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Gerry Adams: Unrepentant Irishman

Gerry Adams is such a respected statesman that it's hard to remember that his name was once inextricably linked with terrorist brutality. And yet – as the current outcry about compensation for IRA victims shows – such matters are also hard to forget. Johann Hari tries to dig out his true story

Wednesday 09 September 2009 00:00 BST

As the long war in Northern Ireland has ended, the IRA has emptied its weapons dumps – but will its memory dumps ever be opened? When I was a child, Gerry Adams was presented as a bearded demon, personally responsible for every bomb that blew up across my city, London. His voice was not allowed to be broadcast on British television, as if he could hypnotise us with his Irish drawl. Today he is widely regarded as an international statesman, a man who risked his life to make the journey from Armalite to peace. He has just received a fresh batch of threats from the "Real IRA", pledging to execute him for his "treachery" in accepting a compromise with the British. It is as though a younger, violent version of Adams has risen up to smite the peacemaking older man he has become. But even now, Adams has not told the full story of how he played perhaps the key role in ending a conflict that had squalled bloodily for 400 years.

Adams lives in a Shakespearian mist of ambiguity where the recent past is obscured from view. He has not explained how he went from cheering the bombing of Downing Street to being a regular visitor. Is he a thug who took his chance to go legit, or is he a principled warrior against anti-Catholic persecution who took up arms when he had to defend his people, and laid them down when he could? I could not find the answers in his oblique autobiography, filled as it is with gaps and elisions, or in the strangely-distanced comments of people who know him. For that, I had to go to the man himself.

Adams suggests that we meet in a community centre at the heart of his grey, dilapidated West Belfast constituency, where he is speaking in praise of a local trade union that fought to keep a car plant open. This, he seems to be saying, is the life I live now, the life I always wanted to live – a peaceful man of the left.

He is preceded by two Sinn Fein security men – big and burly, in casual clothes – and he strides up the stairs behind them with an almost athletic air. He is surprisingly tall. His beard is peppered with shades of grey and white, but he looks younger than I expected and more vital. He leads me into an empty room and settles down at a round table. The security men pace outside, like vaguely aggravated bouncers, watching out for gunmen.

i: Where's My Photo?

He starts with a story – a small story, but one that perfectly distils how he would like us to see his wider life. "Not long after the photos of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison [in Iraq] came out, I wrote an article asking – where's my photo? Because when I was taken and battered by the British squaddies, they took photos of us. The photos were trophies.

"So somewhere in the British Army Museum, or regiment headquarters, or on the top of somebody's wardrobe, in a shoebox, there's a photo of me, being treated like that. A few days after I wrote it, I got into the lift in Stormont [the castle where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits], and a British man got in after me. We were the only people there. I nodded at him, and he said, 'You don't recognise me, do you?' I didn't. He said: 'I want you to know that I'm one of the soldiers that beat you.'"

Adams lets this hang in the air, his face expressionless, unreadable. "So I said – do you promise not to do it again?" And he bursts out laughing, a genuine, relief-filled laugh. "We shook hands and had a wee laugh about it."

Is this tale – of Adams as a victim who magnanimously forgives his persecutors – true? It has a tang of truth when it comes to Adams' early life. He was born in 1948 into a dirt-poor Catholic family, in a statelet run by Protestants for Protestants. "It was a one-party state," he says. Catholics were given the worst houses, locked out of the best jobs, and threatened by marauding loyalist militia, while the political system was gerrymandered to ensure Catholic votes didn't count. "The sense of exclusion was immediate," he says. The Adams family lived in what he calls "our miserable little slum room" in "another jerry-built dumping ground for many young families". The Ballymurphy estate was "badly built, badly planned and badly lacking in facilities, but it nonetheless possessed a wonderful sense of openness, there on the slopes of the mountain. Beyond us, the city of Belfast stretched towards the lough." The family was so poor that Gerry was sent to live with his grandmother down on the Falls Road. He became a nervous, stammering boy.

The other Gerry Adams – his father – was determined to overturn this imposed squalor and fear by force. At the age of 17 he had joined the IRA and shot an officer of the RUC, the almost entirely-Protestant police force. He was released from prison only a year before Gerry Junior was born. His father had been humiliated. "Whenever he was sent looking for a job by the employment exchange they informed his prospective employers of his record and status," his son says. He ended up travelling door to door, selling fruit and vegetables from a cart.

Adams says he didn't really understand the divisions in Northern Ireland. Why was there this strange suspicion in the air? Why was he supposed to stop fumbling around with the Protestant girls across the street? But then an angry Protestant Reverend called Ian Paisley stormed into his life. When Adams was 16, a shop owned by Catholics in Divis Street put the Irish flag, the tricolour, in its window. Paisley – a local firebrand evangelical who claimed that Catholics worshipped "the Antichrist" – announced that if it was not torn down within two days, he would lead a mob to do it himself. The RUC smashed their way into the shop and took the flag. Local Catholics started to riot, and they were bludgeoned and beaten. Watching this brouhaha, the young Adams was bemused: "Why did it need to be so illegal to fly a flag? What kind of state was this?" Within a week, he had joined Sinn Fein – and many believe, the IRA, an organisation that was at that time tiny and had only a few rifles left in its rusting arsenal.

Over the next few years, Catholics in Northern Ireland – stirred by the black civil rights movement in the US, and the dream of Martin Luther King – started to peacefully organise to demand equality. Adams dropped out of school, working in a Protestant pub in the evenings, and campaigning for Catholic equality during the day. "There was a sense of naiveté, of innocence almost, a feeling that the demands we were making were so reasonable that all we had to do was kick up a row and the establishment would give in," he says. But the civil rights marches were met with extraordinary ferocity. Protestant mobs attacked the demonstrators, and then the RUC swooped in to smash them up.

"I was here when it all happened," he says, looking out the window, into the distance. "I was here when the pogroms took place." On 14 August 1968, a loyalist mob gathered on the Shankill Road and marched on to the Catholic streets, throwing petrol bombs and shooting at fleeing residents. The next morning, "The old familiar streetscape was shattered. The environment I had grown up in was gone. For ever. The self-contained, enclosed village atmosphere of the area and its peaceful sense of security had been brutally torn apart. A sense of devastation entered our hearts. Barricades were going up everywhere."

Adams isn't exaggerating when he says the sheer number of Catholics who fled made this "the biggest forced movement of population in Europe since the second world war" at that time. The IRA barely existed any more and those old gunmen who lingered had mostly run away. Indeed, many Catholics joked sourly after the attacks that the initials really stood for "I Ran Away". Did Adams experience this as a humiliation, and a spur to rearm? "No, I didn't have that feeling. Because I remember, actually, being one of the young people that resented the fact that other people who didn't do anything were blaming the IRA. If you militarise a situation, you beg for an armed response. And then, after a short while, what had been a very passive and legitimate campaign for a very, very basic rights, then becomes 'terrorism'. And then, the whole machine kicks in ... Once the armies are in it, there will be a natural resistance. If there is an army occupying Britain tomorrow, there will be exactly the same response: people who would be passive normally, people who would be law-abiding normally, will fight back." The graffiti at the time said: "God made the Catholics, but the Armalites made them equal."

He is impassioned now. "You can only judge anything that happened in the times, in the times that that happened. And it's no accident that wars are fought by 18-year-olds. I think that the conditions were ripe here for what became, certainly from 1969, a popular uprising. People came here from Palestine or South Africa and they said they'd never seen anything like it. Every one of these main roads had huge Army tanks, there was choppers everywhere, and a shoot-to-kill policy. So the point I'm making is: in those conditions, it's almost inevitable. And war is horrible. War ... some people glamorise war and glorify war. It's not nice, from whatever point of view you come from."

He is talking quickly, angrily. "I remember, in the middle of Iraq crisis, I was going to London, I was watching on TV what was happening in Iraq, and I was meeting with the people who were responsible for that. And in their souls or in their minds, they were not affected by it. Here we were affected every day. Our homes were being bombed or raided, our offices were being shut up, our friends were being shot. I think there is a huge responsibility upon governments to understand the consequence of their decisions."

Most people in Northern Ireland believe that Adams joined the swelling wave of young Catholic men who signed up to, as they saw it, defend their community. So what did he do? Some people claim that as he rose through the IRA – which was structured on the model of a national army, and imposed "discipline" on its own ranks and on the wider Catholic community – he became crazed with power and hateful. Sean O'Callaghan, who became a British informer within the IRA, claims he bragged: "I'm prepared to wade up to my knees in Protestant blood to get to a United Ireland." Adams says this is "ridiculous". The Irish Times reporter Kevin Myers says that he once saw Adams settling a bar-room brawl in which a man had his eye gouged out by identifying the man who started it and saying to a local IRA volunteer: "Shoot him." (This would have meant shooting off his kneecaps, not murdering him.) Adams says this is "rubbish".

I don't want to get into a sterile round of defensive denial, so I try asking a different question. If there was a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland – one where all sides, including the British military, admit what they did – are there things you would like to get off your chest that you can't talk about to me now? At first he wriggles. "Well, South Africa's different, you see, because ... in South Africa, it was a matter of domestic policy. The South Africans were in charge. So, so ... " Yes, yes. But would you want to talk to it? "I don't quite know whether 'commission' would be the right word ... " Oh come on! "If there was an international-run, neutral, objective process with terms of reference that could be agreed, then I think everybody has a responsibility to talk to it."

Adams will talk freely about the period up to 1968, and the period after 1998. But when I ask about the 30-year gap in between, his flowing sentences often dry into staccato clichés. Did you do anything in this conflict you later regretted? "Well, I didn't have to do things, but I do think that there are actions that were carried out, and not even retrospectively, but at the time, that I knew instinctively were wrong, and were surely wrong, and where I could, I said so. I either said so privately, or I said so publicly, if that was the appropriate thing to do." It is an answer designed to shut down the issue, rather than open it up – an attempt to seal the memory dump with steel.

II. The Body in the Attic

The British state certainly thought Adams was a leading figure in the IRA – and they tortured him for it. He knew what would happen if he was captured, so for several years he lived on the run, in disguise. "The British Army were threatening to shoot me on sight, so I was always on the alert," he wrote in his autobiography. "Very rarely did I turn directly down a street; instead I crossed the street and as I did so I would look down first. I avoided streets where there were stretches without doors."

He describes a surreal world, where he was the bearded Pimpernel of Belfast, always one step ahead of the squaddies. At one point, he says, the Brits kidnapped his dog, Shane. "Not long after, I saw him going up the street with a patrol, and I waited until they were a good distance away before I whistled to him. He went mad, broke away, and came to me." But some responses were less funny. His family's house was attacked repeatedly. "CS gas was fired into it, and neighbours had to come and rescue the children [his younger siblings]. My youngest brother Dominic developed a speech impediment in the trauma of that time. On another occasion a firebomb was thrown at the house from a Saracen and hit the post of the porch. If it had come through the window all inside would have been burned to death."

He met his wife, Colette, while in hiding: she was active in Sinn Fein. One night British soldiers were firing outside and they were lying on the floor, trying to be silent, when he whispered to her: "If we get out of this, I'm going to marry you." When they heard a rumour Adams had married, British troops turned up at Colette's family home. "You know who your daughter is married to?" they asked. "No," claimed her father. "Gerry Adams," the soldier said. Adams' father-in-law smiled and said: "Well, God help him!"

When they finally caught Adams, they were ruthless and ignored all human rights protections. "British Army officers came and trained RUC officers in sensory deprivation techniques. They took these people – they called them guinea pigs – and they cuffed them and put black hoods over their faces so they couldn't see anything for six or seven days. They were taken up in helicopters and pushed out backwards. They didn't know they were only a few feet off the ground; they thought they were going to die. And that continued. It happened to me – each occasion that I was arrested some of the methods were brutal. It's happening in Iraq. That's what armies do when they engage in pacification programs ...

"They took me back to another interrogation room and put me up against a wall, spread-eagled, and beat me soundly for hours around the kidneys and up between the legs. The beating was very systematic and quite clinical. There was no passion in it." (British doctors later confirmed that these practices were used in Northern Ireland.)

Did this leave you traumatised? Do you get flashbacks? "I know that there are some people who either succumbed to alcoholism, to drug dependency, and would then go to generally bad health. And there are others who arguably have never properly recovered." But suddenly he looks like he has revealed too much, and seems embarrassed. He sticks his chest out in an odd gesture of pride. "But me? I've been too busy. But no, I'm OK. I'm grand." And he laughs – a strange laugh I can't quite read – and smirks at his press officer, as if this emotional talk is a silly effete indulgence.

Adams was locked away in Cage 11 of the Maze Prison. It was made of corrugated sheets, and there were sometimes 30 to a cage. In the column he wrote anonymously at the time for a Republican newspaper, he said: "We read a wee bit, talk a great deal and engage in a little sedition." He also raged at "our impotent abnormality", but when I ask him what he meant, he changes the subject.

He tells me about Army officers who were involved in torture at that time in Northern Ireland – he gives their names, but I can't for legal reasons – and says they were retained by Tony Blair because he needed them in Iraq. "Here you have a Prime Minister who did a decent thing in Ireland, [and then] does an enormously wrong thing in Iraq. And the people who he had to take on [and challenge] in Ireland, he needs for the Iraq and Basra." He shakes his head. "You could just talk for hours on this. In Ireland, we don't have the old boys' network, the breeding grounds for the permanent government, the military establishment. We don't have that." He adds later: "Martin McGuinness and I begged Blair not to go into Iraq. We said – you're forgetting everything you learnt here."

He won't talk about what he did when he was released – through the period of the bombings of pubs in Birmingham and shops in London – except to deny any involvement in such events. "The IRA at different times failed, or, in fact, committed actions which were counterproductive, or which did not advance the struggle. So I'm not here as an IRA defender, or thinking that the IRA was doing everything right – not at all," he says.

Yet there is one incident in particular that seems to have troubled his conscience – and on which he made a revealing slip. In 1972, a 37-year-old Catholic widow called Jean McConville, with 10 children, was murdered by the IRA. She was living in a place called the Divis Flats, which was used as a base by the IRA at that time, and she agreed – in return for a small sum of money – to pass information about their movements to the British. When the IRA found out, she was shot, and her body dumped in a hidden grave. Her children were all dispersed to different foster homes. Ed Moloney, one of the most respected investigative journalists working in Northern Ireland, says: "It is inconceivable such an order would have been given without Adams' knowledge." When, a few years ago, Adams met two of her children, he told them: "Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared." But he wasn't. He was jailed more than six months later. Is she the body in his mental attic, the one he can't forget?

"Well, that shouldn't be taken out of context. I met the family and I got confused about the dates. And I quite quickly realised that I hadn't been imprisoned, and I told them that. So, we shouldn't ... " Yes, but it's an obvious confession that you were a senior figure in the IRA, isn't it? Otherwise, what difference would it make whether you were in prison or not?

His usually long sentences begin to fracture. "I meet victims of the IRA. On quite a regular basis. And I do think that I have a responsibility. And I try to the best of my ability to fulfil this. When people come to me, looking for the truth. For answers, looking for ... whatever they're looking for ... if I can do it, I feel that I have a responsibility. As part of closure. And giving them what they're entitled to. That's part of my job. Yes." And he looks like he has run out of words. There is a long silence.

"Those particular cases were particularly tragic, because she was a woman, because she had a large amount of children. I met many of her children as adults, and they ended up in foster homes, they ended up in just ... " He stops talking for a moment. "That's a particularly tragic case."

This thought hangs in the room. He looks down, then away. Then he continues, talking to the wall, faster and more fluently now.

"I think I have met all of the families who were victims. And I've met them collectively on a num

ber of occasions, and I've met them individually. And some of them are Republican families. Some of them are families which actually have strong Republicans in them. So, it obviously is, there's, it's hard to describe this." He looks perplexed. "It's you're dealing with neighbours. You're dealing with... people who might not necessarily forgive you, or forgive other Republicans, for what's happened. But you're not dealing with enemies."

III. "This is the only IRA campaign that has succeeded"

At some point in the 1980s – amidst the beating and the torture and the bombings – Adams made a dramatic decision. "I said: there are two choices here," he argues, pointing his finger. "There's the easy way. The easy way is that the war continues until it can continue no more. And then, we'll meet at commemorations, or we'll meet for a jar, and we'd discuss the good old days. Or we will take the high-risk route of actively trying to bring about a conflict resolution based upon politics," he says. He chose to drag Sinn Fein and the IRA – often against its will – towards the path of politics.

But the vision of failure he is presenting is his father's life, summarised in a few visual images. He fought; he went to prison; he nearly died; and for what? To meet for a jar and talk about the good old days in a Northern Ireland just as broken as ever. When I put this to Adams, he says without reflecting: "I think that's fair enough." But then he seems to physically shrug off this insight, adding quickly: "You have to live in your own time. What I suppose I'm influenced and shaped by is: it was always political. Always. Sometimes the politics were dormant, or subverted entirely. But when we had a chance to pursue politics, we did."

He chose not to be his father. He chose to get something for all his sweat and fear and beatings. "Whatever you think about the IRA, it is one of the few extra-parliamentary or guerrilla organisations which actually sued for peace," he says. "It could have fought on for another 20 years. Of course it could. But that's not what it was about. It was about trying to bring about a change in the lives of the people on this island."

He decided to shift his goal: to aim for full equality for Catholics within a partitioned Ireland, and argue for reunification solely at the ballot box. "This has been the only IRA campaign that has succeeded. Because every other one fought and then another generation had to pick up the fight, and continue fighting."

The gamble Adams was taking was drastic, in a way that still hasn't been widely understood. Ed Moloney's masterpiece, The Secret History of the IRA, is hardly soft on Adams – it accuses him of being complicit in murder – but it says that Adams played the main and essential role in leading the IRA rank and file, often against their will, to a peaceful compromise. "It was Gerry Adams who launched, shaped, nurtured, and eventually guided the peace process to an eventual conclusion," he writes. It could just as easily have ended with a bullet in his head: the ghost of the last Irish leader to sue for peace, Michael Collins, hung heavily over his story. He risked his life to make this change. At every stage, he had to drag a recalcitrant group of armed men who could have killed him for "betrayal".

Yet Moloney says this has left Adams in an ironic position. "While others have collected plaudits and the glittering prizes," he writes, "Adams has been forced to stay silent, biting his lip lest by accepting the praise of the establishment he undermine the peace process in the eyes of his supporters." If he admits what he did – skilfully manoeuvre the IRA into giving up its weapons and accepting peace, after so long fighting, with so little to show for it – he will lose his support.

Does he agree? "Well, I have learnt that the toughest negotiation is with your own side. It isn't with your opponents ... But the role that I had and continued to play in the peace process, is what falls upon me to play. I'm not interested awards, or any of the ... rest of it. I'm happy enough to be an outsider. I'm happy enough to be a subversive – in the most positive interpretation of that word." Then he adds, letting a little vanity slip through: "I still meet people who would complain to me – and that's gratifying for me – that I or Sinn Fein don't get the proper acknowledgement of the role that we played."

He even ended up sitting down with the man whose threats and rages made him join Sinn Fein as a teenager – Ian Paisley. "For all that he may have been involved in up until he became the First Minister, he was respectful, good-humoured, [and] I think, entirely genuine about the process. The only one who could have done it was Ian Paisley. He's the only one that could have brought in his ring of unionists. And he did it. I think he did a great service to everybody." Together, they steadily removed the barriers against equality for Catholics, after all this time. It seems surreally forgiving, on both sides.

Yet for a moment this year, it seemed as though the hardline Republican backlash Adams worked so hard to avoid had finally happened, in an unexpected burst of fire and blood. A group calling itself the Real IRA declared that Adams had "betrayed" everything he once fought for, and that the armed struggle was beginning once again. They shot two British soldiers, and they have started issuing death threats against Adams.

Does it feel strange to be getting death threats from your old comrades? "No," he says flatly. "The authorship of a death threat is totally academic to me."

The Real IRA is, he says, "very small. They have no popular base of support within Republicanism. You have a mixture of adventurers, old-style physical forcers, bar-stool revolutionaries, and – interestingly enough – some people who are definitely agents of the British crown." What does he mean? He proceeds to claim that several figures in the Real IRA – again, he names them, but for legal reasons I can't – are in the pay of the British. But why? What's in it for Britain? He says that in the British state machine – MI6, or the Army – there are people "who just have never bought into the fact that there's a new dispensation. In fairness to them, they fought in a war. And they lost. They lost. Who's the deputy first minister? [Martin McGuinness]. Who's in the executive? From their point of view, the people who they depicted as terrorists, the people who they tried to torture and gas, water cannon, shoot, all that, they won."

He is speaking more animatedly than at any other point in the interview. The intricacies of this conspiracy fire him up. Suddenly, I have the feel of being in a smoky bar in the paranoid world of 1970s paramilitarism, seeing connecting threads and secret agendas everywhere. "There are people in the intelligence services who would know that the sensible way forward is politically. But there's another tendency ... I remember one meeting we had during negotiations with the British Government – about policing, and Army bases – and what we were putting forward was a very, very simple and basic and common-sense proposition. But it was taking a dreadfully long time to get a positive answer to it. The senior British representative that we were dealing with kept going back into another room, so I – as if I'd made a mistake – walked into the other room. There was a sizeable group – five or six men – in plain clothes. I didn't know who they were. When I recounted that to a senior Irish Government official, he said, 'That's the nub of the problem, Gerry. Because they're the spooks, and they haven't given up.' They have been trying to defeat Republicanism for 30 or 40 years, and they have not been defeated."

Can this be true? Where's the evidence? Rather than answer, he returns to the Real IRA with disgust. "There was one IRA with the capacity and the popular support, the longevity of struggle and the courage to declare for peace. These [Real IRA] people are ... " he waves his hand through the air contemptuously. "No, there's no-one, really. We shouldn't elevate, no, we shouldn't elevate this so-called 'Real IRA' to something that it isn't ... It could continue – four or five people here could put together an ability to go and carry out some armed action. But you will never succeed, and you will never be able to perpetuate that, unless you have popular support. And you will not have popular support unless people agree with what you're doing. And they don't. That is over now."

IV. Falls Memories

With the interview over, Adams is returning to the Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road. He agrees to give me a lift in his armoured car. "If we get into a fire fight, though, you're on your own," he says with a chuckle, as the door slams shut. We drive through the drab streets of Belfast. Where once there stood barricades on which Adams shouted, now there is a Gap, a KFC, a Starbucks.

What does Adams see when he looks out over this landscape? In his 1982 book Falls Memories he says this city is for him "a rubble-filled wasteland filled with ghosts". In that memoir, every corner of this cursed city makes him free associate. "Remember hearing about the girl volunteer, her face streaming with tears and her body racked with sobs as she tried to exact vengeance on a hovering helicopter with an aged .303 rifle which was too big for her to shoulder properly? I never found out who she was. Maybe she never existed. Just another story? You never know. I heard she stood there, on her own, firing away and all the time muttering 'You bastards, you bastards' to an implacable sky and a whitewashed wall, which had probably seen it all before."

Is this ghost still there in his mind? Can we trust him on this, or anything? How much of his account of his life should be subject to the clause he slips so ruefully into this tale: "Just another story? You never know."

He gets out and starts chatting to two old women who were wandering down the street. They tell him "how proud" they are of him, and he beams, and charms them. The mural of Bobby Sands stares out over them, and the street, and the drizzly Belfast sky. I watch him chatting and try to untangle all this moral ambiguity. Adams grew up in a Protestant supremacist state where there was discrimination against his people. When they tried to organise peacefully for equality, they were beaten and savaged. He almost certainly fought back with violence. Some of that violence was explicitly targeted against civilians who had nothing to do with the conflict.

Some of that violence was directed against other Catholics who disagreed with these tactics. And then – once he had fought back against real grievances with immoral tactics – he chose a path of peace and reconciliation. He risked his life. He is risking it still. And he got there – he got to peace. Should we remember the violence, or the reasons for it, and the risks he took to leave it behind?

While I am reeling with these thoughts, Gerry Adams shakes my hand briskly and disappears – into the Sinn Fein offices, into the history books, and into the moral mists where, I suspect, he will remain forever shrouded.

To buy Ed Muloney's history of Northern Ireland, 'The Secret History of the IRA' click here

To read Johann Hari's latest article for slate, visit:

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