Gerry Adams has never been bought lunch by journalist before. In this polite but slightly tense encounter between John Lloyd and the Westminster MP for West Belfast for most of the last twenty years he chose to have his early Lunch with the FT in the Terrace Cafeteria of the Palace of Westminster. Lloyd captures one of the most important aspect for a successful politicians, his capacity to charm. The bill is easily the lowest in any of this series of articles over the last two years.
See too this later interview with James Harkin in the Guardian. HT to Tai below!By John Lloyd
I meet Gerry Adams in Westminster, where he has represented West Belfast for most of the last 22 years but still doesn’t vote or take part in debates. (That would be a step too far towards recognition of the British parliament’s right to rule in Northern Ireland.) The “Big Lad”, as he was reportedly known in the Belfast Brigade of the IRA which he never admits to leading, enters the lobby of the House smiling and chatting with a policeman. You seem to have a police escort, I say. “No, no, he was just saying he liked what I said on the radio this morning,” says Adams. A policeman!
We head for a late, mid-afternoon lunch in the House of Commons’s gloomy, cold Terrace Cafeteria, as a short, wintry day rapidly closes down for the night. As we decide on what to eat, I tell him it’s a condition of the lunch that the FT pays.
“This is the first time a journalist has ever bought me lunch,” he says. I say: you should have chosen a better place, then. He says: “No, no, this is fine.” The Sinn Fein MP (and president) is determinedly cheery, greeting the women behind the counter as no one else there does – “Hello, how are you” – the “you” said in the Belfast way, long and warm, “Yeeew”. They chat merrily, the West Indian accents clashing with the Belfast – “Ah’m fahn, dahlin. You take care.” “Oi wull!”. Could it be a flash, for a second, of the comradeship of two peoples once oppressed by the Brits, finding their dignity at last? And in the House of Commons, of all places?
Adams stimulates such silly thoughts. That is because part of the pitch he has made, for more than 35 years, is that of the old history of oppression – the love, especially by Irish republicanism, of victimhood, loss and suffering. But he doesn’t do it now. True, at one point – as he munches steadily through his side of our lukewarm lunch – he brings up Wolfe Tone, the (Protestant) leader of the United Irishmen at the end of the 18th century, whose struggle for unity and independence ended with his (very republican) suicide in a Dublin jail. But it is to quote Tone’s aim, that of a “state acceptable to Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”.
Rendered wooden by a revulsion at Adams’s IRA past, I begin the lunch stiffly. We both pay more attention to our plates than each other. He has never confirmed the charge – put most forcefully in Ed Moloney’s 2002 book, A Secret History of the IRA – that he belonged to and led the IRA in Belfast: trying to get at it by noting that, as a peace processor, he has come a long way since being a radical member of the IRA, elicits nothing. He answers another question, or says firmly that that’s in the past.
At one point, he observes that though the current peace process was begun under the premiership of John Major, “he wasn’t the man to do it.” I observe that Major may have been influenced by the fact that the IRA tried to kill him (by lobbing a bomb into the garden of 10 Downing Street). “I don’t think so, I don’t think so,” he says, in the tone of a reasonable man. “I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of that and I still go on. That’s just excuses.”
A little later, I ask him why Unionists should trust him, if (as he says many times) he wants to enfold them gently into a united Ireland. “Well, first of all…does Fianna Fail (the governing party in Ireland) trust Fine Gael (the main opposition party)?” No, I say, but there hadn’t been a war between them: that’s the main thing, isn’t it? “Well,” he says, “on the big point you make, the Unionists don’t have to trust me – they have to trust themselves. Their rights should not be at the will of any politician – their rights should be copper-fast, and in that way the Good Friday agreement is a guarantee. At the moment the Unionists would see the Good Friday agreement as a guarantee of the rights of Nationalists. But it’s a guarantee of the rights of all.”
He says he talks regularly to Unionists, especially through the churches. But they are mostly middle-class Unionists, he says, with a touch of dismissal in his voice: this is a Catholic, republican, working-class man who served years of jail time (as did his father). I say: well, it’s not them, it’s the working-class Unionists who are the problem for you. He’s instantly, in a beat, the politician: people are never a problem, always an opportunity.
At this point, about half-way through the time we have together and with our plates cleaned, he seems almost to shake himself and I get the full blast of his charm – which is formidable. His voice, which is deep, with a big range from highs to lows, becomes warmer; he uses phrases such as “to get to your point” or “I think you’re right there.” And with it comes the pitch: that Unionists are better off in a united Ireland than they would be – could be – in a Britain that doesn’t much care for or about them.
“Unionists count for 2 per cent of the British population. They would count for 20 per cent in a united Ireland. And they would have an honoured place. Now that can take generations. I listen to people, like the Orange Order in Donegal [the most northerly of Ireland’s counties, across the western border of Northern Ireland] who were cut off from their brethren when partition came in. I listened to an interview with the Worshipful Grand Master in Donegal… He’s quite comfortable. He supports the Irish football team, he supports his local Gaelic Athletics Association. He was asked about the large Orange demos, and said they pass off without rancour. The interviewer asked why there was such a bother across the border and none here, and he said – well, we don’t threaten anyone here. So it may take a long time. It may take generations. They have to feel comfortable.”
But, I say, they feel comfortable being British. That’s what they want. When Unionists have to say, with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “my passport’s green” would they feel comfortable? “‘No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen,'” says Adams, finishing the Heaney quote. “My view of this is that up to the 1970s, there was no question of the Unionists being other than the loyal Irish – they had a sense of Irishness, but were loyal to the British Crown. Now they say they’re British, but I tell you, they say when they come to London, they’re all Paddies.
“And having said all of that, I think that the big task for Republicans is to simply listen to what Unionists are saying. From one point of view you could dismiss Unionists as behaving in a most irrational way. The Loyalist paramilitaries opened fire last month on the British Army and the police service – and fought them for three days. What sort of loyalty is that?”
Well, I say, they’ve done it over the years from time to time (on this occasion, the police and army moved against Loyalist demonstrations). They feel somewhat betrayed.
“Yes,” he says, all sweet reason. “And that’s what we have to understand, these actions are taken for certain reasons… What these reasons are – they may be what you suggested earlier: their sense of Britishness, whatever that is. If Unionists need some sort of assurances about their Britishness, then they should have it. If that’s all that stands in the way of a peaceful coexistence, we should reassure them.” How? I ask. Adams then tells the story about the Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, laying a wreath on the Belfast cenotaph, in memory of the soldiers of the Irish regiments, Unionist and Nationalist, who died (in huge numbers) on the Somme. The Unionist politicians didn’t come, he said, but the veterans did.
Adams, I thought, is probably sincere about giving up the bomb and the gun: they have got him to where he is, and now he sees a prize attainable through the ballot box that cannot be reached through war. The prize is his party uniting, not just the island, but Irish Nationalist politics: putting together again a Republican party that split in 1926, after partition, into Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. He has five MPs in the Dail (parliament) in the south and 24 seats in the Assembly in the North. They will campaign hard in the next election in the republic – expected in about a year’s time – and most observers see them at least doubling their seats. “We’re the second biggest party in the north, the third biggest in Ireland. We can unite the island.”
Having helped destroy the Ulster Unionist Party of David Trimble, Adams’s main opposition now comes from Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, always the hardest core of Protestantism, now its major voice. He thinks logic will make Paisley, who refuses to share power with Sinn Fein, come in from the cold. “Here’s a man in his 80th year. He’s spent years looking over Trimble’s shoulder. No one is looking over his shoulder. He could be first minister of Northern Ireland: what a chance for him! And to be fair to him [this phrase has been well-used in our talk] he wants the best for his people. And the best isn’t with Britain any longer.”
An aide arrives at the table to tell Adams he must go. We walk out together, but are blocked by a pair of doors marked No Exit. “We’ll have to go another way,” I say. “Aw, come on,” he says, “let’s be subversive together.” And, his arm across my back, he takes me through the doors as the attendants smile, a subversive and an unwilling subversive’s apprentice exiting illegally.
Terrace Cafeteria, Palace of Westminster, London
1 x steamed plaice, mashed potatoes and vegetables
1 x tortelloni
1 x plum pudding and custard
2 x coffee
Published in the FT (subs needed) on Saturday, December 10 2005