Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

Why Martin and Ian's honeymoon is going well ...

As Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams publishes his new book, An Irish Eye, he tells Laurence White why he didn't seek office and about some of the problems that lie ahead

An Irish Eye: Gerry Adams says Martin McGuinness was the best choice for Deputy First Minister
An Irish Eye: Gerry Adams says Martin McGuinness was the best choice for Deputy First Minister

It has been a busy morning in the Sinn Fein offices in Belfast's Lower Falls. Gerry Adams, MP for West Belfast, has been fielding calls from constituents following the horrific killing of local greengrocer Harry Holland.

He has also been on the phone to a senior PSNI officer to relay concerns from some constituents about the response of the police to the killing.

Mr Adams says the death of Mr Holland - stabbed in the head with a screwdriver as he tried to stop thieves stealing his delivery van - has "shocked me, angered me and saddened me".

He adds: "The biggest peace dividend is that people are not dying because of political violence. Therefore, the killing of Mr Holland becomes all the more shocking. As his mother, who is in her eighties, said to me, 'we used to worry about something happening to him during the Troubles, but not now'".

Mr Adams has agreed to talk to me about his new book, An Irish Eye, which contains a series of articles on his views of the peace process from 2004 until the restoration of devolved government earlier this year.

While most of the world was astonished by the sight of the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness heading up the new Assembly as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Mr Adams says he first formed the view that such an alliance was possible in 2004.

"I believed the DUP were prepared to do a deal," he says. "I formed the view that they had accepted the principle of power-sharing and all that was up for debate was when they would do it and the terms of such a deal. We in Sinn Fein then tried diligently to develop a strategy which ensured they would do the deal as quickly as possible in the terms of the Good Friday Agreement."

Although Ian Paisley had said on July 12, 2006 - less than nine months before agreeing to power sharing - that Sinn Fein was not fit for government or to share power with "decent people", Mr Adams declines to criticise him.

"In fairness to him he is in there and doing his best, along with Martin McGuinness, to make this a better place for the people who live here. Alright, it may be a honeymoon period at this time, but I think it has been highly encouraging so far.

"There are lots of issues that are going to challenge us in the time ahead. Notwithstanding what Ian Paisley said at any time - and unionists could pick out remarks I made in the past which they found offensive - we are where we are and this is a better place than it has been for a very long time". He accepts that there are contentious issues ahead in the Assembly which will test the coalition of governing parties - issues like academic selection, the Irish Language Act, Private Finance Initiatives. But he argues that such issues can be resolved if there is the political will and if the political parties of all shades are prepared to debate them.

"It won't always be to the satisfaction of every party. There are some issues where the DUP will have to feel the pain, others where Sinn Fein or the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists will have to compromise. However, they will have to put the community good before party political considerations."

Mr Adams points to a recent debate in the Assembly on attacks on Orange Halls. Sinn Fein wanted to add an amendment to the DUP motion widening it to include all sectarian attacks, but later agreed to withdraw it.

" The DUP wanted to focus on a specific issue at that particular time while accepting that all sectarian attacks are wrong. I think the Sinn Fein group showed real leadership in that instance. They were trying to think in a new way and see the issue from the point of view of the Orange Order. It was a valid point."

He admits it was not easy getting to this point in the peace process. Persuading republicans to get rid of their arms and to support the police was, he says, "hugely difficult and remains difficult ". He adds: "People continue to debate some of the issues involved. What has stood by us was the ability to engage with our support base in a very consistent and open way.

"For me the best example was the policing issue. We had a number of internal republican meetings but also meetings in town halls around the province. Thousands attended those meetings and it was gratifying to me to see the vast majority of the people at those meetings arguing about tactics, strategy, principles and objectives. That was the sign of a very empowered community and a great encouragement to republican activists.

"The hardest negotiations are always with your own side. It was encouraging for me to see republicans and nationalists at those meetings thinking their way through the issues."

Mr Adams admits that he and other senior republicans received death threats over the issue of policing, allegedly from dissident republican groups.

"There remains dangers, not just necessarily from other republicans. I don't think that is the case. We did get death threats and some very outspoken comments accusing us of treachery.

"At a time of movement or of turbulence or of potential change there are always conflicting views and opinions. That is the time when enemies will do their best to exploit the situation.

" You only have to look at the case of Denis Donaldson and the murkiness of the events which brought down the previous power-sharing Executive. There was no Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont as was alleged. One of the people at the heart of the real spy ring was working for British intelligence."

He revealed that he has written to the Minister of Justice in Dublin on behalf of the Donaldson family complaining about the pace of the investigation into his murder in Donegal in 2006, five months after admitting he had worked for British intelligence since the 1980s.

"It is almost as if Denis Donaldson had just disappeared. The family have received no answers to any of the questions they raised about the murder. It is as if someone had dropped down from Mars and killed him."

Asked why he has never gone for office at Stormont, Mr Adams says he believes Martin McGuinness was the best choice for Deputy First Minister and that Sinn Fein's Ministers, Michelle Gildernew, Conor Murphy and Caitriona Ruane form a talented team. " I am party President and I see my role as helping to build Sinn Fein as a national party organised throughout Ireland. It is a very daunting and challenging job to build Sinn Fein right across the island."

The recent elections in the Republic, he admits, were a disappointment. Sinn Fein lost a seat in the Dail in spite of forecasts that the party would make gains on the back of the northern peace process.

"I was disappointed. In spite of efforts to lower expectation, we had a slightly high expectation of success. The election ended up being fought on the issue of whether Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny should be Taoiseach. The people opted for continuity and Sinn Fein got badly squeezed."

With the macro political situation seemingly settled at present, he says politicians will now have to concentrate on everyday issues and policies. One issue which concerns him is the high number of suicides, especially among the young.

"Every day someone on this island succeeds in taking their own life. Maybe as many as four others fail.

"There is nothing worse than a loved one taking their own life. Family members feel guilty about why they didn't spot anything wrong or why the person who died couldn't come to them to talk about their troubles.

"It would break your heart talking to families affected by suicide. A cousin took her own life. In another case a woman came to me and asked me to talk to her son after he attempted suicide. I talked to him many times over a period of months; I gave him books and arranged for him to have counselling. When he eventually took his own life I felt that I hadn't done enough."

Asked if he can envisage republicans joining the PSNI, he says: "I can see that. It is maybe a bigger challenge for the PSNI than for republicans. We want to encourage republicans to be part of the new policing dispensation. There are issues around how the police deal with our community and work with people. If they succeed in working well with the community then that could usher in the day when republicans would join the police. It will dictate whether that day is sooner or later."

He is obviously proud of his role in the peace process. "I know that different people will have entirely different views on me, but it is gratifying to be stopped by mothers and thanked for giving their children a chance in the future.

"The future, essentially, is about our young people and making sure that what we have survived never recurs again."

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