Gerry Adams (born 1948) is the elected president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland. Although his reputation has been somewhat tarnished because of his ties to the admitted terrorist organization, Adams has gained worldwide attention for his part in the historic IRA cease-fire that lasted from August, 1994, until February, 1996, and the peace talks with England. Although the cease-fire broke within 18 months, Adams will no doubt be a major player in any subsequent negotiations.
Before the Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1920, the island of Ireland was united and was a colony of Great Britain. In 1921, the country was partitioned into two sections. The independent Republic of Ireland contained 26 of Ireland's original 32 counties, while Northern Ireland consisted of six counties and remained under British rule. Since the country was divided, violent skirmishes have occurred between Northern Ireland's Protestants, some of whom, as unionists, support the retention of ties with Great Britain, and the Catholic minority, a percentage of whom favor the republican cause and seek a union with the Republic of Ireland, refusing to accept the division of Ireland or retention of ties with the British. Northern Ireland's Catholics protest what they see as gerrymandering, or dividing their country in such a way as to give an advantage to one group. Indeed, Protestants are a majority in Northern Ireland; in the late 1990s, the population stood at approximately 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics. This minority status hinders any republican efforts; treaties stipulate that any change of the status of Northern Ireland can only come about with the consent of a majority of the people in the country.
This was the backdrop in Northern Ireland on October 6, 1948 when Gerry Adams, the eldest of ten children, was born in a working-class area of Belfast. He was educated at the Catholic schools of St. Finain's and St. Mary's. As a teenager, Adams worked as a bartender in a pub that had mostly Protestant patrons. He became active in politics in 1964 when republican demonstrators rioted against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's largely Protestant police force. Adams subsequently joined Sinn Fein, although the organization was illegal at that time. Meaning "we ourselves" or "ourselves alone" in Irish Gaelic, Sinn Fein is a party committed to an independent Ireland free of British intervention; it also considers itself the only lawful government of Ireland.
By the end of the 1960s, Adams was playing a prominent role in Sinn Fein, helping to launch groups to target discrimination against Catholics in housing, employment, and civil rights. Another aim of the republican crusade was the repeal of the Special Powers Act which gave police the power of search, arrest, detention and imprisonment and included the right of police to deny inquests into their activities. Protests by Sinn Fein and its supporters met with threats by loyalist extremists. Tensions were further ignited because Sinn Fein viewed the RUC as being biased in supporting the loyalist cause and failing to protect republican demonstrators.
As unrest grew, paramilitary organizations increased their activity. The IRA was formed in 1919 as a nationalist organization seeking a united, independent Ireland; it claimed that terrorism was necessary to prompt unification. In 1969, the outlawed IRA split into two branches, the Officials and Provisionals, and the Provos embarked on an intensified terrorist campaign. Illegal Protestant paramilitary groups—such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters—responded with their own terrorist operations. As violence burgeoned, British army troops took to the streets of Belfast and Derry in August of 1969. The British subsequently instituted the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The EPA allowed British forces to stop and questioned anyone, while the PTA allowed anyone to be arrested and detained for up to seven days.
In the midst of this civil uprising, Adams married Colette McArdle in 1971. The couple eventually had three children. As a prominent republican leader, however, Adams was forced to lived apart from his family for safety reasons.
On January 20, 1972, a day henceforth known as "Bloody Sunday," British troops killed 13 unarmed Catholic protestors and injured 150. In March of that same year, the British removed the Ulster government and directly ruled Northern Ireland from England. The partisan violence, which became known as "The Troubles," continued. Between 1971 and 1975, more than 2,000 people in Northern Ireland were jailed without being charged or put on trial. Adams himself was arrested in 1972 and interred on a British prison ship.
In January of 1973, by which time Adams had been released from prison, the New York Times reported the killing of five Catholics, supposedly in response to IRA bombings. The reporter noted, "there is speculation that the renewed violence is connected with the take-over of a new chief of staff, Gerry Adams." Although he has never confirmed it, Adams was allegedly a member of the IRA and a Belfast brigade commander. On July 20, 1973, Adams, along with 16 other suspected IRA members, was arrested by security forces. Adams, who was visiting his wife and new baby, was seized after soldiers burst into his home. In the New York Times, a spokesman for the British Army called the arrests a "major coup" that "dealt a severe blow to the … IRA command structure in Belfast."
Adams was imprisoned under the Special Powers Act and was held without trial from 1973 to 1977. During this time, Adams preached the republican cause to other inmates. His writings in Long Kesh prison camp became the basis of his book Cage Eleven. After being released from Long Kesh, Adams traveled to London during an IRA truce to take part in secret negotiations with William Whitelaw, the British administrator of Ulster. Such an assignment spoke of Adams's growing influence in Sinn Fein. Indeed, Adams was elected vice-president of the party in 1978. That same year, he was arrested again when police detained 20 suspects following a bombing in Belfast that killed 12 people.
In 1981 international support for Sinn Fein grew when ten Catholic prisoners died after staging hunger strikes to protest British policy in Northern Ireland. When Britain allowed Northern Ireland to again convene its own Parliament in 1982, Adams won a seat, but he refused to accept it because it required taking an oath to the British crown. Adams advanced even further in Sinn Fein, being elected president in 1983. The high-profile post had its risks; Adams was shot four times in a 1984 daytime attack by a squad of Protestant gunmen. With Adams's ascension into Sinn Fein's top political office, the group gained the presence of an author and speaker who vowed to give voice to the opposition of Britain's presence in Northern Ireland. He would not be seen on television, however; in 1988 legislation was passed that prohibited broadcast media from interviewing republican spokespersons.
In 1993 Adams's stateside publisher, Sheridan Square Press, wanted to bring him over to publicize two books: The Street, a collection of short stories about Belfast, and Cage Eleven, Adams's memoirs about time spent in an Irish prison. The United States denied Adams a visa, something they had done eight times since he had been elected president of Sinn Fein. As Adams's Irish publisher told Publishers Weekly, the visa denial was the work of British influence: "They don't want anyone as articulate as Gerry Adams … talking about the situation." (Adams was banned from British soil until 1995.) However, American President Bill Clinton ignored British opposition and broke precedent in 1994 when he granted Adams a visa to travel to the United States on three separate occasions. A reporter for Time later called the move "an enormous step in giving [Adams] international stature."
Part of the reasoning behind the United States's new stance was the recognition of Adams's work to resolve the conflict in his homeland. In May of 1987, Sinn Fein published A Scenario for Peace which offered a political solution to Northern Ireland's continuing troubles. Beginning in 1988, Adams and John Hume had held discussions concerning peace in Northern Ireland. Hume is the centrist left-wing leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who, like Adams, is a leading Roman Catholic figure in Belfast. In September of 1993, Hume, Adams, and Albert Reynolds helped revive the Irish Peace Initiative which outlined principles and suggested processes to build peace in Northern Ireland. This spurred further developments such as the Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Document. In the Downing Street Declaration, British Prime Minister John Major stated that his government would engage in peace talks if Sinn Fein's leaders and the IRA would adopt a nonviolent policy.
In August of 1994, the IRA announced a cease-fire; six weeks later, Protestant forces also invoked a cease-fire. Political leaders around the world praised the cease-fire and the notion of all-party talks. Former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds stated, "In the silence offered by the stifling of the guns, none of us should be afraid to talk peace." After 25 years of violence and centuries of discontent, hopes were raised that the various factions in Northern Ireland could negotiate a form of government acceptable to all of its citizens.
The efforts of Adams and Hume were critical in convincing the IRA that a cease-fire would bring political results. Adams became a champion of the peace process, stating in 1994, "I want to take the gun out of Irish politics." However, a reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper commented, "As the Republican movement's most visible leader, all the IRA's worst atrocities inevitably land at his door." Still, during the cease-fire, Adams traveled extensively promoting the republican platform.
Both Sinn Fein leadership and the IRA grew frustrated by the changing demands the British government placed on inclusion to the talks. Britain insisted on unilateral disarmament by the IRA, but the IRA refused, viewing it as a ploy by Britain to promote the view that the IRA had surrendered. Irish representative Reynolds noted that disarming "was not a condition laid down before the cease-fire." Then the British government stipulated that elections in Northern Ireland could replace an arms surrender as a precondition to admitting parties to the talks. Such elections would determine the number of delegates each group could send to all-party talks, another stipulation that Sinn Fein viewed as tacitly unfair.
As the months passed without progress, dissatisfaction with the British government increased. In the fall of 1995, Adams allegedly twice kept the IRA from breaking the cease-fire and resuming bombings. On February 9, 1996, however, a bomb exploded in London, killing two people. The IRA claimed responsibility, ending the cease-fire and halting the peace process. Within 48 hours, 500 soldiers were deployed to republican strongholds in Northern Ireland. Adams claimed that he did not know in advance that the IRA would end the cease-fire. Nonetheless he was quoted in Time as saying, the British "broke the commitments they made when the IRA agreed to the cease-fire. They promised all-party talks, but after 18 months we got nothing."
Another IRA bomb exploded in London on February 18, 1996. Yet in Northern Ireland, hope remained that peace could be salvaged. In Time, Catholic priest Denis Faulk noted, "three years ago we would have been slagging each other off over a bombing like the one in London. but now everyone is talking about maintaining the peace. The days of the paramilitaries are numbered. No one wants to go back to war."
The renewed terrorist campaign raised questions about the influence Adams actually has with the IRA and if anyone can control the fragmented (by design) organization. In response to the bombings, the British government banned high-level contacts with Sinn Fein. On May 30, 1996, elections took place in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein coming in fourth and garnering more than 15 percent of the vote. Despite Britain's earlier statement that these elections would determine the number of delegates each political group could send to the peace talks, British Prime Minister John Major said a resumption of the IRA cease-fire was a prerequisite for Sinn Fein's inclusion. Still, Adams remains an important figure in the peace process. Belfast city councilor Alex Attwood commented in Time in 1996 that "Adams and his first-line managers are the best and the brightest. People may not like them, but they need to be sustained if we are going to secure peace." In 1997, Adams won a seat in the British parliamentary elections as a Member of Parliament for West Belfast in Northern Ireland. As in 1982, he refused to accept it because it required taking an oath to the British crown.
Adams, Gerry, Before the Dawn: An Autobiography, William Morrow (New York), 1997.
Keena, Colm, Gerry Adams, a Biography, Mercier Press (Dublin), 1990.
Economist, May 13, 1995; August 19, 1995.
Monthly Review, May 1989.
New York Times, February 1, 1973; July 20, 1973; February 19, 1978; May 18, 1993; February 3, 1997.
People, December 26, 1994.
Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1993.
Time, November 5, 1990; November 8, 1993; February 26, 1996.
US News & World Report, August 14, 1995.
Vanity Fair, January, 1997.