A Conversation with Gerry Adams

Most news media will only cover a few issues in any meaningful depth, and a new “crisis” will soon crowd out what was until recently considered a grave situation. Darfur will crowd out Iraq, Iraq overshadowed Palestine, and so on. News editors will justify this by stating that the public suffers from an attention deficit; they suggest that the public can at most focus on two issues at a time, and only where a “crisis” has erupted. However, conflicts don’t follow a media agenda, and injustice may persist even after the TV cameras have moved on. Compounding the problem is that once the spotlight moves elsewhere, politicians’ interest will also wane. The next time the media focus will return is only when the “bang-bang” stuff reoccurs.

It is the news media that really suffers from an “attention deficit disorder”, and as the recent war in Iraq attests, the news media has also lent itself to manipulate the public into silence. To understand what is happening in the world and to demonstrate true solidarity with people struggling for a modicum of justice, it is important to reject the news media determined agenda.

Solidarity with a peoples’ demand for justice should not be determined by the fickle media agenda, but it should be constant. It is for this reason that it is important to discuss the ongoing developments in Northern Ireland. There may be a perception that “peace has broken out” in Northern Ireland, and there are enough politicians toasting champagne or slapping each other’s backs to prove this point. However, deep divisions and significant tensions remain in that society, and many issues have not been addressed.


About Gerry Adams:
Gerry Adams is the president of Sinn Féin, a nationalist political party in Northern Ireland. He also served as a member of parliament for West Belfast from 1983 until 1992. In line with not recognizing the authority of the British parliament, he did not attend at the House of Commons.
Besides politics, Adams is a prolific writer. His latest two books are Before the Dawn: An Autobiography (Heinemann, London 1996). His latest book is Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland (Brandon, 2004).

PAUL de ROOIJ: Was anything substantive achieved at the recent talks at Leeds Castle?

Gerry Adams: The negotiations at Leeds Castle did see some progress made. However, there was progress towards a comprehensive agreement, I saw no sign of that as far as the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] was concerned. In the weeks since then there has been no evidence to suggest that the DUP has changed its position. Yes, Mr. Paisley traveled to Dublin, and I welcome that, but the fact is that the DUP continues to put unrealistic demands aimed at changing the power sharing core of the Assembly and other fundamentals of the Agreement. It persists with its objectionable refusal to accept Sinn Féin’s mandate or the rights of our electorate and the rights of citizens who support other parties.
Since Leeds Castle the Sinn Féin leadership has been involved in intense discussions with the governments in a bid to close the gaps which exist. That work is still ongoing.

PR: Some commentators [e.g., Harry Browne] were astonished that the key aspect of Sinn Féin concessions weren’t noted in the British press or acknowledged by Tony Blair or Ahern. Is it the case that the British gov’t or the unionist parties have not appreciated key moves by Sinn Fein?

Adams: You will not understand the nature of the conflict in Ireland unless you set it in the context of Britain’s colonial involvement over many centuries, the partition of the island, and the ongoing British claim of jurisdiction over a part of the island.

So, while the British and Irish governments and indeed some unionists, do understand the efforts and risks Sinn Féin has taken to achieve a peace settlement, we each have our different conflicting goals; Sinn Féin wants and end to the union, an end to British jurisdiction over a part of Ireland; the British and the unionists want to retain that, although they may differ over the shape of that union. We are therefore at odds over the core cause of conflict — which we see as continued British interference in Ireland — and what needs to be done to resolve it.

PR: We know what unionist parties and the British government want in such negotiations. What were Sinn Fein’s main demands, and have those issues been addressed?

Adams: Sinn Féin wants to see the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That means the British government implementing with ‘rigorous impartiality’ its responsibilities in respect of equality and ‘civil, political, social and cultural rights,’ agreed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It hasn’t done this. Nor has it honored its commitments on issues like a new accountable, democratically controlled policing service or the demilitarization of our society.

Our position going into this negotiation is very straight forward ­ to insist that the British government implement, in good faith, all of those many commitments that it has so far broken.

PR: Has the British government exerted any pressure on unionist parties so that they would fulfill their obligations?

Adams: The Good Friday Agreement [GFA] is about fundamental constitutional, political, social change. It is about a process of sustainable change which ends inequalities and embraces citizens on the basis of equality. However, the experience of the past six years, since the GFA was agreed, is that the British approach to the implementation of the Agreement has in the main been dictated by matching progress to how much change unionist parties are prepared to accept. The rights and entitlements of citizens are being determined by how much of a row unionists will kick up.

The reality is that British policy tolerates and perpetuates institutionalized inequality and many in political unionism see no imperative to co-operate with their nationalist neighbors, or nationalist and republican representatives. This view is reinforced by the fact that the apparatus of government, the symbols, and senior management of the institutions of the state are predominantly unionist. British policy is also an obstacle to the practice and achieving of equality of treatment and parity of esteem.

The un-elected and unaccountable ‘Northern Ireland Office’ [NIO] is a particular example of the need for urgent change. The NIO runs the six-counties almost as a private fiefdom. British Direct Rule Ministers fly in for a few hours a week, very often simply to rubber stamp decisions pre-formulated by Senior NIO officials. And too often, those who work within and for the NIO, demonstrate an unapologetic devotion to the unionist cause. In addition the hundreds of unaccountable quangos [PR: see below] are filled to overflowing with those appointed by the NIO and deemed by that body to be safe hands. The manifestation of Unionist governance for the Unionist people is preserved.

[PR-explanation: A non-British audience may require some explanation. Quangos are quasi-governmental agencies. These bodies usually deliver government services, but their boards aren’t elected, and usually stacked with the incumbent party’s appointees. Most government services in the UK were either privatized or removed from democratic accountability during the Thatcher era.]

PR: Tony Blair is a discredited leader and most probably must be viewed as a “lame duck”. Is this apparent during the negotiations?

Adams: However Tony Blair is viewed by others the fact is that he is the British Prime Minister. He will almost certainly still be the British Prime Minister after the next elections. Our responsibility is to work with him and persuade him to implement the Agreement. We also constantly raise with him the need for him to change British policy from one of supporting the union to one of ending the union.

PR: The Blair government has been notorious for the way it addressed the few issues it has chosen to pursue, e.g., the never-ending fox hunting saga. Have the issues of Northern Ireland been addressed more forcibly and decisively?

Adams: I think I have already given you a sense of our criticism of the way in which the British government has implemented the Agreement. It has failed to deliver in the terms agreed six years ago. Sometimes these failures are failures of focus or concentration but often they are the deliberate machinations of interests within the British system who remain deeply opposed to the peace process. Progress is most often made when Mr. Blair is focused on the issue. When his concentration shifts to other matters then the problems multiply.

PR: Until recently, walls have been built in Belfast. What has been done to integrate the societies to heal the distrust and enmity?

Adams: There have been ghettoes in Belfast since the town was first constructed and most clearly since the industrial revolution. The walls are a more recent manifestation of the divisions in our society which are a consequence of the colonial policies of past British and unionist governments. There are real efforts being made to build bridges across these divides and they have met with some success but there is no easy answer to sectarian divisions carefully fostered by governments and unionist political and business interests over many generations.

PR: Catholics and Protestants still go to separate schools, and it seems that the first time the communities meet is at university. Is the school system going to be integrated? And what are the impediments to such development?

Adams: It is important to realize that the existence of Catholic and Protestant and Irish medium or non-denominational schools are not in themselves bad things. Too often there is a simplistic view presented of this conflict as sectarian. While there is a sectarian element to it, its roots are firmly located in Britain’s colonial presence in Ireland and the continued partition of our country.

Adams: While he was Minister for Education, my colleague Martin McGuinness allocated more funding to integrated schooling than any British Minister ever did. We understand its importance but we also have to take account of the society we live in and the desire for families to have their children taught in schools which reflect their values. However, as the peace process continues to develop, as our society comes to terms with its past and builds a new future, then the issue of education will become less about the religious or non-religious nature of the school but the standard of education taught.

PR: The recent census in Northern Ireland forced respondents to be categorized in about 20 different ways. Even if a person didn’t want to be classified in the available categories, it was forced upon them. It seems that the divisions are forced upon the communities by government policy. Do you think this will eventually be phased out?

Adams: It is understandable that governments in trying to address the needs of society will seek to secure as much information as possible to allow decisions to be taken which are informed and the best interests of citizens. That’s not a bad thing. But like all information, it can be used to discriminate, to oppress, to exclude. That is why the institutions, and the rights and entitlements of citizens accorded in the Good Friday Agreement are so important. It is why we have been pushing so hard for a Bill of Rights for the north.

PR: In some countries on the continent ethnic conflict was defused by finding some commonality among erstwhile antagonistic groups. For example, the adoption of a common European identity seems to have dampened the Walloon vs. Flemish ethnic tensions in Belgium. Has there been any discussion to do the same in Northern Ireland?

Adams: There have been some limited efforts to persuade people here to look at Europe as a point of commonality, others have tried to persuade citizens that instead of seeing themselves as either ‘Irish’ or ‘British’ they should seek to define their identity in terms of being ‘northern Irish’. But none of this has had any real impact. My view is that instead of seeking to disguise or hide what we are or believe we are we should embrace our differences and see them as positives, and as strengths.

I may not agree with the Orange Order. I may oppose its efforts to hold triumphalist marches through nationalist areas where they are not wanted, but I do respect the Order’s right to exist and I will defend their right to march. They have to learn to respect the right of other citizens to hold a contrary opinion. For that reason dialogue is very important. Regrettably, the various loyal institutions refuse to speak to Sinn Féin and most refuse to speak to nationalist residents. That remains an important piece of work in the time ahead.

PR: Sinn Féin has a branch of its party contesting elections in the Republic of Ireland. Is the issue of Northern Ireland of much concern there, and is this the key issue drawing Irish to vote for Sinn Féin there?

Adams: Sinn Féin is the only party organized throughout the whole island. Next year we celebrate our 100th birthday. In the recent elections in the south of Ireland, we made significant progress and achieved major breakthroughs in Dublin and other parts of the state. Instinctively most people in the south want to see a United Ireland. That is most obvious in the fact that increasingly political parties in that part of the island are also including the demand for a United Ireland as part of their manifesto platform.
PR: Sinn Féin purports to be a leftist party. Can you explain why you as leader of Sinn Féin attended the Bush-Blair war summit in Hillsborough in May 2003? What explains Sinn Féin failure to criticize the US and its recent wars? Why have you attended the World Economic Conference in New York but not the World Social Forum in Brazil?

Adams: Whatever else President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were talking about at Hillsborough they were also dealing with our peace process. So, we had an obligation to be there and to use that opportunity to talk about what is after all the most important issue for the people of Ireland. Nonetheless, I used the occasion to present both leaders with a letter outlining our total opposition to what was then the imminent invasion of Iraq. I told both that they should not invade and I have repeated that both to them and to their officials at every opportunity. Our criticism of the war has resulted in Sinn Féin being criticized by people in the USA. I am consequently somewhat puzzled by your question which suggests that we have not criticized the war in Iraq. And, by the way, while we did not receive an invite to attend the World Social Forum in Brazil I have been invited and will attend the European Social Forum in London next week.

PR: What is Sinn Fein’s policy on migration into Ireland? And can you explain its position regarding citizenship in the recent referendum in the Republic of Ireland?

Adams: Sinn Féin wants to see a comprehensive immigration policy that is positive, compassionate, human rights compliant and anti-racist. That policy must fully recognize the positive contribution of immigrants to Irish society and to the Irish economy.

We oppose the Irish Government’s policy of deporting Irish child citizens along with their non-national parents, and are calling not only for the deportation orders in such cases to be vacated, but also for the Government to introduce legislation affirming the equal right of all citizen children to remain in Ireland in the care and company of their parents regardless of the national or ethnic origin of their parents.

The only appropriate legacy for a nation scarred by emigration is a positive immigration policy that recognizes the dignity and rights of migrants, and that also recognizes that immigration is an enormously constructive social and economic force whose potential must be harnessed in the best interests of our future.

Sinn Féin vigorously opposed the recent Citizenship Referendum. The Government proposals stripped some Irish children of their rights on the basis of where their parents came from. The proposals were introduced to coincide with the recent local and EU elections in an attempt to divert attention away from the government’s appalling record on housing, healthcare, and other matters. It was designed to exploit people’s fears regarding immigrants and asylum seekers.

Statistics provided by the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) shows clearly that the volume of racist assaults are running well above the ‘average’ numbers normally reported. That there has been a sharp increase during and since the passing of the Citizenship Referendum should surprise no one. Sinn Féin, along with others, warned that the referendum would lead to an increase in racism, and unfortunately we have been proved right.

PR: During your recent lecture in London, a BBC journalist asked you a single question, i.e., if it was true that you were fond of PG Woodhouse. Has the BBC ever addressed the Northern Ireland issue in a more intelligent way than this, and how do you evaluate its coverage during the past few years?

Adams: With some honorable exceptions most British media coverage of the conflict and in particular of the British role in it, has been poor. British public opinion has been poorly served by a media which failed to tackle the real causes of conflict, address issues like collusion between state forces and loyalist death squads and much more.

PR: It is curious to an outsider to find that the nationalist community will wave the Palestinian flag, and adopt a sympathetic position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. At the same time, the unionists tend to wave the Israeli flag. What is the origin of this and are people aware of the situation in occupied Palestine?

Adams: In the course of three decades of conflict republicans and nationalists came to identify with other peoples engaged in struggle against oppression. This is true of the Palestinians, of the ANC and others. Over those years we built up solidarity links and today there are very active solidarity groups in Belfast and elsewhere helping the Palestinian people in whatever way they can.

Unionist politicians came to favor the Israeli side. DUP politicians like Peter Robinson visited Israel at the invitation of right wing politicians there. I don’t know how well informed unionist opinion is on the conflict in Palestine, but nationalist and republican opinion is very well informed.

PR: You just published another book. What are the issues you are addressing this time?

Adams: Hope and History recounts the events around the birth of the peace process. It seeks to give an insiders account of developments, of the key people involved and of the practical steps which were necessary in order to make progress. It’s not intended as a history book but for those interested in conflict resolution it would be a useful addition to their book shelf.

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London. He can be contacted at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all attachments will be deleted automatically).

©2004 PAUL de ROOIJ


PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)