floor was a small but perfectly formed paper aeroplane. At some stage, at some conference, someone must have been perfectly bored. Would he turn up? Twice in the last three months it was on, then it was off. The first request had been for a personal not a political interview. He didn't give them. In that case, would he talk about his books? Mr Adams is an author, five books to his name so far. Oh yes. With more to come.

He arrived carrying a little green rucksack and a plastic bag out of which he took a rather smelly, steamy, bulging hamburger and two plastic cups of tea. He apologised, but it was his lunch. Hmm, quite good, this hamburger, he mumbled, his mouth full. "Or perhaps it's my hunger, improving the appreciation." Tall, very neat, well dressed in a black and white tweedy jacket, black trousers, polished shoes. A few signs of grey in his beard. He does look like a poly lecturer, caught this time in the staff room, eating kid's stuff. A bit hesitant, wary at first, but relaxed enough, soon making little schoolmasterly jokes. Courteous, polite, no sign of fanaticism, but then any decent fanatic, with any nonce, isn't going to look fanatical.

In one of his books, he mentions in passing that when he was about 10, his parents thought of emigrating to Australia. If they'd gone, I asked, starting on something harmless, what did he think he'd be doing today?

"I never answer hypothetical questions," he began, still munching.

I groaned, quietly. It could be one of those interviews.

"That's when the question is political," he continued. "But as I have many relations who did emigrate, I can make a fairly good guess. I would have assimilated, become Australian, but when the Troubles commenced, I would have been very aware of my history, reading voraciously, and I would have given my children Irish names. As for a job, I suppose I would have become a teacher."

In real life, what did happen happened pretty slowly. He was born in West Belfast on 6 October 1948, the first of 10 children. His father, still alive, usually known as Old Gerry, worked as a builder's labourer. In his youth, Old Gerry had been involved in republican agitation, and been shot and wounded. His wife, Annie Hannaway, who died in 1993, also came from a noted republican family. While growing up, however, Young Gerry can't remember any republican indoctrination. "My parents didn't talk about politics, or teach me such things, but I was aware of my Irishness. At times like Easter, we had the Easter lilies."

He was good at primary school and passed the Eleven Plus - at the second attempt - and went to a Catholic grammar school, St Mary's, much to his parents' pleasure. "There was a boy in my class who had been to Italy for his holidays - something totally out of my experience. There were other working class boys, like me, but also sons of publicans and professional people. I became aware that the object was to turn us into the Catholic middle class establishment, make us lawyers and teachers. We even had elocution lessons. Some would say I gained no advantage by those lessons." Quick, schoolmasterly smile.

"I liked English, writing compositions, and dialectics, do I mean that, sorry, dialects. It did strike me that the history we did was English history, about the Wars of the Roses." He got decent O-levels, six passes he thinks, and went into the sixth form.

His first memory of any political awareness came in 1964, aged 16. Going to school one day, "carefree and sleepy headed", he noticed the Irish tricolour flying from a shop in Divis Street. Such a thing was illegal, though the authorities usually ignored it, till a then unknown Protestant, by the name of Paisley, insisted it should be removed, threatening to march against it. That evening, on his way home from school, young Gerry and some of his school friends, all of whom had been warned by their Christian Brothers teachers not hang about in the street, watched as the RUC sledgehammered their way into the shop and removed the flag. The shop turned out to be a Sinn Fein election office. Next day there were street riots.

Gerry decided to help the Sinn Fein, folding envelopes for them after he had done his homework, but at the time, and for the next 18 months, so he says, he had no real idea what the Sinn Fein stood for. They were a pretty moribund outfit anyway, with only a few dozen members.

The next year, when he was 17, he chanced to see a barman's job advertised in the Irish News. "On a whim, I applied. I had an interview in my school lunch hour, got the job, so I went back and told them I was jacking in school." What about your parents? "My father was distressed. They had been making sacrifices to keep me at that school, paying for uniforms and things." Was it because of your political involvement? "No, that was only a hobby at the time. It was simply youthfulness and selfishness. Most of my friends were working. I wanted money in my pocket. I was thinking only of myself."

For the next four years, till 1969, he worked as a barman, first in a local pub, till the landlord, a Catholic, sacked him after he asked for more money, then in a bar in downtown Belfast frequented by journalists and trade unionists. By this time, he was very active, politically - at first mainly in civil issues, like housing and unemployment.

"In the late Sixties, there was a feeling that change was in the air, anything could be done, the Beatles and Dylan sang songs which gave us hope. When the fighting first started in 1969, some of us did think it would be all over by Christmas. I didn't think that personally. Perhaps by St Patrick's Day, or Easter. I believed the British government would do something soon, if we continued our struggle. I didn't think it would take 25 years."

By 1971 he was a wanted man, for questioning if nothing else, yet that was the year he got married to Colette McCardle, whom he had first met at a political meeting. "It might seem a bit odd to you, or any British person, but we considered ourselves at war. During the World War, in Britain, many soldiers got married before going off to fight. The options before me seemed either I would go to jail or get killed. Not a very good reason, I admit it, for getting married. We got married in church, but at the back, after mass was over."

He did go to jail, in 1972, but was let out for secret discussions with Willie Whitelaw in London, along with some seasoned IRA members. He was only 23 at the time but seen as a political leader. He then went to prison a second time, from 1973-77, though the authorities failed to prove he had been a member of the IRA. He escaped death in 1984, after loyalist gunmen shot him in neck and back while being driven in a car.

For all of these 25 years, when not in prison, he lived as if on the run, rarely sleeping in the same house twice. With no thought of packing it in? "Of course I had black moments. There were times of depressions and self-doubt. If I had been on my own, then yes, I might have given it all up, gone abroad, or into the country to grow potatoes, but I was typical of my age and background in republican Belfast. It was a collective experience."

The British government, in the end, did not give in - as far as we are still aware. The IRA did. Didn't they? His eyes narrowed for the first time. "We have been through many sea changes since 1969 - and life will not go back to pre-1969. Along the way, we have exhausted many options, going forward at a snail's pace. Under Mrs Thatcher, Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley, which I think won't happen again."

When did you decide on the peace option? "Republicans always wanted peace, but not a bogus peace, like the so-called Peace Movements. I suppose 1985 was the turning point, when we actively sued for peace."

Has it taken so long because you've had to persuade the more violent elements? "The strength of our movement is that we are united." Yes, but was there persuasion? "Who is to say who brings who round?"

Now that we have a sort of peace, his life has suddenly changed, at least his image has. Some people even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize. Peter Brooke, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, has said "the whole world should be grateful to Adams". It must make you a bit cynical, this violent change in perception.

"I think it was O'Connell who said, `When Fleet Street starts praising me, that's the time to examine my conscience'. It was the whole thrust of British politics to demonise me. I ignored all the tabloid attacks. I had the confidence and respect of the people I knew, otherwise I could not have survived.

"Brooke was one of the more interested and thoughtful ministers, compared to some of the dimwits they sent. Yes, it is gratifying to be praised, but I always did think I was a fairly good person."

He smiled, indicating this was a joke, well a half joke. And does he also think he's a good writer ? "I was wondering when you were coming to that."

His first bits of writing were done when he was made public relations officer for his local Sinn Fein branch. When he was in Long Kesh, he was asked to write some articles for Republican News. "They were supposed to be political views, from an internee, but I found that reflections on life generally in the Kesh was more interesting to write."

When he came out of prison, he made a nostalgic trip to the Falls Road, interviewing old men, taping some of their memories, and wrote an article for Republican News. This led to a book offer from a small, left-wing publishing company in the Irish Republic, Brandon Books, in Co Kerry.

Falls Memories, his first published book, apart from pamphlets, came out in 1982. It's been reprinted three times since, and in 1994 came out in the United States. A bit twee and sentimental in parts, but it shows a good ear for dialogue. In 1986 came Politics of Irish Freedom, a straight political book, giving his personal views on republicanism. This has proved his best seller so far, 30,000 copies sold, with an updated new edition due in April.

He wrote a volume of stories about his internment years; then a book of short stories, The Street and Other Stories, his first venture into fiction, and last year his Selected Writings was published in the UK and the US, and has had some good reviews from the literary pages. According to Brandon, his sales and translations took a quantum leap after his American visit and his public reappearance. His sales are slightly higher in England than in Ireland. So, a writing career, plus sales and foreign rights, which many an author would envy. He appeared surprised, but clearly pleased with the figures, especially the 30,000 sales of the political book, saying he hadn't known that, but he was suitably modest about his literary talents.

"I nearly gave up writing completely when I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so brilliant. I also like Alice Walker. All I try to do is write clearly, keeping it bare and terse."

It has been reported that he has been offered £100,000 from America for his memoirs, but he says this is rubbish. "I have agreed with Brandon to do a personal book, and it will probably be sold in the USA, but I haven't signed any contract." Would it be a full autobiography ?

"No, I wouldn't do that. It'll be more about childhood and growing up, the voyage of discovery." Why not the full story? "I wouldn't want to make money out of the Troubles. I'm not a mercenary person, or exploitative."

What have you done with the money so far? "I haven't had any." Oh, come on. Five books, all those foreign rights. They must have earned around £50,000 over the last 13 years or so. "All my royalties have gone to charity - I don't think it's right I should earn money from my books."

Because you are a well paid Sinn Fein official?

"No. I don't get a salary. I have not had a salary since August 15, 1969. That was the day I stopped being a barman at the Duke of York's."

So how have you lived all these years - and cared for a wife and son? "I have a very supportive family and friends." That jacket, very nice, can't have been cheap. "My brother gave it to me." Are you claiming social security benefits? "Yes."

In passing, he had admitted the existence of his own family, which has not always been clear, for obvious reasons, given the need for their personal safety. So I asked about his son. He's aged 20, a third Gerry Adams, but spelled Gearoid, with a little accent over the o. He wrote it out for me. I'd been told he's a keen Gaelic footballer but didn't know what he did for a living. "He's a student, but I don't want to say any more. I've lumbered him with enough baggage in life." Interesting, though, that he is a student, which his father refused to be, at his age. What if at 17 he'd said he was going to be a barman? "Oh, I suppose I would have been the typical father, saying don't do what I do, do what I say."

I asked about his beard. "I grew it in 1971 when I was on the run, no, let's say badly wanted. I jumped on a bus one day, with my new beard, long shoulder length hair and wearing a maxi coat. I was sitting quietly on my own, reading a book of poems by Seamus Heaney, when the paratroopers stopped the bus to search everyone. They didn't find anything, or recognise me. When they finally left, everyone on the bus breathed a sigh of relief. They turned to me, giving the thumbs up sign, saying: `Phew, that was close, Gerry'. I'd thought my beard had completely disguised me, but everyone on the bus had known all along it was me."

The future, then: wouldn't he like to live the life of a writer, perhaps taking the money next time, as a decent amount is bound to be on offer? "I might have to reconsider my position with the new book, accepting the money and paying the tax. So far, I have not looked upon myself as a professional writer. Yes, I would like to say to you I am giving up politics. I have lived my life on the edge and I would like to live a normal life, in what's left of it. But I am doomed, as long as I am spared, to be a political animal."