‘Have you ever asked the British to leave?’
These days, it is difficult for Gerry Adams to pose for a photograph in front of the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road.
This is not out of any reluctance, an adviser emphasises, but because all the tourists mean it takes so long; every time he goes out for one photograph, he ends up being drawn into many more.
The Irish Times witnesses this phenomenon first hand. As the former Sinn Féin president stands for a picture in front of the mural – which is painted on the side of the party’s offices – a crowd gathers, then begins taking pictures.
Even on this rainy Thursday afternoon, the area is busy with visitors who have come – many on black taxi tours – to see the murals and the peace walls and to learn about the history of the Troubles.
By 1998, this part of the Lower Falls had been scarred by decades of conflict, a legacy evident in the many plaques commemorating the dead; the success of such peace tourism is just one of the changes wrought in this area in the 25 years since the Belfast Agreement.
You’re negotiating for the future, and if you don’t grasp that, you don’t grasp anything, because you’ll always find a reason in the past why you wouldn’t do it or why it isn’t worth the bother
“The first time I went to a meeting with the British, below my suit and shirt I had a Bobby Sands T-shirt,” says Adams. “I remember saying, because they had a huge delegation, that our side of the table was crowded with all our patriot dead who we felt very much [we were] representing, not just our own particular cadre of people, but just hope for the future.
“You’re all the time negotiating for the future, and if you don’t grasp that, you don’t grasp anything, because you’ll always find a reason in the past why you wouldn’t do it or why it isn’t worth the bother, but if you’re negotiating for the future, that’s an entirely different prospect.
“We knew we weren’t going to get the Republic out of the Good Friday negotiations, but we needed to get some form of roadmap towards it, or something we could work with.
“We were trying to close one phase, which was the armed conflict phase, and we never pretended that the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement was a settlement, it was the beginning of a new journey or the beginning of a new phase of the journey.”
Then the fourth-largest party, Sinn Féin did not join the peace talks until after the IRA ceasefire of July 1997; except for a brief suspension the following year, the party remained at the table until agreement was reached on Good Friday, 1998.
Reflecting on that final, fraught week of talks 25 years ago, Adams credits the “courage” of the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), David Trimble, “because he went against the grain of unionist leadership thinking at that time”.
He recalls a conversation in the final days of negotiations between himself and Martin McGuinness and the chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell. “Mitchell said, ‘Look, here’s the problem, and it’s David Trimble. He thought Sinn Féin was going to leave [the talks], but he now realises you’re not. So, he now has to decide what to do,’ and that was very difficult for him because it was around this time frame that Arlene [Foster] left, that Jeffrey Donaldson left.”
Adams says: “David, in fairness to him, was in pioneering territory”, busy “getting our own house in order”. He admits that “it’s actually only since his death, and I saw the television coverage of the battles I was doing” that he realised the “challenge he was involved in”.
He elaborates: “The vision probably didn’t – and this would have been the same for both governments – move beyond perhaps getting the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party into government… where the thing changed hugely was it was all-party, everybody was to participate, it was to deal with big issues of constitutionality of rights, of policing, of prisoners.
“You see then where his courage comes in,” he says. “He probably didn’t envisage that he was going to be sitting across the table from Martin McGuinness or myself or anybody else… then to go out and do what he did, very belligerently and in his own peculiar way to argue the toss, I thought took courage to do that.”
The DUP – then the second-largest unionist party – boycotted the talks in protest at the inclusion of Sinn Féin; the UUP refused to talk to them though, says Adams, “the more rounded folks may have caught you on your own, winked and nodded and ask you how things were going”.
From day one, the loyalists would shake hands, [say] how are you getting on, what’s the craic – including Gary McMichael, whose father John had been killed by the IRA
He rejects as apocryphal the suggestion that he followed David Trimble into the men’s toilets in order to try to engage: “No, we didn’t follow him in, we were there for the purpose that the gents was meant, we happened to have a coincidental urge.
“Famously, I said to David Trimble, ‘How are you doing, David?’ and he said, ‘Grow up,’ as we stood shoulder to shoulder.”
Adams says it “always struck me” how, in general, the representatives from the loyalist parties had “no such problem. From day one, the loyalists would shake hands, [say] how are you getting on, what’s the craic – including Gary McMichael, whose father John had been killed by the IRA.”
He recounts “another story about one of the loyalists who wasn’t talking to us and Martin and I were walking down another of those long corridors and he came walking up and I said, ‘Are you not going to talk to us?’ and he said, ‘Cad é mar atá tú?’ and he said it with a twinkle in his eye.”
According to Lost Lives – which lists all Troubles deaths until 2006 – over the course of the conflict, republican groups, overwhelmingly the IRA, were responsible for more than 2,000 deaths, loyalists for over 1,000, and the security forces for about 370. Did Adams understand why it was difficult for some unionists to talk to him, particularly those who had lost loved ones?
“You’ve always got to understand, though perhaps not agree with,” he replies. “I mean, my family members have been killed, I’ve been shot, if you go through the Sinn Féin negotiating team, you’ll find people there who suffered exactly the same.
“Of course, for people who have been victims of the IRA or who know or represent victims of the IRA, of course that’s [a] difficult thing, but that works every which way.”
Sinn Féin also had to ensure it brought the IRA with them. “Of course we engaged with the leadership [of the IRA] and the leadership had to engage with the rest of the rank [and file].” Policing, says Adams, was a “particularly sore issue”, but most accepted it.
On Easter Sunday 1998, he was “nervous” ahead of a speech at the republican Easter Commemoration in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone.
“I was a bit, sort of, what would the reception be? I still get emotional thinking about it, the first people to greet me were three women who were the mothers of IRA volunteers who had been killed, who gave me a hug and commended us on what we were doing.”
Yet for all those “IRA grassroots signed up for it [the agreement] and were assenting for it”, there were also “those who had an opposite view, and you just couldn’t chase all of those folks”.
A minority left the IRA and formed dissident republican groups, including the Real IRA, which killed 29 people and unborn twins in a car bomb in Omagh in August 1998 – “the height of stupidity”, Adams says.
Is it a regret that some could not be convinced? “Of course, of course,” he replies. “There are a small number of these groups still in existence and I’m not going to be disparaging about them because I think what we need to do is talk to them, so if there’s any role I can play in trying to persuade them that it’s over.
“You want a united Ireland? Well, here’s a way to get it. It’s hard, you have to persuade people, you have to win across people who would be nominally from a unionist background, from a Northern Protestant background, but that’s the way to do it.
“I know there’s some people would say well, there was never any just cause for armed actions at all and that’s fair enough, but if I could do anything to persuade them to stop,” he says, “either go home, get a life, or be part of an open, democratic movement forward discussing these real issues that affect people in their everyday lives.
“Padraig Pearse didn’t have a mechanism to exercise self-determination, or James Connolly, or Bobby Sands for that matter… we now have it, so anybody who is serious about building a real Republic, that’s where the focus has to be.”
For Sinn Féin, it was about the long game in 1998; 25 years on, it remains so. As we talk, Adams is wearing a T-shirt with an image of an Easter lily, superimposed over the slogan “#Think32.”
Sinn Féin is now the largest party in Northern Ireland and, but for the DUP’s boycott of the Assembly, its vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, would hold the position of first minister; in the Republic’s last general election, the party took a greater percentage of first preference votes than any other party and could well be in government after the next one.
“We’re in a transition process of change”,” says Adams. Sinn Féin has declared this a “decade of opportunity” for the advancement of Irish unity; Adams declines to put a timescale on a potential referendum and blames the Irish Government “which isn’t doing anything on it”.
“It isn’t possible to say, you know, we’re three years away from it, we’re five years away from it, 10 years away from it.”
The challenge, he says, is to talk to those he terms the “persuadeables” – those who “don’t like Brexit, don’t like what the DUP is at, who are concerned with Boris Johnson or the fact that people are being blocked from having rights”.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, a united Ireland can be achieved only through a referendum; how will this be achieved, given that it is up to the UK government – as set out in the agreement – to call such a poll and could, in theory, just keep saying no?
“That’s if an Irish government lets them do that,” replies Adams. “Why on earth would a British government bring in a referendum on Irish unity when an Irish government isn’t for it?”
He adds: “I used to ask, way back in the day when I thought I was funny, I used to say to a new taoiseach, did you ever ask them to leave?”
If, therefore, Sinn Féin is in government after the next election, will its priority be to ask for such a referendum?
“It’s not up to me to speak for the party… but one would expect and anticipate that a Sinn Féin-led government would do what Sinn Féin had asked other governments to do, which is to engage in this process of reconciliation, unity, building a new Ireland.”
Everything that anybody who’s a participant in those talks wants on the table, should be on the table, including the anthem and flag
But, he says, “we have to continue to pursue this strategy and pursue this objective whether or not Sinn Féin are in government, although Sinn Féin obviously would be a huge catalyst to continue that”.
How would he incorporate unionists into any such conversation, or indeed potential constitutional change?
Unionists, he says, must be reflected in any new Ireland and must therefore be part of the conversation. Though he admits, “I can understand tactically why unionist leaders won’t enter into that conversation because that’s them on a slippery slope.” He also emphasises “the protections contained in the Good Friday Agreement should provide comfort to unionists”.
“Unionist concerns about their rights in a new all-Ireland state will also be subjected to Good Friday Agreement protections.”
Unionists “have to be comfortable, and that needs dialogue”; this means “everything that anybody who’s a participant in those talks wants on the table, should be on the table”, including the anthem and flag.
“You can’t hope to shape, to nation build, and say ‘oh, but we can’t discuss that’. I mightn’t want to discuss it, but you might, so you’re entitled to discuss it, and then at the end of the day the people will vote on whatever comes out of such discussions.”
Adams is now 74; does he believe there will be a united Ireland in his lifetime? “I’m asked that every time I do an interview, so the answer is, it depends how long I live, but I have every intention of living long enough to see it.
“So, it’s quite possible, if those things coincide, my longevity and the referendum. Yes, I would like to think.”