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TV & Radio

Being Gerry Adams: Belfast-based actor Conor Grimes provided the voice of the Sinn Fein leader during the 1988-94 broadcast restrictions

Grimes tells Donald MacInnes about his strange taste of fame

In the wake of the 1987 Enniskillen bombing, when 11 people were killed by the IRA, public revulsion granted Margaret Thatcher sufficient political leeway to instigate a policy that today seems nonsensical. Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced that the voices of anyone believed to be advocating paramilitary action during on-air interviews would be muted. The Troubles were awash with tit-for-tat killings between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, with slanging matches conducted via the broadcast media. Deciding against subtitles, broadcasters got around the ban by dubbing actors' voices on to the footage.

As one might expect, there was suddenly more work for Northern Ireland's theatrical community. One who benefited was Conor Grimes, who ended up providing the voice of Gerry Adams for six years. With the Sinn Fein leader currently back in the headlines, following his arrest and then release in connection with the IRA murder of Jean McConville, Grimes recalls the day that reality and showbiz collided.

Grimes was sitting in the park, reading a script, when a voice that television and radio audiences had not heard for several years piped up. "Well, Conor. What's it like being me?" It was Adams. "I told him it was pretty weird 'being him'," Grimes recalls. "He wished me good luck and that was that."

Grimes had left Ireland as a teenager to study at London's National Youth Theatre, where his contemporaries included Daniel Craig and Tom Hollander. When he moved back home to look for work in Belfast, he could never have guessed that the Troubles would provide him with perhaps the role of a lifetime.

One day, Grimes received a call from his agent, telling him to report to the BBC's Belfast newsroom, where the corporation's Ireland correspondent, Denis Murray, explained what was required. The first challenge was achieving an approximation of Adams's west Belfast brogue. "Gerry has a lot of teeth," says Grimes, 45. "To do him properly, you had to keep your top lip still; just move your jaw. I had a TV in front of me showing him talking and had to synchronise my voice with his. I was really nervous."

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Stagefright notwithstanding, Grimes was soon enjoying a curious facsimile of fame, being heard regularly on national news bulletins as the public voice of Sinn Fein's talismanic leader. However, an incident in 1991 left him struggling to deliver his "lines".

"The UVF shot these lads in Cappagh and one of the dead was in my class at school. The BBC interviewed Adams and doing the voiceover was a struggle. I was choking up. I remember Denis Murray shouting at me: 'No emotion. It's a newsroom. You're not on a stage!'"

While providing the voice for Adams may seem risky during a period described by the actor as "bananas", Grimes never felt at risk. "There is a real distinction made between combatants and non-combatants," he explains. "I didn't need to check under my car for bombs. We were pretty blasé. It was even quite funny, sometimes. I could be sitting in the pub and the news would be on TV with my voice coming out of Gerry's mouth! I was a young actor hustling for work, remember. I even started wearing a pager, so I could be reached any time. They might use whoever was most available, so I gave my number to every journalist in town. Sometimes my pager would go off in the pub and I'd have to say, 'Sorry lads. Got to dash.' Like Superman!"

These days, 20 years on from his last voiceover, Grimes is a successful playwright, TV presenter and comedian, but has no doubts about the highlight of his stint as the voice of Sinn Fein. "When Gerry Adams announced the ceasefire in 1994," he says, "it was my voice that was heard."