The ever-elusive nature of Gerry Adams

It's 11 December 1997, and I'm standing in Downing Street waiting for Gerry Adams to arrive. It's early afternoon. Hundreds of the world's press are around me. Photographers are hanging off aluminium stepladders where they have been perched since early morning. There is a strange tension in the air; everyone is both excited and nervous.

Cheeky comments are made to the TV reporters doing their pieces to camera; the make-up people are given abuse every time they powder an anchor's face between takes. Reporters and leader writers huddle together, exchanging notes and views. A few journalists I recognise from Northern Ireland come up to chat to me; they tend to hang back from the London-based reporters. "Bloody disgrace," I hear the latter group say, as they chat about the visit.

Two refer to the clothes Adams has been wearing lately, in particular a green overcoat someone gave him as a present. The guys I'm listening to seem personally offended that he might be wearing something decent- looking for the occasion.

They seem keen to nail Adams, no matter what. If it's not what he says or does, then his clothes will do fine.

A few minutes pass. Then the mother of the last soldier killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland arrives bearing a poignant little Christmas card with a snap of her young son. I admire her courage. Everyone surrounds her. She is eager to talk. A barrage of questions follows. Several reporters try to provoke her into saying the Sinn Fein delegation are murderers, that she doesn't think Sinn Fein should be visiting Downing Street ,that its president Gerry Adams was, essentially, personally responsible for her son's tragic death. With unnerving stillness and great dignity she refuses to be led. Instead she answers the questions accurately and gives responses filled with insight, hope and complexity. A couple of journalists look a bit blank; this doesn't fit in with their line.

Later I hear one of them saying she has been used as a stooge by Downing Street and Sinn Fein. There are murmurs of approval.

I crouch down next to a woman from an American news agency.

"Who are you with?" she asks. "GQ." "GQ!" She isn't impressed. "Yes, GQ." "Jesus. Are you doing on what Adams is wearing, or something?" I rub my face, scratch my head and say nothing.

I was living in the US when I suggested to the new editor of GQ, James Brown, that the magazine should do a long article about Gerry Adams. I was keen to do something that wasn't too typical; a piece which tried to find out a bit more about Gerry Adams the man. To my surprise the office called me, agreeing to a budget that allowed me to spend more than a month on the piece. I was told to go ahead, and try to get as close to Adams as possible.

One of the first things that I discovered was that many people, both colleagues and friends, had strong opinions about Adams. Those with the strongest views had invariably never set foot in Ireland, north or south. Yet they clung to their takes on him like drowning men to their lifebelts.

Their information had, of course, come from the media. The clippings I perused were the same. Many had been written using information based on earlier clippings. And so it spiralled. Apart from a quick trip to the photocopying machine, most hadn't left their desks. When I told people I was doing an article on Gerry Adams they all - whether they were for him or against him - expressed great curiosity about what he was like. More than a few said they'd watched him on TV and read about him for years, but felt as though they had no sense of what he was like. Was he intimidating? Likeable? Scary? Unreasonable?

Over the next month or so, in the run-up to the first Sinn Fein meeting in Downing Street, I spent almost every day working on the Gerry Adams piece. My background is in documentaries, so I go for the total immersion approach. I transcribed tens of hours of interviews while researching. Like any skilled politicians, Adams and his associates weigh their responses very carefully. A pause between two words can often tell you more than the words themselves.

Inevitably, I got a bit too close. It happened when I was in full swing with Adams and his small entourage in County Cork, just days before the Downing Street visit. I'd met him at his hotel, read the papers with him, followed him to morning mass, had tea in a tiny bar in his company surrounded by half a village, then gone to hear him speak at a Republican rally attended by about 4,000 supporters.

Later that day I chased his convoy to Cork airport for a quick interview. They had told me they were leaving from Kerry, but I sped after them towards Cork. I think they were trying to lose me. I eventually found them, and Adams good naturedly allowed me to interview him yet again.

It had taken many, many phone calls to get access to Adams. His press man, Richard McAuley, spent time behind bars for his role as an IRA activist years ago, so he knows the system from the inside and the outside. Initially the whole Sinn Fein press team blew hot and cold about the idea of my writing a piece on Adams. "He finds your type of `fly-on-the wall', `written- documentary' articles' intrusive," I was told by McAuley. I gave up trying over the telephone and turned up on the ground in person. I badgered them so much that eventually they opened their diaries and suddenly I was in. Well, in so far as they allowed me to be in. You can get close to Gerry Adams, but he is too well protected for you ever to get really close. After weeks on the road with him I came to the conclusion that real insight into him will only come dropping slowly, piece by piece. No one journalist will ever sum him up. No one writer will ever pen the definitive book on him. Gerry Adams is, for better or worse, changing. In that sense he's like the rest of us. He simply can't be the same person he was last week, last month or last year. All I could do was sketch a portrait of someone who appeared to be in transition. The man I saw a month ago won't be the same man this time next year. He's a man of many shades, and I saw only a selection of his faces.

Only when someone captures all the hidden moments that make up a day in Adams's life will we get a full picture of what he is about. It is vital that someone does, because he is one of the most important figures in Anglo-Irish history. In the meantime we shouldn't give up. Who knows, maybe in 20 or 30 years' time a frail old bearded man called Gerry Adams will appear on TV or in the press, talking frankly about his precise role in Northern Irish affairs during the last few decades.

Eamonn O'Neil

The writer is a contributing editor to `GQ'.

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