Gerry Adams: 'It wasn't an IRA attack, it wasn't a Republican plan - it was stupidity fuelled by alcohol'

The Monday Interview: Sinn Fein president and MP for West Belfast
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The Independent Online

Belfast is a small place, but until yesterday no one had thought to ask Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, whether he knew any of the republicans caught up in the Robert McCartney affair.

Belfast is a small place, but until yesterday no one had thought to ask Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, whether he knew any of the republicans caught up in the Robert McCartney affair.

The republican movement has been plunged into crisis by the events of a Sunday night in January when a brawl in a city-centre pub took a lethal turn which culminated in Mr McCartney being stabbed to death.

Since then the IRA and Sinn Fein have made huge efforts to distance and dissociate themselves from the damaging identification with criminality and drunken backstreet murders.

The IRA has expelled three members while on Mr Adams's instructions seven members of Sinn Fein have been suspended from the party. Interviewed at his party's ard-fheis (annual conference) in Dublin yesterday, he readily admitted he knew some of the men.

"I know some of the people," he said, "but I have to say they deserve due process. In my statement when I suspended the people I made the case that it was without prejudice, and that some of them may well be innocent of any offence.

"So I do know some of them, but I can't make judgements. I gave very, very clear instructions to the party that the party shouldn't even attempt to investigate this." The Sinn Fein leader said the seven men had been told they would remain suspended until there was a legal outcome to the case.

"We told the people, 'We want you to give a full and truthful account - if you don't go and give a full and truthful account you'll be expelled. Or if it materialises that you were involved in this then we will also press for expulsion.' But I have to bookmark all of that by saying that these people are saying that they were not involved and so on, and some of them may well be innocent." The strong republican instinct to deal with the McCartney case is evident.

When the five sisters of Robert McCartney accepted an invitation from Mr Adams to attend the conference on Saturday, they were escorted into the hall by Mr Adams and senior republicans including Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly.

A standing ovation for the family was followed by repeated rounds of applause when they were mentioned. Later the sisters indicated that they appreciated the warm welcome, but remained focused on bringing their brother's killers before the courts. Republicans may be sympathetic to them on a human level, but they also know that the McCartney affair has already caused their movement serious damage, and has the capacity to inflict even more.

The incident began with words in a bar, with an alleged insult to some women, then a confrontation with fisticuffs and bottles being thrown. It led shortly afterwards to a vicious confrontation in the street in which a knife was produced and Robert McCartney was fatally injured.

The political effects have been huge, and the republican message is that there will be no hiding place in the movement for anyone involved. "I'm trying to be a bit understanding about all of this," Mr Adams told The Independent. "These were a group of people who were out drinking, who sparked off each other. It wasn't an IRA attack, it wasn't a republican plan, it wasn't an operation.

"It was machoism, it was stupidity, it was brutal and it was obviously fuelled by alcohol. I made the point that if I had been out for a few pints and had I got caught up in that, I would have been redeeming myself the next day. As a republican I would have been for giving an account, for getting myself off the hook, for bringing closure to the family, and for stopping this entire campaign that's going on by sections of the media."

He said he had met the McCartney family several times aand they had indicated that their campaign was a matter of pressure. Some sections of the media had interpreted this as pressurising Sinn Fein, he said, but was actually to pressure "the people who did the killing, or the people who were around that".

Mr Adams said he saw this as falling into two groups, people who may have witnessed what happened in the bar, and those responsible for the killing. "All my statements have been about trying to put pressure on the people who actually did the killing, saying to them - 'Be men about this, it happened, come forward, redeem yourselves, tell what happened.' And then of course to make clear there should be no intimidation," he said.

"We need to be sending a very, very clear message to the killers that this isn't just a McCartney problem. It's the McCartney family and it's republican Ireland telling these people to give themselves up." But one tactic used in the Sinn Fein effort has caused an undercurrent of unease and disapproval in some sections of the republican grass roots.

One of the fundamental rules of republicanism, venerated by centuries of tradition, has been that passing information to the authorities is forbidden. It is a rule that has been lethally enforced.

Yet the McCartney sisters gave the names to Mr Adams of the seven Sinn Fein men they said were in the bar. He passed these to the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, knowing she would pass them on to the police. She has duly done so.

Republicans know that their movement has been edging towards involvement with policing, as part of a comprehensive political settlement, but this move has been a bit too close to the bone for some of them.

"There obviously is within some sections of republicanism an outright opposition to the stance I have taken - giving the names to the ombudsman," he said. "It ranges from outright opposition to concern and worry, to people who just think there's no option, the party has to deal with it."

The McCartney affair is just one of Sinn Fein's problems. It has come under attack recently from many quarters and Mr Adams puts much of this down to the party's electoral success.

"We are trying to build Sinn Fein as a radical, progressive, agitational, campaigning alternative," he explained. "There is a deliberate attempt, it's a project, which isn't about criminality, it's about smearing the entire Sinn Fein organisation."

What of the accusations, many of them from Irish government ministers, that the IRA was responsible for the Northern Bank robbery in Belfast and is involved in money-laundering on a vast scale; that he and Mr McGuinness knew about it in advance; that they both sit on the IRA's army council?

On membership of the IRA, he said: "My view is that the majority of people don't care very much about that issue." His stated belief that the IRA did not commit the bank robbery is unchanged. The allegation that he and Mr McGuinness knew about it in advance came from one person, Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, he said; and Mr Ahern's most senior official had told Mr Adams that the only information they had came from British sources, and what was in the public arena.

Mr Adams insisted: "The reason I'm so adamant about this is that we did not have prior notice. There's no way any electronic device or any other surveillance is going to point that up, because we didn't know." Then he addressed the money-laundering issue, which has attracted much attention since police in the Republic mounted raids in Cork and elsewhere and recovered millions of pounds.

Mr Adams declared: "One person, a Sinn Fein member, was arrested - just one - and then released. Now maybe the guy will get charged, I don't know, but at the moment he's innocent. For that then to be used, the way it has been used, is, I think, just symptomatic of the state of the process at this time."

The process is, in the Sinn Fein president's words, in deep difficulties. When the last round of negotiations failed, late last year, he said he predicted that "they're coming to get us".

"They're trying to target the Sinn Fein project by targeting my credibility," he argued. "If my credibility suffers then the party suffers also. But I'm genuinely not interested in personality politics or all that goes with it.

"The only reason I put up with it is because I do think that I can give some service to this process, and to the broad republican cause. I do want to be in that generation of republicans that brings closure to the conflict. We're up for a deal now. All I can say is that we're up for sorting it out, and it's my conviction that it will be sorted out."

THE CV

Born 6 October 1948, Belfast

Education St. Mary's Christian Brothers School

Family Married with one son

Career

1964, member of Sinn Fein and Na Fianna Eireann

1978, vice-president of Sinn Fein

1981, member of Northern Ireland Assembly

1983, president of Sinn Fein

1983, MP for Belfast West

1993, loses seat to SDLP

1996, winner of Thorr Peace Prize

1996, member, Northern Ireland Forum

1997, MP for Belfast West

1998, member, New Northern Ireland Assembly for Belfast West

Publications Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland; Falls Memories: A Belfast Life; Cage Eleven: Writings from Prison

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