Gerry Adams: 'The war is over for me ... but is it over for Ian Paisley?'

The Monday Interview: President of Sinn Fein
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Asked how long he had known Denis Donaldson, the IRA and Sinn Fein activist who met a violent, lonely death in Donegal last week, Gerry Adams answered: "I met him first in Cage 11 of Long Kesh."

That was in the mid-1970s. By the time Donaldson reached prison he had been an active republican for years; some time later he would be recruited by the Special Branch, working for them for two decades.

Having spied for the state for remarkably long time, in 2002 he was sensationally charged with spying for the IRA. Remarkably, the charges were dropped; then, even more remarkably, he publicly admitted to being a security force agent.

In December, he revealed himself as an informer. Last month, he was tracked down to Donegal by a newspaper. Last week, he was shot dead, and buried in Belfast on Saturday.

"He was a genuinely popular person around Sinn Fein," the Sinn Fein president said. "He was a well-known republican, long time around, likeable and personable. I would have been very friendly with him though I never worked on a day-to-day basis with him.

"He was never part of our core team or even our wider negotiating or leadership team; he wasn't a significant player in what we've been involved in. I don't remember the last time I was at a meeting with him, and he certainly didn't move in my social circles or I in his." Mr Adams said he was watching the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, on television when a call came through from the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain to tell him of Donaldson's death.

He assumed the call was about political matters. "I was surprised and shocked by what he told me," he said. "My first instinct was to phone the family, which I did." So how had he reacted to the revelation that Donaldson had been a spy? Both, after all, had made the same republican odyssey from the IRA compounds in Long Kesh to the political corridors of power at Stormont.

"If you want my response it would be a shrug of the shoulders and a philosophical view," came the Adams answer. "I'm philosophical about these things. British policy for the past 30 years has been led by counter-insurgency or pacification programmes, fed by the whole world of intelligence and spies and informers and agents. I've always known that. You may or may not be surprised at a certain individual, but I've been around for a fair bit of time so I just took it. I think it was an awful waste of his life."

On recruitment of informers he said: "Generally, there's weakness there and it comes to the attention of the intelligence services, and they will flatter or cajole or bribe or blackmail people into working for them. Once the person succumbs to that they're stuck, they're just bled dry."

After the disclosure, Donaldson had gone to Sinn Fein, leading most to assume he had told them details of his lengthy career as an informer. But Mr Adams maintained that he given almost nothing away. He said that on his instructions Donaldson had deliberately been interviewed in a Sinn Fein office, to show the party was acting "in a very open and transparent way". The agent admitted his role, he said, but had minimised it and what he told Sinn Fein was "confined to generalisms". Donaldson would not say how he had been recruited by Special Branch, and was not forthcoming about what information he had passed on.

"We persisted; we gave him every opportunity to come clean on all of this," the Sinn Fein president said. "He didn't. We broke off contact with him; he was told that if he changed his mind, if he wanted to disclose what he was involved in, our door was open. But as far as we were concerned, until then our relationship was finished."

Why would Donaldson have stayed in Ireland? "Was he thinking properly?" Mr Adams said. "Where was he to go anyway? The guy's life was ruined. He could have gone back to his handlers and vanished somewhere. The guy was obviously in some turmoil." So who assassinated him? The London and Dublin governments are not inclined to believe the IRA killed him. The IRA said it did not kill Donaldson and the Sinn Fein leader said he believed them.

He is keeping an open mind on who was responsible, he said, but any evaluation of who committed the murder "has to include some regard to the Special Branch and the British intelligence world that he was part of for a very long time". Various inquiries, he said, had found evidence of British agencies being involved in criminal acts including murder "so I would have an open mind - let's see where the evidence leads in all of this".

Mr Adams voiced the standard republican suspicion that intelligence agencies are forever intent on shaping and manoeuvring government policy, and consistently work against the Irish peace process.

He said of Donaldson: "He was used by the Special Branch, or at least elements in the Special Branch, to bring down the Stormont executive. Then, presumably because elements in there weren't satisfied with the charges against him being dropped, they outed him. They were ruthless." Since the executive collapsed, the primary aim of London and Dublin, and Sinn Fein, has been to get it up and running again.

The electoral arithmetic dictates that any new executive can be installed only after a deal agreed by Mr Adams and Mr Paisley. Mr Adams seemed broadly content with last week's announcement by Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, of a new attempt to achieve this.

But republicans want to move faster than everyone else, so is the newly set deadline of November meeting with widespread approval? "Morale, like mercury, goes up and down," he said. "But yes, there is a general underlying sense of frustration, and up until last week's announcement perhaps a little bit of disengagement from the process."

Republicans and others spent much time discussing whether Mr Paisley would deliver on his process to consider sharing power with Sinn Fein, after republicans have been satisfactorily shown to have abandoned terrorism and criminality.

Mr Adams said: "I think republicans have to set aside our scepticism about the DUP and Ian Paisley, and work hard to try to get the DUP into the power-sharing executive." Of Mr Paisley's intentions, he added: "I think it's a waste of time speculating. He now has a choice to make, now that his party is in the ascendancy. Let's hope he makes the right choice. There's no doubt they have conceded the principle of power-sharing, but beyond that you just get involved in endless speculation with no real foundation to it. I would appeal to the DUP and to unionists generally to see this as a positive opportunity to get the power-sharing arrangements back in place."

In practical terms, months of negotiations lie ahead because the Assembly is to be recalled first for a six-week period and than a 12-week period leading up to the November deadline. Agreement will depend on Mr Paisley's say-so but it will also depend on confirmation that the IRA has ceased involvement in criminality, and is seen not to have ordered the Donaldson killing.

Mr Adams had what seemed to be a message, or at least a challenge for Mr Paisley, declaring: "If Ian Paisley wants to lead his party into the Assembly and into the executive there won't be any revolt within grassroots unionism against that, if he wants to do it, he can do it. As far as I'm concerned the war is over. One of the big questions he has to ask himself is, is his war over?"

Sinn Fein not only wants the Assembly back but wants it to have enhanced powers to cover security and justice issues, a point which brought Mr Adams back to Donaldson. "The truth may never come out about it," he said. "But we need to ensure that there is civil accountability and control over these agents. It was obviously Denis's responsibility, but clearly it's also part of what we have come out of, and part of what we're trying to ensure does not reoccur."

The CV

* Born: October 6, 1948, West Belfast, the oldest of 10 children

* Family: Married Collette McArdle in 1971, one son

* Education: St Finian's Primary School, St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar School, Belfast

* Career: 1964 joined Sinn Féin and Fianna Éireann; 1978 vice-president Sinn Féin; 1983 Sinn Féin president and first Sinn Féin MP elected to the House of Commons since 1918; refused to take oath of allegiance to the Queen; 1992 loses West Belfast seat to Social Democratic and Labour Party; 1997 regains seat; 2005 retains seat again in General Election

* Other: Member of PEN, the international guild of writers; he has published 11 books