Belfast Telegraph

Face-to-face with Gerry Adams: Malachi O'Doherty recalls edgy interview with Sinn Fein chief

The Sinn Fein president's unauthorised biographer, Malachi O'Doherty, recalls an edgy interview with him in 1994

My first and only extensive interview with Gerry Adams was in the summer of 1994 when we were waiting for confirmation of an anticipated ceasefire. Adams wasn't giving anything away.

I was working on a documentary for Channel 4 and we went to Connolly House on the Andersonstown Road, near where I had grown up and walked to school and church.

I was feeling confident.

I had no personal contact with Adams before that I could recall, though as teenagers we had a friend in common.

One of his Fianna comrades from the very early days was in my class at school and we used to beak off classes together to the Farmer's Inn for a beer.

But I knew Adams's arguments from their tedious recitation and I knew the arguments against him and against his promotion of the IRA.

Simply, the IRA had no right to represent the people of Ireland against the British, because most votes cast in Ireland were for parties which opposed the IRA and saw no urgency in the island being united into a single jurisdiction.

And I had studied his discomfiture in dozens of previous interviews, the evasions, the smugness, the occasional flashes of temper.

I didn't rate him.

Sinn Fein had decided that I was a hostile journalist, for I had written comment pieces, mostly for BBC Northern Ireland's Talkback programme, attacking the IRA and going so far as to describe it as the "primary irritant" in the Troubles.

I had interviewed many of the other prominent republicans, sometimes in Sinn Fein offices, and they had made it clear what they thought of my appraisal of their struggle.

Yet, it struck me that, when I turned up to see someone, those who greeted me at the door, or guided me to an office, were civil, at least to my face.

So, I wasn't a regular in Connolly House, not being a daily news reporter, but I had been there before.

Once, I had to use the loo and found that these hard men were content with the Irish News in stead of toilet paper.

Once a surly man, hearing that I was from the BBC, said that it "had been noticed" that the BBC had improved its GAA coverage.

I said, you should send them a note and let them know that you appreciate that. They like that sort of thing. "Nah."

End of conversation.

On the day that I went to interview Adams, Connolly House was busy. The peace process was attracting global media interest and a German photographer there seemed to be in a state of elation, waiting for his chance to get a picture of the top man.

My producer, camera crew and I were asked to wait in the front room where we could set up the camera and mics.

I found a piece of onion stuck to the dark panelling on the wall and we got a laugh speculating on how that might have got there; vomited up, or just mischievously flicked off someone's finger.

Adams, when he came in, was not how I expected.

He was relaxed and cheerful, though busy.

My immediate impression was of someone who was enjoying politics, not feeling under great pressure, and who clearly knew the big game better than I, or anyone else, did.

I had come ready to patronise someone who had made stupid political choices going back to the 1960s.

Someone who was presumably extricating himself from the burden of shame and guilt that must attach to a defeated warlord, and I found a man who was poised and even dapper and who, of course, had far more experience of television - let alone politics - than I had.

This was a man with a plan and his manner suggested contentment that it was working. He was not looking browbeaten and edgy here, though he often had seemed gauche and uncomfortable in the media.

He knew what he was doing.

And why wouldn't he? He had been at it for decades.

He could treat John Major and Albert Reynolds and even Bill Clinton as late-comers to the Northern Ireland chess board.

There was a big difference between the media perception of conflict and Adams's own at that time. The media thought something was coming to an end. Adams knew that a whole new big game was just beginning.

It would be another 13 years before he would settle terms with the DUP to form an Executive and even that now looks like it was a transient phase.

"So, it's going to take a few more bombs yet?" I asked.

He said he just found my approach to the interview irritating.

And, like everyone else here, I learnt over the coming years just how slow peacemaking would be and how far Sinn Fein yet had to grow.

Adams would be unwilling, or unable, to clinch deals before the SDLP had been brushed aside and Sinn Fein's indispensability had been established.

Then the party could veto change as effectively as the IRA had done before.

I never expected to write a book about him. I have an as-yet-unpublished novel in which a character modelled on him is assassinated, a fate he must have considered likely many times in his life.

I think I understand him better now and appreciate his skill more than I did.

I suspect also that his popularity is waning.

I have met him a few times outside work and seen the same split in him, between a tense and awkward man, with a trace still of his childhood stammer, and a charmer. Sometimes, he greets me like an old friend. He has even hugged me. At other times, he scowls.

Jonathan Powell, Blair's envoy, saw the same contrast in him, at times looking stricken and sickly, then a short time later taking a stage with poise and charisma.

The footage of him kissing Eamon Mallie illustrates his playful side.

Mallie had been trying to get him to admit that he had his first meeting with Tony Blair in 1997.

Adams chuckled and said, "Oh, Eamon, let me kiss you on the nose" and took the reporter's face in his hands and planted his lips on him.

But charm and charisma have no moral weight. They can be used to manipulate people and don't of themselves attest anything of the decency, or worth, of the person deploying them.

Adams is a calculating politician, who can play long and can endure opprobrium that would crush others. He is also astonishingly vain.

We might hope that he would write an honest book about his past. I doubt he even could now.

Belfast Telegraph

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