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An exclusive interview with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams was born in 1948 and grew up in West Belfast. During the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles _ the violent conflict over British rule of Northern Ireland _ he was jailed without trial twice, once for four years, but never convicted of a crime.

He has been the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, since 1983, the same year he was first elected member of the British Parliament _ a seat he refuses to take, to avoid the compulsory oath of allegiance to the queen of England. In 1984, he survived an assassination attempt in Belfast.

Adams has emerged as one of the chief architects of Northern Ireland's peace process, which resulted in the historic Belfast Agreement of 1998. The agreement promised self-determination and guarantees of human rights for the embattled region; a Northern Ireland Assembly was created; and the IRA has under the terms of the agreement decommissioned some of its weapons.

But there have been setbacks. England has reinstated direct rule four times, most recently in October as pro-British parties threatened to quit the assembly over allegations of IRA spying. The assembly remains suspended and elections scheduled for May 29 have been put off indefinitely. Recent revelations of past political assassinations have done nothing to ease the tension.

These are only the latest bulletins from a conflict that has been going on in one form or another for much of a century, since the United Kingdom in the early '20s ceded independence to largely Catholic southern Ireland, which eventually became the Republic of Ireland, while retaining the six Protestant-majority counties of the north.

The labels of the contending parties in Northern Ireland reveal their aims. Unionists (mostly Protestant) want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Republicans and nationalists (mostly Catholic) wish to split with the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland. Under the Belfast Agreement, such a move would be possible.

Sinn Fein has recently become the majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland, taking ground from the more moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party. The unionist parties represent most of the 53 percent of the population that is Protestant. But the demographics are shifting and Catholics, now 44 percent of the population, may outnumber Protestants in 10 years.

Reassuring unionists about their future is one of the republicans' biggest challenges, Adams says. "Clearly we are the best guarantors to unionism because we want them, they're part of us, they've as much right to this island as any of the rest of us have."

Adams has written two collections of short stories, two memoirs and collections of political essays. His most recent memoir, A Further Shore: Ireland's Long Road to Peace, is being published this fall by Random House. This interview is from a recorded phone conversation, which took place while Adams was traveling by car from Limavady to Toome on June 18.

Could you address the reasons Prime Minister Tony Blair has given for the return to direct rule in Northern Ireland and for the suspension of elections scheduled for this past May 29th?

Well, it's up to him to explain that position. I think it's on his part a tactical mistake. But more importantly than that, I think it's an arrogant denial to citizens of our rights to vote. I think it totally contradicts any assertion by the British government that they are intent on bringing about the type of centered society which is required to bed down the peace process. A definitive and unqualified date for elections should be set as quickly as possible.

Do the British reasonably fear greater polarization will be the result of the elections, when and if they do occur?

First of all it's nobody's business. If that was the case _ that a government could decide not to have elections because it didn't like the possible results _ then there wouldn't be elections anywhere. So it doesn't matter what the results are. Citizens have the right to vote or citizens don't have the right to vote, and the British government position is that citizens sometimes have the right to vote as long as the British government is satisfied with the possible outcome of their franchise. The reality is we haven't had any electoral institutions in the whole history of Northern Ireland since partition (1923), until now, which unionists and nationalists and republicans and loyalists have felt some common ownership of. And what did the British government do? They took that away from people; sidelined the politicians and sidelined the taoiseach (Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland), for example, who was against it, and more importantly sidelined the citizens.

Is the recent re-election of David Trimble as head of the largely Protestant Ulster Unionist Party a positive sign for the peace process and the forces within Northern Ireland that support the Belfast Agreement of 1998?

That remains to be seen. I think the real test of Mr. Trimble's leadership is not in how he manages his party but on what he does with this particular agreement. Because at least now there is some sense that Mr. Trimble has seen off his opponents. Up until now his actions had been predicated upon the fact that he cannot do certain things because of the weight of anti-agreement sentiment within his party. And now that he's won the day, I'd like to see him fully embracing the agreement, positively promoting it and showing that he is genuinely pro-agreement.

According to an Irish Times poll, just 15 percent of the voters in Ireland blame republicans for the breakdown in the peace process (and only 5 percent blame Sinn Fein), while 35 percent blame the unionists. However, 45 percent do not believe the IRA's recent statement renouncing violence goes far enough. Is the public perception of Sinn Fein's relationship to the IRA changing? Couldn't the IRA do more to promote the Belfast Agreement at this stage?

Well, I don't like to quote opinion polls. Politicians generally will endorse the ones they find favorable. But I do think there's a general sense the IRA made seismic movements toward dealing with some of the issues that unionists have expressed some concerns about. And then on the heels of that, the efforts I made to deal with some of the questions were seen as, you know, stretching the republican constituency in a very real way. And because that is the case, I've had people say that the cancellation of the elections was almost a slap in the face to those of us trying our best to bridge the gap between the different factions here. So I don't know about people's perception about the IRA and Sinn Fein, but certainly there was a real effort made to make this work and it failed. I feel and it's a great pity that that was the case and I think we have to bust ourselves down and go after it again. The onus is very much on the British government to face up to its responsibilities and its obligations and to stop pandering to unionism.

I just returned from Belfast and I talked with many ordinary people _ cab drivers, people on the street _ and there's still concern about violence within Catholic communities, generally attributed to the IRA, such as punishment beatings, shootings and exiling. Do you think these issues have been adequately addressed in statements by the IRA?

Well I certainly think that the IRA's position is both _ well I can't think of a word just to describe it. But certainly in terms of setting out its goal, I think it did so in a very clear way, a very comprehensive way. The issue of violence within Catholic communities, neighborhoods, I believe you're talking about these so-called punishment beatings, are mostly exaggerated. Sinn Fein, for example, have set our face against them, and I'm opposed to anyone being beaten on so-called allegations about antisocial behavior. At the same time I have to say that Belfast, for example, seems to be one of the safest places. And the U.S. team with the Special Olympics flew into Belfast just recently there, and that was for me a very special sense of a statement of confidence.

This has been a rocky couple of months for Northern Ireland in other ways: the recent discovery of large bombs attributed to the dissident Real IRA, the Stevens Inquiry report of British collusion and cover-up in the murder of Catholics, the allegations that a man with the codename of "Stakeknife" was a killer and high-level informant for the British within the IRA, perhaps for decades. What affect do these revelations have on the peace process? And do you think they're in any way coordinated? Is there a PR war going on here?

Well most of the allegations about ex-IRA agents coincided with the publication of the Stevens report, so I don't think that's a coincidence. To some it may be legitimate journalistic license. But I think the actual timing of this, here you have a report (from a British police investigation) which actually indicts the British state for killing citizens and then within a short period the agencies which are actually guilty then reveal details. I mean I don't know of any other example. Even before the IRA cessations, when the IRA killed informers, the British agencies never acknowledged that the people involved were their agents. So now we have a situation where they are doing a huge PR promotion. So it's not a coincidence. The aim is to cause confusion. I don't think it has so much caused us confusion, as some people are savvy about these things. But I think it does undermine confidence. People want to know why it's been done, what's it about. Why hasn't the Stevens report been published fully? All these things indicate that the system is fading back. The system hasn't declared that its war is over. The system sees that the process is in difficulties, with a period of turbulence, and these stories and these revelations in my view are about deepening these difficulties.

Similarly with the bomb things and so on. Obviously there are small microgroups within nationalism that are against this process and they also see an opportunity to exploit the vacuum and undermine the peace process. You know, look at the Middle East. That's what happens if there isn't a democratic imperative in a peace process or a consistent effort to make a peace process work. So I don't always believe in the politics of conspiracy, but I do think there's a coincidence of interest among those elements who don't want this process to work. And I think we have seen them seeking to fill the vacuum.

Would you support an international inquest or a truth and reconciliation commission?

Well, the South African model was one of a sovereign South African state. We don't have a sovereign Irish state on our island and we don't have the type of accountability in the sense of the agencies of the British state. So having said that, of course there have to be truth processes.

When you spoke in Tampa in 1999, you called for a professionalized police force with university training. What steps have been taken in that direction? Has the Patten Commission report on policing in Northern Ireland been implemented?

Well elements of the Patten recommendations have been implemented, but the full report has been in many ways emasculated by Peter Mandelson, who was the former British secretary of state. Core elements of accountability which left power in the hands of the Special Branch have yet to be dealt with properly. But our negotiations before the breakdown in the process with British government saw substantive progress on these issues. It's now up to the Brits to implement what they agreed with us, and I think that opens up the prospect of a new beginning in this part of the world, the development of civic policing which would be under democratic and public control.

Is discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland, in jobs, education, housing, and voting rights, largely resolved?

Yes and no. The biggest difficulty in discrimination at the moment lies in the employment differential: 8.2 percent (jobless) for Catholics and 4.3 percent for Protestants. Those figures come from the Labor Force Survey Religion Report. That shows that even five years after the Good Friday Agreement was put together, there's still a lot of work to be done. The Equality Commission as well as the Human Rights Commission _ we don't have a Bill of Rights here _ they are key mechanisms for dealing with this issue of discrimination.

Unionist resistance to the Belfast Agreement, which calls for eventual self-determination of Northern Ireland, seems to be intensifying. Could you address the concern of Protestants that they would be a vulnerable minority in a potentially united Ireland?

I think one of the big challenges that republicans have at the moment is to actually reassure unionists about their future. Clearly we are the best guarantors to unionism because we want them, they're part of us, they've as much right to this island as any of the rest of us have. They too have a responsibility to actually stake out their ground, stake out their position, stake out their entitlements and so on. And I think we have a situation where unionists have a population of about 20 percent of the population of this island and less than 1.5 percent of the population of the British state, the United Kingdom. They'd have more influence in an all-Ireland situation. So we're involved in some outreach work. Alex Maskey who was mayor of Belfast in the last year, did, I think, a powerful job of being magnanimous, of being evenhanded, of being equitable, and I've asked him to head up our outreach to unionism. And I've just actually left Limavady, in County Derry, where Ann Brolly is the first woman Sinn Fein mayor to be elected.

That's a good thing _ a woman being elected.

Well, I was trying to make the point that equality has to be the watchword.

Could you discuss the American perception of issues and how the Bush/Blair alliance has changed the landscape for Northern Ireland?

Well, I think that because of the global village that we live in and access to Internet, Americans and particularly Irish Americans are very much informed on the issues. There used to be a sort of propaganda position that North Americans had redneck, ignorant, romantic notions of an Ireland of yesteryear. That has not been my experience. I think the Irish American constituency is what President Bush and President Clinton have in common and they've done a wonderful job of getting these issues, including the issue of discrimination, not just on the political agenda, but on the agenda of the White House. President Clinton obviously was a very brave man who in a dramatic way took initiatives which changed decades of institutionalized policy between the White House and Downing Street. But I have to say that George Bush, while the style is different, the policy remains the same. Richard Haass, who is the president's envoy on this issue, has I think from the start been a helpful supporter of the process.

Here in the U.S., the Patriot Act allows for internment, holding people without charging them promptly, tribunals using secret evidence, and increased surveillance. Did similar policies prolong the conflict in Northern Ireland?

Well, they didn't work. I don't know if we can draw any direct affinity between the Patriot Act and the Special Powers Act, but I know that repressive legislation in Northern Ireland didn't work. I mean British policy, British involvement here, was based upon coercion and that clearly and obviously hasn't worked. At the same time, societies, sovereign governments have the right to defend themselves. That's a domestic issue for people in the U.S. to take up.

What do you see as your party's vision for Northern Ireland? In what way is Sinn Fein Catholic? Socialist?

Well, we're not a Catholic party and we're never pretended to be a Catholic party. You know, we don't ask for religion and it's of no importance to us. I think the American model of secularism, you know, it's fairly A-okay, that there can be a separation of church and state, but still the people's religious and civil liberties can be upheld by constitutional underpinnings. Sinn Fein is a party of the broad left. We want to see, in the words of the Irish Proclamation of 1916, "the ownership of Ireland belonging to the people of Ireland." We believe in a mixed economy, but we also believe that rights like housing, education, health, are entitlements of citizens. We believe in having a social responsibility for people who are infirm, ill, who are disadvantaged, who are aged, or who are very young. We would envisage a political democracy but also an economic democracy.

In your memoir Falls Memories: a Belfast Life, you talk about times in the early 20th century when labor issues united people in the North. What particular economic issues promote sectarianism now? What issues could unite people, especially considering that 30 percent of Catholics and Protestants wouldn't identify themselves as unionist or nationalist?

Well, one of the things that's happening at the moment is that most working class people, even from a unionist background, are exploring what advantages the union brought to them in terms of their economic lives and the reality is it didn't bring very much to them. And I have made the case that there are deprived working class, unionist areas which are socially disadvantaged and where the educational attainments of the young people are minimal, where crime and domestic and drug and alcohol abuse is very high and where there's an increasing sense of alienation. So obviously these issues need to be tackled. Poverty isn't sectarian. It affects all sorts of people at that economic level.

Recognizing your party's goal of a united Ireland, how can you deal with what some in the North call the "pass the parcel game," where neither England nor the Republic of Ireland really seems to want Northern Ireland?

Well that may be the attitude of some of the leadership of some of the political parties in the South, but the vast majority of people in Ireland want a united Ireland and apart from anything else, these political parties wouldn't have that as their policy objective if it weren't popular. They may just pay lip service to the ideal; whereas we have it as a very clear objective and it is very popular throughout the South.

The British are still here. I wish they didn't want us, but for whatever reason the union still remains. It doesn't indicate that the British don't want to be here. The Good Friday Agreement was a big advance in terms of creating or unraveling some of the threads of the connection. But I don't think that's the real issue. When it serves their interests the British will go, and I think that those of us who remain will be able to establish a society that is reflective of the needs of all the people. I think that's the good part of the struggle, doing that.

The relative peace of the past few years can be felt these days among the people of Northern Ireland. The Troubles are sometimes talked about as history. What can be done, by your party in particular, to guarantee that the peace process moves forward?

Well by listening I think to the concerns of others we can resolve the issues that cause those concerns, and delivering on our obligations, not just in terms of the Agreement, but in terms of our general philosophy. And by doing what we're now going to do once again, after being insulted by the British government's position, we haven't walked away from the process; we've picked ourselves up and we are guaranteeing to the best of our ability our willingness to deal with our enemies as well as our opponents to make this a better place for everyone who lives here. Is that fair enough?

Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English at the University of Tampa. In the summer of 2001 she attended an international exchange program at the University of Ulster on peace and conflict in Northern Ireland. She has just returned from a research trip to Belfast.