October 6, 1948
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Leader of Sinn Féin
"When with the advantage of distance the history is written of Ireland in the years in which I have lived, I know that an Everest amongst the mountains of traumatic events the Irish people have experienced will be the republican hunger strikes of 1980–1981."
G erry Adams, long accused of being a terrorist and a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is most often credited with guiding one side of Northern Ireland's warring communities of Catholics and Protestants to give up arms in favor of a peaceful political solution to their long-standing differences.
Tall and thin, Adams is usually seen wearing glasses, Irish tweeds, and a bulletproof vest, a constant reminder that violence is never long absent from the bitter political quarrels of Northern Ireland.
Adams's official role is as the leader of Sinn Féin (pronounced shin fain, Gaelic for "We Ourselves"), a political party with close ties to the terrorist IRA. Both organizations have fought a long campaign to unite the six counties of Northern Ireland (also called Ulster) with the twenty-six counties of the Irish Republic to the south. The struggle for Irish independence from England, and then the joining of Northern Ireland with the rest of the island, has been going on since 1916, and really for centuries before that (see box on pp. 12–13). Even after a peace agreement was reached in 1998, in which Adams played a central role, the IRA's refusal to give up its weapons has frustrated a permanent peace in Ulster. Similarly, Adams's own history combines diplomacy with widely held suspicions about his role in the IRA.
Birth and childhood
Gerard Adams was born in 1948, the first of ten children born to his father, also named Gerard, who was a building laborer, and his mother, Annie Hannaway, who worked in a linen factory. Both parents were from Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland. His life was difficult due to a lack of money and the fact that his family was Roman Catholic in an area where most of the residents were Protestants. (Northern Ireland had been set up as a separate political entity for Irish Protestants who did not want to join the largely Roman Catholic Irish Republic, which became somewhat independent from Britain in 1923.)
Adams's father had been active in the Irish republican cause, which wanted to join the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. He had been jailed for five years for his political activities and was released just a year before his first child was born. Annie also believed in the republican cause; she was the daughter of a trade-union organizer who fought for the rights of workers in Northern Ireland.
Housing was scarce in Belfast when Adams was born, and at first the Adams family shared a four-room house with his maternal grandmother and two of his uncles in the Falls section of West Belfast. It was an area inhabited mainly by Catholics. Later, Adams, his father and mother, and a younger brother and sister moved into a single large room in an old house, the five of them sharing water and a toilet with the other residents.
Words to Know
- British Commonwealth:
- association of countries that were formally British colonies or possessions that continue to maintain close governmental, military, and legal ties to Great Britain.
- Civil rights:
- the nonpolitical rights of a citizen.
- Job discrimination:
- when employers refuse to hire certain types of people, such as Catholics or women.
- irrational dislike.
- people who want rapid changes in a society.
Eventually the family moved into a newly built house with three bedrooms, which was part of a public housing project. Adams remembered having one sheet and one blanket on each mattress. If the weather got cold the children pulled coats over themselves to stay warm at night.
Getting involved in politics
As a child Adams was quite familiar with the mixture of religion and politics that formed Northern Ireland society. In high school he learned not to reveal his religion while shopping in mainly Protestant areas of Belfast; doing so could lead to a beating. Adams once tried to get a job washing dishes in a pub in a Protestant neighborhood. ("Pub" is short for "public house," the British term for a bar: a place that serves alcoholic drinks and some food.) As soon as he announced that he attended St. Mary's High School, a Catholic school, he was told there was no job. That proved true in every pub where he applied; Catholics were not welcome as workers.
Despite this prejudice (irrational dislike), day-to-day relations between Protestants and Catholics were generally peaceful until the mid-1960s. But there were underlying concerns. Many Protestants in Northern Ireland feared Catholic efforts to unite with the Catholic Irish Republic. Catholics, on the other hand, thought that problems such as the ones Adams faced would end if Northern Ireland were part of a majority Catholic country.
Politicians on both sides who were looking for popular support fed these tensions. But in the mid-1960s the problems suddenly got worse. In September 1964 the green, white, and orange flag of the Irish Republic was posted in the Belfast shop where the republican political party Sinn Féin had offices. A Protestant preacher, Ian Paisley, who for years had expressed his dislike of Catholics, threatened to lead a mob to the shop and remove the flag if the police would not. The next day police broke into the shop and took down the flag.
The Catholic community objected to the police's actions. Several thousand people held a protest, which turned violent. Several city buses were set on fire, and more rioting broke out the following day. It was made worse when the Sinn Féin put up another Irish flag. Police stepped in and used armored cars to put down the rioting.
Adams was sixteen years old at the time, and the clash made a major impression on him. He volunteered after school to help in the election campaign of Sinn Féin candidate Liam McMillen.
After graduating from high school Adams became increasingly active in Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin was widely considered the legal, political arm of the IRA. The IRA had been banned in Northern Ireland because it had been connected with terrorist attacks against British rule over any part of Ireland.
Fighting British rule
In April 1966 supporters of Sinn Féin celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Monday uprising of 1916, when the IRA started a protest in Dublin that the British military put down (see box on pp. 12–13), with a parade in Belfast. Although the demonstration was peaceful, the Protestant government saw it as a new campaign to force Northern Ireland to join the Irish Republic.
Thus pro-British newspapers and some Protestant activists stirred up feelings against Catholics, and Sinn Féin in particular. Protestant organizations held many demonstrations in Belfast, which made Catholic residents feel unwanted. Worse, some Protestants attacked Catholic property with gasoline bombs. Any reaction from Catholics to these attacks was put down by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a part-time police force known for its use of violence.
In response to the rising tensions, Adams wrote in his autobiography, Before the Dawn, he began actively working for Sinn Féin 1964. Over time Adams became a well-known actor in the ongoing struggle between those who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Irish Republic and those who wanted to remain part of Britain.
Adams's autobiography compares his struggle on behalf of Catholics in Northern Ireland to Martin Luther King Jr.'s (1929–1968) struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States or Nelson Mandela's (1918–) fight for the rights of black citizens in South Africa. Sinn Féin borrowed techniques from both of these movements.
A Thousand Years of "Troubles"
Since the first invasion of Ireland by the English in 1170, Irish resistance to English rule—often called "the Troubles"—has continued for nearly a thousand years.
Throughout the 1800s Irish leaders called for independence from Britain. On Easter Monday (April 24) in 1916, an armed group calling itself the Irish Republican Army (IRA) started an uprising in Dublin, the capital city of Ireland, hoping to start a rebellion and achieve independence. English troops put down the revolt, after which the IRA launched a campaign of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. The campaign resulted in the Irish Free State. The Free State (1922–37) had a status similar to Canada: a self-governing part of the British Empire, but not fully independent. Nor did it include six counties in Northern Ireland, where the Protestant majority wanted to remain part of Britain.
The IRA and Sinn Féin continued to press for full independence and for uniting all Ireland. A popular vote in 1937 resulted in the state of Eire, which moved Ireland another step closer to complete independence. Twelve years later, on Easter Monday (April 18), 1949, the Irish Dáil (parliament) declared Ireland a fully independent republic, no longer a member of the British Commonwealth. (The British Commonwealth was an association of countries that were former British colonies or possessions. They continued to have close connections with the government of Britain, including special trade relationships, military ties, and a common legal system.) Britain went along with the Dáil but passed a bill in Parliament approving the continuing status of Northern Ireland as a part of Britain.
This formal separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the country set the stage for a long campaign by the IRA to reunite the two halves of Ireland—and on the part of Irish Protestants in the North to maintain their union with Britain.
In August 1969 British troops were called in to put down pro-republican riots in the cities of Londonderry and Belfast. Over the next thirty years Northern Ireland was rocked almost constantly by riots, terrorist attacks, and violent police crackdowns. Hundreds of civilians died in bombings, both in Northern Ireland and in England itself.
In 1972 British soldiers fired into a crowd of Catholics marching for civil rights in Londonderry, killing fourteen people. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday" and marked an increase in hostilities between Catholics on one side and the British Army and Irish Protestants on the other. In March 1972 Britain took on direct rule of Northern Ireland, upsetting both Catholics and Protestants. In 1984 the IRA claimed responsibility for setting off a bomb that nearly killed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–). The next year Britain and the Irish Republic signed an agreement that gave the Republic a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, which Protestants bitterly opposed. More than a decade of peace negotiations and terrorist attacks by both Catholics and Protestants followed.
Although Britain and the Irish Republic reached a tentative (not fully developed) agreement in 1993, the next nine years were marked by a succession of peace talks, temporary agreements, and more terrorist attacks. Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams and closely tied to the IRA, negotiated on behalf of those who supported uniting the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The United States tried to help the process in 1995 by sending former senator George J. Mitchell (1933–) of Maine to help the two sides negotiate.
Finally, in April 1998, the two sides signed an agreement that called for reforms in the Northern Ireland government giving Catholics more say. But four months later a terrorist attack blamed on a group that had split off from the IRA—called the Real IRA—killed twenty-nine people in Omagh, Northern Ireland, and wounded more than two hundred others. It was the worst single terrorist attack in Northern Ireland in three decades.
In November 1999 the long Mitchell talks finally produced an agreement between the Ulster Unionists (the leading Protestant political party) and Sinn Féin that could mean a new government for Northern Ireland and a possible end to the terrorist attacks. Even then, radicals (people who want rapid changes in a society) on both sides vowed to continue their struggle, and a generation of mistrust kept delaying a final agreement.
Adams and Sinn Féin campaigned for better housing and an end to job discrimination (employers refusing to hire certain types of people, such as Catholics or women), as well as the right for Sinn Féin to take part in politics and to publish a newspaper that supported the unification of Ireland.
By 1969 Northern Ireland was in a virtual civil war between Catholics and Protestants. The British army was brought in to try to stop violence on both sides. The army quickly earned the hatred of Catholics, who did not see it as a neutral force. Civil rights, such as the right of assembly and the right to print newspapers, were taken away in the interest of ending violence. In the Catholic community, Adams wrote in his autobiography, "many people involved with the defense committees flocked to the IRA, which speedily mushroomed out of all proportion to its previous numbers."
Gerry Adams and the IRA
The IRA already had a long history of using violence to achieve its political aims. In the 1970s and 1980s, the IRA built on its reputation with a long string of bombings, assassinations, and shoot-outs with the British army and Ulster police. In turn, anti-republican organizations in Northern Ireland (called Unionists, for their desire to maintain a union with Britain) boasted their own string of terrorist attacks.
Although Adams emerged as a leader of the pro-republican forces in Northern Ireland, he has never admitted to being a member of the IRA, which was illegal. But many observers of Northern Ireland's history during the 1970s and 1980s insist that Adams was a senior leader of the IRA. According to several writers, Adams joined the IRA at about age seventeen and became commander of the IRA unit based in Ballymurphy, the area of Belfast where Adams lived. By 1971, they claim, Adams was in charge of the Belfast Brigade and was the commanding officer of IRA operations by 1979, when he was thirty-one years old.
As the situation in Ulster got worse a group called the Provisional IRA appeared that seemed willing to raise the level of violence against the British army. In response, the Northern Ireland authorities began arresting people suspected of being involved with the Provisional IRA and holding them in jail, often without a trial. This was called "internment."
In 1971, after a six-week romance in the middle of the rising violence, Adams married Colette McArdle. They eventually had three children.
The following year, on January 30, 1972, about twenty thousand people marched in favor of civil rights in the Northern Ireland town of Derry. Although the cause is uncertain,
during the march troops began shooting at the crowd. At the end of the day thirteen civilians were dead and twenty-nine were injured. (Another died several months later.) The day became known as "Bloody Sunday" and heightened emotions on both sides throughout all of Ireland.
In March 1972 Adams was arrested and "interned" aboard a British prison ship and later at a prison near Belfast called Long Kesh. The authorities had long suspected that Adams belonged to the IRA, but it was never proved. Adams himself has maintained that his activities in favor of unification were limited to politics.
Adams was released from prison in mid-1972 so he could take part in negotiations with the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw (1918–1999). The aim was to negotiate a cease-fire between the British army and the IRA and eventually a peaceful solution to the situation in Northern Ireland. The fact that Adams was chosen to take part in these talks is often pointed to as evidence of his connection to the IRA.
Shortly after the talks took place in London, the truce collapsed. What amounted to an all-out guerrilla war between Irish republicans and the British army resumed. In 1973 Adams was arrested again; this time he was held for four years. Also in the internment camp at Long Kesh were many members of the IRA and Sinn Féin. Many of them had never been charged with a crime or found guilty in a trial.
Adams, using the name "Brownie," began writing opinion articles for a Sinn Féin newspaper published in Belfast. The articles added to his reputation as a political leader of the republican forces. He was finally released from prison in 1977, having never been convicted of membership in the IRA.
The following year Adams was elected vice president of Sinn Féin. (Some sources say Adams also became commander of IRA operations, but Adams has denied this.) In 1983 he became president of Sinn Féin, a position he would hold for at least twenty years.
It was as president of Sinn Féin that Adams became well known in Ulster. Although his party generally received less than one-fifth of the popular vote in elections, it was the "aboveground" arm of the "underground" IRA, and as such was central to the issue of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. Adams himself supported negotiating a solution to the long Troubles of Ulster.
Thanks in part to sympathy for political prisoners, who staged repeated hunger strikes (sometimes resulting in their death), Sinn Féin's popularity grew significantly in the late 1970s. In 1983 Adams also was elected to represent his district of Belfast in the British Parliament. But like other Sinn Féin members who had been elected to the British legislature, Adams refused to swear loyalty to the British queen. He was thus not allowed to take his seat, even though he was reelected in 1987.
Although Adams became increasingly diplomatic in his public statements, terrorist violence continued in Ulster. In 1984 three Protestant gunmen tried to assassinate Adams on a Belfast street. He was seriously wounded in the attack.
In 1987 Adams took part in secret talks with representatives of Britain aimed at a truce in Ulster. The talks were held in secret because tensions were so high on both sides that some saw any effort at compromise as disloyal.
In 1993 British Prime Minister John Major (1943–) publicly declared that he was willing to negotiate the future of Ulster if the IRA would first give up the use of violence.
Little progress was made, and in 1994 Sinn Féin rejected Major's demand. Nevertheless, later that year, the IRA announced a cease-fire. Adams, along with the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, Albert Reynolds, and John Hume, the leader of Ulster's largest Catholic party (the Social Democratic Labor Party), issued a statement that declared: "We are at the beginning of a new era in which we are all totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving our political problems."
On Good Friday in 1998, Catholic and Protestant leaders reached an agreement to share power in Northern Ireland and to observe a cease-fire. The agreement was negotiated with the help of former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell (1933–) of Maine, who was sent to Ulster by President Bill Clinton (1946–) to help bring an end to nearly thirty years of warfare.
The agreement called for new elections to a Northern Ireland parliament, as well as a cabinet called the Executive. The agreement also required armed groups on both sides to surrender their weapons by May 2000. The IRA was reluctant to give up its weapons, and the peace agreement nearly collapsed after the Protestants refused to name ministers to the Executive until Sinn Féin and the IRA gave specific details on their plans to disarm.
However, the two sides managed to keep the Good Friday peace accords alive. For some in the IRA, the peace agreement betrayed the long-held hope for uniting Ulster with the Irish Republic. But for some on the Protestant side, the agreement was a step toward unification, and they thought they could trust the IRA to put down its guns and live in peace.
In 2002 Adams continued to lead Sinn Féin, sometimes speaking on behalf of the IRA and other times declaring that he could not do so, especially when the IRA refused to agree to a firm schedule for giving up its arms.
For More Information
Adams, Gerry. Before the Dawn: An Autobiography. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996.
Adams, Gerry. Cage Eleven. Boulder, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994.
Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. New York: Palgrave for St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Taylor, Peter. Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein. New York: TV Books, 1997.
Hillenbrand, Barry. "Gerry Adams under the Gun." Time, February 26, 1996, p. 50.
"Struggling to Make History." Time, August 1, 1994, p. 40.
Born into a strongly republican family in the Falls area of West Belfast on 6 October 1948, Gerry Adams was a vice president of Sinn Féin and was instrumental in bringing about the Belfast Agreement of 1998. A scholarship boy, he was educated locally by the Irish Christian Brothers, leaving school at seventeen to become a barman. Radicalized by the 1964 "Tricolour Riots" in Belfast (when nationalists clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary which had removed an Irish flag), he joined Sinn Féin and, at its inception in 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).
Following the split in the republican movement in 1970, Adams aligned himself with the militant Provisional wing in Belfast's Ballymurphy estate. Interned on suspicion of Irish Republican Army (IRA) involvement in March 1972, he was released dramatically in July to take part in secret but abortive talks in London between an IRA delegation and the British secretary of state, William Whitelaw. He was again imprisoned by the British authorities in 1973 and 1978 but was acquitted of IRA membership.
On his release, Adams was elected vice president of Sinn Féin (1978) and played a key policy-making role during the 1981 Hunger Strike (when ten republican prisoners starved themselves to death in support of political-prisoner status), from which his party emerged as a serious political force. In 1983 he became president of Sinn Féin and abstentionist MP for West Belfast, unseating the former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Gerry Fitt.
Though badly wounded by loyalist gunmen in 1984, Adams steadily pushed Sinn Féin toward greater political participation, overthrowing the southern-based "Old Guard" and paving the way for recognition of the Dáil in 1986 and the Hume-Adams dialogue between 1988 and 1994. These secret conversations between Adams and John Hume, the respected leader of the nonviolent SDLP, on the possibility of a peaceful alternative to "armed struggle" culminated in the first IRA cease-fire of August 1994 through February 1996.
Following its reinstatement in July 1997, Adams led his party into the all-party talks, which resulted in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, swinging grassroots support behind it. When Sinn Féin won a record 17.6 percent of the vote in the subsequent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Adams steered his party into the new power-sharing executive, the devolved administration under the agreement first set up in December 1999, while declining a cabinet post himself.
In October 2001 Adams welcomed the IRA's historic decision to put some arms "beyond use," which helped to stabilize the Belfast Agreement and acknowledged unionist fears of Irish unity. In 2002 he launched his party's bid to gain a foothold in the Dáil, but he courted controversy in the United States by his refusal to testify at a congressional hearing on alleged IRA involvement in Colombia.
SEE ALSO Decommissioning; Hume, John; Irish Republican Army (IRA); Northern Ireland: Constitutional Settlement from Sunningdale to Good Friday; Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970; Trimble, David; Ulster Politics under Direct Rule; Primary Documents: Irish Republican Army (IRA) Cease-Fire Statement (31 August 1994); Text of the IRA Cease-Fire Statement (19 July 1997); The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)
Sharrock, David, and Mark Devenport. Man of War, Man of Peace? The Unauthorized Biography of Gerry Adams. 1997.