- 18 Jul 01
With the new publication in book form of a collection of his newspaper columns, the Sinn Féin president addresses matters both personal and political. Here he offers further thoughts on Omagh, death threats and the peace process as well as on music, his late mother, his own family and his vision of a private life beyond politics.
With the Peace Process recently put under renewed strain, this may not seem like exactly the right time for Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, to publish a book which – as has been duly noted and mocked in the media – tells of his love of life, how it feels to hit 50 and how he has taken to hugging trees to calm himself in times of stress.
That said, too often overlooked is the simple fact that An Irish Journal, is mainly a collection of the articles Gerry Adams has written for the Irish-American newspaper, The Irish Voice, over the past four years. And like it or not, Gerry Adams is an Irish voice; indeed, one of the most influential Irish voices of our time.
This interview was conducted in Dublin in advance of the recent talks in England.
Joe Jackson: In Failte Romhat 2001 you say “the acoustic of my life has been filled with music.” And you mention massed voices raised in prison songs, Sean Nós, marching feet, Pavarotti and Leonard Cohen duetting on a Kris Kristofferson song!
(Laughs) Pavorotti and Cohen, that was just in my imagination!
Yet music was hugely important to Gerry Adams. Though not, you say, as important as having a grand-child.
It isn’t as important as that, no. But I do play music all the time – as in playing CDs – and would be more of a radio man than a television man. Music is enjoyable, uplifting, can catch a mood, or create a mood.
It can send people to war.
It can accompany people to war. So music is important. But also, as I get older, I get more and more catholic tastes in music. I have a CD collection which has all sorts, from light classics right through to Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Sean Nós, all sorts of bits ‘n’ bobs.
Yeah, I’ve U2 as well.
Do you forgive them for saying “fuck the IRA” during their 1987 ‘live’ version of Sunday Bloody Sunday on the day of the Enniskillen bombing.
It’s not up to me to forgive them.
But U2 taking that position, in that song, on the day of the bombing of Enniskillen bombing, may even have resulted in more people turning against the nationalist cause.
It depends on how seriously people take their rock ‘n’ roll bands. You might find that it was a turn-off for a lot of young republicans and nationalists in terms of U2. But I think U2 make very, very good music and I try to keep abreast of what they are playing. Everybody says things other people find objectionable. It doesn’t mean that you can’t see beyond that to whatever the person, or group are doing.
Do you remember the comment by U2?
No. I know the sense of what Bono has expressed, in the past as political views. At the same time he has done excellent work in the whole issue of the Jubilee Campaign around the cancellation of Foreign Debt.
A position you now take alongside Bono?
Absolutely. And I’ve been part of that campaign. I think that is one of the good things Bono has done. But if Pavarotti expressed some view about what was happening in his home place how many people would be highly motivated by it from outside his home place?
But was Bono’s cry really that far removed from the fact that your wife, Colette, cried “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” on the day she heard about the Omagh bomb?
No. But the difference is between someone reacting immediately at first news of something and someone making a political statement.
When you write about the Omagh Bomb in the book you distance yourself from it, even physically, by writing about your experience at the beach in Donegal that day. And you only mention at the end of your article the effect the day had on those whose lives were shattered by the bomb. Why did you choose that one-step-removed perspective to present the tragedy of Omagh to your American readers?
What I did, first of all, was tell what happened. I didn’t make it up. That’s what happened that day. There was also a complete mood shift on both sides of the island, but more clearly felt in the North, where, for the previous 20 or 25 years, you could have expected, and there were, bombs like that. But with the Peace Process, the sense of things starting to work out, there was no expectation of an Omagh bomb. Even though the experience in the Middle East and the experience in South Africa should have warned us all that the point of peace-making, or the point of a conflict resolution process, can be the most dangerous point. But we were all lulled into a sense of, well, not that things were all behind us, but the Omagh bomb was the last thing people were expecting. And what I say in that story isn’t just a literary device or a device, politically, to try and distance myself. But what I then did – after the point at which that story ends – was leave and went to Omagh.
What can you do to ensure something like Omagh doesn’t happen again, if you know the people who are involved in organisations like the ‘Real IRA.’
I don’t know the people who are involved. First of all.
You don’t know the leaders of such groups, even though they’re being named in newspapers?
I’m not going to be part of any felon-setting exercise. I genuinely don’t know who’s involved. What I think is very, very important – and this is something Tony Blair says he agrees with us on, but hasn’t yet delivered upon – is that the lessons of the last thirty years indicate that unless armed organisations have popular support their either, not only can they not succeed but they cannot even operate. Now it is possible for a small group, with limited or very little support, to keep going. But not with any real impact. So what we have to ensure is that there is no tolerance of the actions of these groups, which are acting outside of where the whole effort is at this time.
By that I mean that in republican heartlands that have born the brunt of British oppression, British military occupation, all of the paraphernalia and apparatus that goes along with conflict, that all of that should be dismantled. So what you do is underpin this sense of a Peace Process which is moving forward. But what the British have, quite foolishly, done – though it probably makes sense on a military level – is they have remilitarised in South Armagh. They have used the opportunity of what is now an IRA cessation sustained for seven years, to regroup, streamline.
But the British have significantly dismantled their military structures in Northern Ireland. There are fewer troops than there have been since 1970 and in many areas where police and soldiers used to patrol together, that’s no longer the case. There are certainly far fewer troops visible on the streets of Northern Ireland. All of this should, surely, make nationalists and republicans feel more secure?
People do feel more secure. In Belfast City, for example, they use covert troops. It isn’t that the troops have been removed. They have been removed in the big patrols, though I see them back there recently. But they use a lot of covert surveillance operations because you can get away with that in a city. But in rural areas like South Armagh or South Tyrone – and this is something a lot of people mightn’t know – there is now more contact between the RUC and the British army, than there was when the war was ongoing. The troops, and the RUC for that matter, could only come in by chopper, do their operations and come out again. Because they were in danger. Now they’re in relatively little danger so, therefore, they’re stopping people going to mass, going to gigs, events. They’ve road blocks up on an ongoing basis and their patrolling patterns have intensified and increased. You’ll probably find that more people have been stopped, physically, in the past five years.
So where is the hopeful note for demilitarisation in the broadest sense – not just in terms of the decommissioning of the IRA’s arms? You make the process sound like it’s going to take years.
Will decommissioning have to take years? It’s impossible to know, to tell you the truth. Because it is possible that if the IRA decides to put arms beyond use it could do so in quite a fluid, speedy way. But the difficulty is that the issue of arms – at least the issue of IRA arms – is being used to hold up other parts of what people require as rights and entitlements. The whole issue of policing, for example. And sometimes this is presented as a deal. Y’know, (the other side saying) “there are four parts to this deal.” But I happen to feel that, on a point of principle, for example, the piece of legislation which provides the loophole where a Unionist First Minister can discriminate against other ministers, needs to be closed. I don’t think that’s a matter of negotiation. I don’t think it’s a matter of a British Government saying “well, we’ll close that if you get the IRA to do this.”
A lot of this difficulty originally arose out of things being done on Unionist terms and the rest of us being treated in a second class way. Similarly, on the issue of demilitarisation ,Tony Blair has told myself and Martin McGuinnes that he believes totally what I have just outlined. He actually calls it “the Martin McGuiness Thesis.” That the people – not the armies – defeat those who are acting outside what the people perceive as their interests. Therefore you don’t leave any room for tolerance. Now if Tony Blair really believes that, if he moves beyond the rhetoric - now that he’s in with a new second term - he should be proceeding to demilitarise anyway. How long does he intend to keep British troops in these areas.
And if Blair and the British Government doesn’t demilitarise, what is the worst-case-scenario in which you see the IRA going back to full scale war?
I haven’t even contemplated that possibility. But let’s look at that phrase “back to full scale war”? The Irish Times has an RUC statement this morning saying that 95 blast bombs have been thrown by the loyalists. That probably doesn’t even encapsulate all of what has happened. And certainly wouldn’t encapsulate all the shooting attacks that have taken place. But even if a third of those shootings had succeeded in killing people you would have had quite a lot of ordinary citizens killed.
So is all this your basic, and basically intractable, argument for the IRA keeping their arms?
No. But what it is – when you ask the question about “going back to full scale war” – is a clarification of the fact that if you’re a person living in South Armagh, you may ask “what cease-fire?” And if you’re living in a Catholic area which is now being subjected to the type of treatment that the parents and the children going to the Holy Cross school, are being treated to, that, too, begs the question “have things got better or have things got worse?”
And nationalists or republicans who answer “things have gotten worse” probably would argue that the IRA should keep its arms. Is that your belief? And the belief of Sinn Féin?
There’s no threat to the Peace Process – that I can see – from the IRA. The threat to the Process is not coming from Sinn Féin, it is not coming from the IRA, the threat’s coming from those Unionists who can’t come to terms with the new dispensation. And the loyalists who are engaged in those attacks I’ve just mentioned. And also from those within the British system. I think British troops behave like any other group. The way they are trained to behave, if you put British troops into an area, you can’t blame them if they behave like British troops.
Likewise, if you have people who have had a huge influence in terms of what’s happening in the North, for 30 years – in an unaccountable way, where they have been masters of what’s been going on – you can’t blame them if they, then, react and try to prevent a political imperative from taking over, which means they would have to give up their power. I’m talking about people within the British system, the permanent Government who have run the place for a long time. So you really do have to see this as a process, a journey, not something that changes overnight. That’s certainly how I see the Peace Process.
There are, of course, more personal aspects to your book, as in when you write about your mother’s death. Do you really mean it when you say you don’t regret not being able to go to your mother’s bedside when she was dying?
Would she have accepted that was part of the political price she had to pay? And you had to pay?
That’s a difficult question to answer (pause). It’s arguable that my mother died as she did as a result of stress. She had a stroke. It was on the back of two incidents. One involving a nephew of mine who was painting her front door and the RUC came down the street – he was only a young kid – and he moved in to the house, And they came into the house after him. And there was a whole commotion and she took a slight stroke. She was in her mid 60s or thereabouts. And the second (stroke) was around a similar incident. Another nephew was arrested. And obviously, in the 30 years before that, between visiting prisons and (dealing with the fact that) a number of our family members were killed, it added to that stress.
You say in the book she would have understood why you didn’t visit the hospital. So do you think, ultimately she understood, empathised and believed in the political goals you believe in?
My mother was a very strong republican. That is not to say she wouldn’t have liked to see me before she died. Of course she would. I can’t speak for her. And she, unfortunately, can’t speak for herself. But I’m fairly certain that at least she would have known why I wasn’t there. As I say in the story, it wasn’t even a matter of danger to me. Clearly I could have gone to the hospital and gotten back out. But other family members had to stay and there’s the rub. I actually felt very, very sorry for my brother Sean, who was taken out of prison in handcuffs and wasn’t allowed to go to my mother’s bed unaccompanied. At least I had the privacy of my own solitude to work out all that was happening.
Does your own family understand and empathise, politically, emotionally, with the life you lead, the cause you’re committed to? Do Colette and your children always back you on that?
We are a community in struggle. It isn’t just that I have taken a decision to be involved in struggle and they, more or less, tag along. Everybody – whether they are an activist or not – are part of what’s going on. And secondly, and very importantly, I’m always at pains to point this out, this man (gestures to his press officer Richard McAuley) is in exactly in the same situation. The guy that’s driving us is in the same situation. If it was just me and I was taking this particular line in my life and everyone else was just going on with what they go on with then a family could maybe feel aggrieved. But when you have a whole community of activists who have come through the last 30 years, who have bonded in all of this, it is a different matter. That said, I couldn’t do what I’m doing without the support of, particularly, my wife. I couldn’t do it without Colette’s support and that is very important.
You say in the book you hope to live to be 110.
That comes from an old friend of mine who remarked once that he had a death wish to live until he was 110.
A “death wish” to live in Northern Ireland till he was 110!
But more seriously, it’s also possible you may not live to be fifty-five because you may be assassinated.
That is true. The RUC were at our door last week telling me there was a death threat they obviously were taking seriously.
And do you see the irony – or element of progression – in the fact that RUC are now warning you about death threats and, in effect, protecting you?
I do, yeah. And I write about other situations like that in the book.
Michael Stone, on a recent edition of the BBC/RTE history of the Troubles, Endgame In Ireland, detailed how he went out to kill you and Martin McGuinness at Milltown Cemetery. Did you see that TV programme?
So, all these years later do you understand to a greater degree Stone’s desire to kill you? He said it was “in retaliation” for the IRA bombing at Enniskillen?
The guy was a mercenary. He worked for all of the Loyalist groups and obviously had access to British and RUC Intelligence files. The most remarkable thing about Milltown, in the light of the battle of the funerals that had gone on for some months beforehand, was the non-presence of even any type of British sort of ring around the place . Obviously the guy had been given a free run. So his appearance (on TV) causes more pain to, for example, a woman called Sally McErlean, whose son was killed that day. Because Thomas, her son, who wasn’t politically active, he was just a young fella in the district, he was shot to death that day. And I know because I know Sally. And she finds it very very difficult to hear this guy put some sort of shape on what he did when what he did was – as he said himself on the programme – “they were throwing stones, I was throwing grenades.” But, Michael Stone, if he’s out of this and getting on with his life, fair play to him.
You say in An Irish Journal that you don’t “iconise” the dead. But you dedicate the book to Cleaky Clarke who was, at one point, a fellow inmate in “cage eleven” with you, Bobby Sands, Tom Cahill and so on. That said, one man’s “unique friend” is another man’s terrorist. So can you appreciate that you celebrating the life of “Cleaky” might open wounds for Unionists?
I believe there are brave people in all sides of any conflict. And whatever about the absurdity or horror of war I have said no later than last Sunday – at a commemoration for IRA volunteers – that there were brave people in the RUC and in the British Army. So I’m not propagandising or engaged in agit-prop when I celebrate the life of Cleaky. He was a very good, life-long friend of mine. Certainly during my adult life. And he paid the penalty which, perhaps, you, if you’d been born in the Ardoyne, might have paid. And obviously those who are your friends you write about them affectionately. But I do accept the fact that no side has the monopoly on suffering.
And you accept that some people may be hurt by you celebrating “the enemy”?
They don’t have to buy the book. And, actually, reading through the book in the car coming down to Dublin, I noticed that in the time period it covers (1997-2001), there are actually quite a number of people who have died. Apart from my sister’s two kids, there’s Terry Enright and Josie Donnelly. Of course there’s lots of people you, or Richard know, who also have died. People on every side of the political divide. But I noticed that there’s six or seven people I write about in the book who now are dead.
Another piece in the book details your joy at reaching 50. Can you project yourself forward to 60, 75 and tell me how you see yourself, Sinn Féin and Ireland?
I can live without all this.
The political struggle?
Yeah. I can be quite happy in my own skin, play a bit of music, do a bit of writing and be happy with my family and with my friends. I haven’t done it. But I know there’s a life outside of all this. And I also feel sorry for people who are hooked into fame. Or because they are public personalities they have to feed the media all the time in order to stay within public consciousness. Because I can certainly live without that. But I am involved in a cause and I intend – for as long as people want me to – to do my best to advance that cause. So I would like to think that – if God spares us – that by the time I get ‘round to 60, that I may have a wee bit more space to do the things I want to do.
Yeah (laughs). And also I would like to think that the cause will have advanced very considerably. And if I live to my three score and ten I’d like to think I am living – certainly whether it’s an Irish republic or not, and I would like to think it would be a national republic – in a free Ireland. That we would have a new relationship with the other island.
We, a 32-county Ireland?
Yeah. In whatever formulation. I think there is lots of room to develop a society that reflects the way the Island has changed. And the way the people have changed. And the needs of the Unionists especially.
Rather than just the old republican view of a United Ireland?
I actually think republicanism is the great untried-ism. I think the sense of the people being sovereign and of the people being in charge and politics being about empowering and creating conditions where you can actually tackle economic disadvantage and where kids can have a chance, is still a great ideal.
I didn’t write about this but I had a very difficult day the day that Bill Clinton was here in Dublin two or three weeks ago. In fact, it was the first time I met Bono. But Richard and I came down to have a discussion with the book publisher and we met in the Merrion Hotel, at the back of Government buildings and it was a beautiful morning. We met out in the patio and we were about two hours there. Then I had a meeting with one of the government officials. Then we went into Oliver Bond buildings and into one of the centres where they are trying to help young people come off heroin. The average in Oliver Bond buildings, for heroin addiction, is 17%. In Europe it’s 2%. And I met a young fella who is writing really dark poetry and a young working class girl who was up talking in Derry, trying to teach young kids they shouldn’t get involved in hard drugs.
Then I went from there to this big event in Dublin Castle. And it was Celtic Tiger-ism. The people in the castle were doing good work. It was the first Irish fund-raising for the North. It was a good event. But I actually found myself having quite mixed emotions about moving in and out of the Celtic Tiger. Even in the shadow of the Celtic Tiger you have this abject poverty. If the people were just zombie-like, as junkies, maybe that, in some degree, would be tolerable. But the fact that these pale-faced, gaunt people were fighting back, trying to break their heroin habit and needing resources and needing help made me feel – as we left the city that night – that there is something really wrong with this society.
In the section of the book ironically titled Mise Eire, you compare Charlie Haughey spending a fortune on silk shirts from Paris to the fact that his Government, at the same time, was clawing back resources from hospitals, schools and so on. You then, not surprisingly, use that as an argument for people in the South trying a political alternative – namely Sinn Féin.
Even so, we don’t have all the answers. But I do know people are being sent to jail down here because they’re not paying water charges. And I know blue collar and white collar crime is tolerated. Like all the jokes we hear about “brown envelopes.” It’s something people seem to accept. And I think – and I could be totally wrong – that it is a legacy of colonialism. Y’know, we were so used to winking and nodding at the landlord while we went and poached his sheep, his goats and deer, whatever.
Sinn Féin is getting more popular in the South.
I think we’ve a long way to go. Yet the bigger, conservative, parties are frightened by the rise of Sinn Féin. I think it’s an exaggerated fear. But I would like to think that we are going to continue to grow.
What do you see that “fear” as? The old notion that Sinn Féin is still out to “dismantle” the State, create a socialist republic?
No. I think that what they are more concerned about is an alternative political philosophy which is based upon public service. And is idealistic. And in many ways going back to what happened when the State was founded. Whatever you think about those who went for the Treaty they were, at least, fired with enthusiasm and idealism. Now there are lots of good people in politics who do it as a job of public service. Lots of good counsellors, TDs in all of the parties, but there are others who, instead, have allowed a collusion between big business to finance houses and themselves. And more and more people seem to be realising they do want an alternative to all that.
Would you see Bertie Ahern as part of the Haughey legacy – tainted by extension – or someone genuinely working to undo corruption in politics?
I think he’s doing his best. We can’t tar all politicians with the one brush. That’s why I made a point of saying there are lots of good politicians, in all parties, who are fired by a commitment to bringing about change. I myself am at a point – and this has been a gospel for me for some time now - that there’s no reason to be involved in politics unless you’re going to be an agent of change. For the better. But I’d like to think that Sinn Féin can become agents of change. North and South. Particularly in the South. Because, when it comes to bringing about National Emancipation, you can only do it if you’re organised nationally. But anyone who thinks that one political party, or one credo, or one organisation or one leader, can bring about all the massive changes, misses the point.
I do believe that one person can make a difference but real, sweeping change has to be about people taking ownership themselves. I also, in the end, happen to have great faith in people. And I think, not withstanding consumerism and materialism and all that goes with it, Irish people remain basically sound. They don’t want the people in Oliver Bond buildings to be treated the way they are treated. They don’t want to be exploiting their neighbours. And the move into multi-culturalism – once its accompanied by a wee bit of education and savvy from the government - shows that the vast majority of Irish people are open to refugees, and their like, coming in here.
In that changing – and, already changed, Ireland – I can see a growing role for Sinn Féin. But, as I say, we still have a long way to go.
An Irish Journal by Gerry Adams is published by Brandon.
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