27 November 2017 Edition
Gerry Adams – Giving his life to leadership
I FIRST met Gerry Adams when, as a 19-year-old, I travelled the well-worn path from the Crumlin Road Courthouse to Cage 11 of Long Kesh. Gerry was there on the last lap of a five-year sentence for attempting to escape from internment without charge or trial.
He was well-known by repute. He was with Martin McGuinness on the republican delegation flown to England in a Royal Air Force plane to meet British Secretary of State William Whitelaw in London during the truce between the IRA and the British Government in 1972.
I knew too that the British Government had released him from internment to take part in those talks at the request of the republican leadership, which was a big deal in itself.
Gerry had been a republican and civil rights activist and a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement before the split in Sinn Féin in January 1970. He had attended the meeting in the International Hotel in Belfast to discuss the setting up of the Civil Rights Movement.
He made it clear in the regular debates and meetings in Cage 11 that he was implacably opposed to the institutionalised discrimination and inequality which characterised the Orange apartheid state run by the Ulster Unionist Party and facilitated by successive British governments.
And he vehemently opposed all forms of sectarianism, no matter what its source, as well as the internecine feuding which had taken place in 1975 between the IRA and the ‘Sticks’, the so-called ‘Official IRA’.
He listened intently to other views in the room and his contributions were usually measured and thought provoking.
He often based himself in the study hut, writing for the Republican News or with his team drafting political lectures and discussion papers.
He also had a grá for An Ghaeilge. He and Patsy Fields from Armagh attended a class regularly with one of the múinteoirí in the Cage.
Gerry Adams’s key quality was leadership – someone who could listen to the arguments, test the strength of feeling on an issue but who was then prepared to be decisive.
It came as no surprise to anyone in Cage 11 that Gerry immediately set about the task of reorganising and building the Sinn Féin and support for its republican objectives on his release in 1977.
But Gerry’s freedom was to be short-lived.
He was arrested in February 1978 and charged with IRA membership and held in Crumlin Road Gaol and the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. The case collapsed within months.
Inside the H-Blocks, Gerry joined protesters on the remand wings and also met some of the ‘Blanket Men’ who had been in the Cages with him.
There were hundreds of republican prisoners on the ‘Blanket Protest’, refusing to wear prison uniforms.
They were locked up 24 hours a day and subjected to a system of routine brutality.
Their plight worsened after the ‘No Wash Protest’ started in March 1978 following attacks on Blanket prisoners on their way to the bathrooms by prison warders.
There were also more than 30 women in Armagh Gaol refusing to do prison work and locked up most of the day.
The authorities’ vicious repression provoked the 1980 and 1981 Hunger Strikes.
The courage of the Hunger Strikers and the results of the ‘H-Blocks elections’ smashed the British Government’s criminalisation policy.
Boycotts and abstentionism
The 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that followed saw the endorsement of calls by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison for an end to Sinn Féin’s boycott of elections in the North.
The following year’s Assembly elections saw Gerry, Danny Morrison, Martin McGuinness, Jim McAllister and Owen Carron elected on an abstentionist basis to the 1982-86 Assembly.
In 1983, Gerry was elected MP for West Belfast for the first time.
1983 was also the year which saw Gerry elected as President of Sinn Féin, having been joint Vice-President since 1979.
Just months later, in March 1984, Gerry and three colleagues (Seán Keenan, Kevin Rooney and Joe Keenan) were shot and wounded while travelling from a Belfast court by a UDA gang which was immediately arrested by a British Army undercover team.
Gerry was seriously injured, being hit a number of times, but returned quickly to political activity.
By 1985, Sinn Féin had 59 councillors elected across the North. Attacks on Sinn Féin members by loyalist death squads colluding with the British Intelligence services continued to rise from this period, claiming the lives of Sinn Féin elected representatives and party activists.
‘Scenario for Peace’
1985 also brought the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Irish Government a limited say in the affairs of the North. It infuriated unionists while providing little comfort to nationalists.
During this period, Gerry Adams had been grappling with how republicans could take initiatives which could break the stalemate that had developed in the war between the IRA and British state forces.
He started to meet with SDLP leader John Hume.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness argued for an end to Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism from Leinster House. The move was overwhelmingly supported by Ard Fheis delegates.
He retained the West Belfast seat in May 1987 and at the start of that month Sinn Féin also published its ‘Scenario for Peace’ document.
This sought “to create conditions which will lead to a permanent cessation of hostilities, an end to our long war and the development of a peaceful, united and independent Irish society”.
It was one of a series of initiatives which would be taken by Gerry Adams in the development of the Peace Process.
In 1988, the British Government emulated the Irish state’s Section 31 broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin spokespersons or even elected representatives. Despite being elected as an MP, Gerry Adams’s words could only be heard on TV or radio if read by an actor.
The broadcasting ban coincided with an increase in gun, bomb and rocket attacks on Sinn Féin party offices and activists and the intensification of attacks by the UVF and UDA on nationalist civilians.
Loyalist death squads had been rearmed by the British Intelligence services with a consignment of weapons and explosives from apartheid South Africa.
The conflict continued but Gerry was increasingly convinced of the need for an alliance of Irish political parties pursuing objectives which looked at the interests and well-being of the people of this island and normalising relations between the people of Ireland and Britain.
It had also become clear that the Irish Government had a key role to play in any peace strategy.
In 1992, Sinn Féin set out in some detail how it proposed that the conflict could be brought to an end in the document ‘Towards a Lasting Peace’:
“A peace process, leading to a lasting peace, must address the root causes of the conflict. A genuine and sustainable peace process must be grounded on democracy and self-determination.”
In 1993, Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume published their proposals as to how the conflict could be ended and a democratic path to Irish unity and national self-determination could be established.
The contacts between Gerry and John Hume – as well as contacts with the British and Irish governments – led to the IRA cessation of 1994.
In a statement issued on 31 August, the IRA said:
“We believe that an opportunity to create a just and lasting settlement has been created.”
When the IRA cessation broke down in February 1996, Gerry Adams worked tirelessly to recreate the conditions for a lasting peace.
A new IRA cessation was called in July 1997 after the elections of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern paved the way at last for all-party talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
This was an internationally-binding agreement setting up a power-sharing administration in the North based on parity of esteem, equality and mutual respect. It provided for all-Ireland bodies and a referendum on Irish unity as well as the release of all political prisoners within two years together with reform of the justice system and the Royal Ulster Constabulary paramilitary police.
The roles of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in achieving the support of the IRA and the wider republican base to embrace the path presented by the agreement for Irish unity were pivotal.
Support for Sinn Féin grew and the party achieved a creditable 18 MLAs in the first Assembly election, with Gerry nominating Martin to the post of Education Minister for the North.
Overtaking the SDLP
By 2003, Sinn Féin had become the largest nationalist party in the state, overtaking the SDLP for the first time in its history. The following year, Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún were elected to the European Parliament for Sinn Féin.
In April 2005, Gerry made a public call on the IRA to embrace and accept the democratic alternative to the armed struggle.
The IRA responded on 28 July:
“The leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign . . .
“All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms.
“All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.”
In 2006, Sinn Féin engaged in talks with the British and Irish governments and the DUP. The St Andrews Agreement paved the way for the restoration of the political institutions in the North after a five-year hiatus.
Gerry nominated Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister. In the Assembly election that followed, Sinn Féin took 28 seats.
In November 2010, Gerry convened a meeting in west Belfast and announced he was going to stand down from his seat as Westminster MP and resign from the Northern Assembly to stand for election in County Louth in the next general election.
The experts were confounded when Sinn Féin returned 14 TDs, including Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald along with Gerry.
Martin McGuinness ran for election as President of Ireland later that year, securing 243,000 votes (more than 13%) and taking the Sinn Féin message the length and breadth of the state.
The return of a dynamic team of new Sinn Féin TDs paved the way for the election of four MEPs, one in each province of the national territory, in 2014 with almost half a million votes across the island.
Gerry then led the Oireachtas team into another general election in 2016, this time advancing to 23 TDs and seven seanadóirí.
He has also played a leading role over the last year attempting to restore the political institutions in the North that had collapsed after Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister over the DUP’s failure to deal with their RHI financial scandal and their refusal to implement agreements on equality and legacy issues.
Gerry lost his very close friend and comrade Martin McGuinness in March this year after a short illness.
Speaking at his graveside, Gerry said:
“Martin will continue to inspire and encourage us in the time ahead. Martin believed that a better Ireland, a genuinely new Ireland, is possible.”
Cage 11 to today
Gerry has worked closely with Michelle O’Neill in the negotiations to restore the political institutions in the North on the basis established under the Good Friday Agreement on rights and equality for all.
In February 1977, Gerry Adams set off on a mission from Cage 11 in Long Kesh.
Today, in 2017, Sinn Féin has more than half a million votes, 27 MLAs, 23 TDs, more than 250 councillors, seven MPs, seven seanadóirí and four MEPs representing every person in Ireland. It is a new, strong, all-Ireland collective leadership and a party now looking to go into government North and South.
Gerry Adams’s central role in building a relevant, all-island political party capable of securing ‘An Ireland of Equals’ is an immense, historic achievement.