The murals in the Lower Falls Road are still there: Maghaberry Prisoners: Not Forgotten; Oppression Breeds Resistance, Resistance Brings Freedom. But these days they are neatly arranged on the walls around a flour mill, and co-ordinated by a website that encourages community artists. Across the road is another mural advertising Irish political tours – a breezy taxi ride round the troublespots of this former war zone. Some of the guides are ex-prisoners, Gerry Adams tells me. Shall I fix up a tour for you?
I had never been to the Falls Road – a name that resonates across a generation scarred by sectarian violence – and made a point of walking along the mile or so of it that leads from Belfast city centre to Sinn Feins office to meet Adams, the partys president, strategist, torchbearer and chief coffin-carrier for more than 30 years. There are images of the 1981 hunger strikers everywhere, and on the side of Sinn Feins office is a vast mural of Bobby Sands, their leader in the Maze prison and the first to die. With his long hair, red jumper, wide-collared shirt and gleaming smile, he looks like a 70s pop star. Our revenge will be the laughter of our children, says the enigmatic slogan on the icon.
Sinn Feins office, which doubles as Adamss Belfast West constituency base and the partys bookshop, is locked and the windows blacked out. A security guard is doing a crossword while ignoring the snooker on a small television. The office used to be attacked regularly, but the threats have diminished. Adams, who was shot and seriously wounded in 1984, tells me that these days he has to keep the blinds of his first-floor office drawn to stop people on the upper deck of passing buses taking pictures of him.
Adams, who is 62, is about to take another step on the most remarkable journey in British and Irish politics. He has resigned his seat in the Westminster parliament – he was elected MP for Belfast West in 1983 and has held it for all but five years since, though he never sat in the Commons chamber because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen – and will contest Louth, a border constituency in the Republic, in the election on 11 March. Sinn Fein, which has a handful of seats in the Irish parliament, believes this will be its breakthrough year in the south.
Couldnt he hold seats in both parliaments? A full-time MP in Belfast West is, he says, essential. The six most deprived wards in this part of the island are in this constituency, so you need to be pushing and pressing on equality and social issues. He got more than 70% of the vote here at last years election, and is confident Sinn Finn can retain it at a by-election. He is less certain of winning Louth, but didnt want to retain Belfast West as a fallback. It isnt a comfortable thing to leave arguably the safest seat in the galaxy, but I wanted to do that as an earnest of my intention to the people in the constituency of Louth and East Meath. I wanted to say to them, Im here and I have no parachute.
Adams talks of his involvement in the politics of the Republic in mainly economic terms. Im about trying to make a stand, he says. What republicanism is about is citizens rights, and what we have in the Republic of Ireland is a republic in name only. In Northern Ireland, we are trying to get fiscal powers from London to Stormont; the government in Dublin has just given fiscal powers over to the IMF. But there is a strong political undercurrent: with Sinn Fein in government in the north, he believes the time is ripe for the party to win greater influence – possibly even be part of a coalition government – in the south, the ultimate prize being a united Ireland.
Does he think that will be achieved in his lifetime? Yes, he says after the briefest of pauses, depending of course on how long I live. At the moment we are seeing the coming together of the island of Ireland across all sectors and spheres of Irish life. Increasingly, business and industry see Ireland being best served by a single economy, and you see it in agriculture and energy too. Were fewer than 6 million people, and it doesnt make sense to have two competing states.
Adams likes to make this coming together sound inevitable, the logical culmination of the Good Friday agreement signed in 1998, but it is far from clear how and when the referendums in the north and south that would determine whether Ireland was to be united will ever be held. He says the British and Irish governments will be obliged to hold them, but doesnt say what will trigger them. Power to call a referendum in the north resides with the secretary of state, currently Owen Paterson, but why would a minister in a unionist government take such a step?
There are procedures for triggering the referendum, Adams says vaguely. The important thing is that this isnt as British as Finchley. This is a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland bit has a semi-detached relationship. The Government of Ireland Act, which gave a British government control for ever and a day, has been removed, and now its like two partners, parents, deciding to divorce at some point up the road, as opposed to deciding to stay together for ever. The wounds of 30 years are too raw, he explains, for the question to be put immediately. Theres a process at the moment, post-conflict, he says in his sociology-lecturer way. Were out of conflict, but theres still a lot of hurt and a lot of reconstruction. Adams is playing a long game.
That game has been disrupted by the arrival of a Conservative-led government in Westminster, about which he is surprisingly rude. This government doesnt have the sensitivities that are required for dealing with this [the political situation in Northern Ireland], he says. The British secretary of state has driven a coach and horse through the Good Friday agreement a number of times with his utterances around constitutional issues. Sinn Fein was furious that before last years election Paterson had talks with unionist parties designed to forge an electoral pact, and that he made a speech setting out his stall as a unionist. This, it argues, undermines the parity of esteem between unionists and republicans written into the Good Friday agreement. Adams also complains that Paterson is disregarding victims of state violence during the Troubles, especially the 11 people killed by the army in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in August 1971. A recent meeting between Paterson and the families of the victims was a disaster. Sinn Fein says Paterson did not help matters by wearing a plastic charity bracelet bearing the name of a regiment based in his Shropshire constituency.
We understand him stressing that he is a unionist and that this is a unionist government, says Adams. That may be so, and so was Tony Blair a unionist. But the point of the Good Friday agreement is that they are a government that is now committed to legislating for a united Ireland. If the majority of people here say they want a united Ireland, then they have to legislate for it. Thats what theyve signed up for.
Adamss attack on Paterson is unusually personal. Secretaries of state can see themselves almost to be colonial overlords, he says. Thats always a tendency if you come here for an evenings grouse shooting and you live in a castle. Some of them have the white mans disease, where the Irish are these poor Protestants and Catholics.
Does the present incumbent show symptoms of this disease? Absolutely, he says. He was here for a long time as shadow secretary of state. He met lots of people who were victims of the war and victims of the British state, and I think he was moved by some of the testimony. He met people in this very office. And hes now in a position where he can do something about that. The whole issue of dealing with the past and with victims of state terrorism – the Pat Finucane case, where the British government has files about state forces colluding in the killing of a human rights lawyer. He can do something about that. He hasnt. He has refused to do something about it. He wasnt around in those days. Mr Cameron was probably at school. So arguably they have the opportunity to set right what was done by another generation of British political leaders, but when they refuse to do it then they become part of the problem.
Adams applauds Cameron for the speech he gave last June after publication of the Saville report on Bloody Sunday, but still cant resist a dig. The one mistake he made was to say that this does not define the role of the British army in Ireland. In fact, it does define the role of the British army in Ireland.
Adams dishes it out, but he can take it too. His critics are vitriolic about him. Gerry Adams arrives like a vulture to the feast was the headline of a recent Times article about his candidature in the south. A terrible new Irish future is about to be born, was its sombre conclusion. I used to think they were talking about somebody else, he says. I like to think Im very grounded. Im very grounded in my family. Im very grounded in my community. So I dont get carried away with the media. I stopped buying Sunday papers about 15 years ago, because youd buy handfuls of them and what you got, because the hard news comes from so many other channels, was opinion pieces. Youre better off spending the money on a good novel.
The problem interviewers of Adams have is deciding whether he is dangerous IRA godfather or doting Catholic grandfather. He has always denied being a member of the IRA, but few have believed him. Voices From the Grave, a book by Ed Moloney published last year and based on the testimony of former IRA officer Brendan Hughes, has reawakened the controversy by alleging Adams was a key figure in the IRA in the 1970s. What about Hughess allegations? If theyre not true, why not sue? Hes dead, says Adams. Hughes died in 2008, and the book was published posthumously. So sue the author and publisher. Weve been through all of that. Its a hugely costly process. The example of a former taoiseach here, Albert Reynolds, suing the Sunday Times and getting one penny. He then appealed. It took years and cost him a million. I dont have those resources.
I persist. No one believes he was never a member of the IRA. Thats a matter for them, he says. Im not complaining. I just accept it as par for the course. A lot of people will write about you without ever having spoken one word to you. You will make what you want of this interview, and that is your right, but there are people who will write absolute nonsense. Why did Hughes make the allegations? Brendan Hughes was a friend of mine. He would not have passed me in that road. He would have run up and thrown his arms around me and been glad to see me. But Brendan had his issues and his difficulties. He was opposed to the peace process. He was politically hostile to what we were trying to do. Brendan said what Brendan said, and Brendans dead, so let it go.
Adams continues to deny he was ever an IRA member, but admits he gave the organisation his full backing. I have never distanced myself from the IRA. At the height of the war, I would have argued in defence of the right of people to use armed struggle. I would have been very critical of the IRA at times and of particular IRA actions. They made many mistakes and I regret that very much, but I think the IRA was a legitimate response to the conditions in which we were living. It isnt as if Im distancing myself. I dont. I accept responsibility. For good or ill, Im a person of leadership. I do my best. I dont dodge responsibility. There has to be acceptance that mistakes were made and some things were handled badly. Other things were handled very well. You just have to try to move forward. It may be a fixation by some elements about whether I was or wasnt in the IRA, but the IRA have left the stage. Thats history. I have a record, and I stand by my record.
I ask him whether as a young man living in the Falls Road, with checkpoints on every street corner and the constant hum of army helicopters, he ever anticipated Northern Ireland being at peace and republicans playing a central role in government. I always had a sense that if we could develop a strategy for change and be persistent – and you need luck as well – then we would get it right. I thought it was going to take a very long time. But having said that, I think the peace process took too long. John Major was given a ceasefire on a plate, and didnt take it. In fairness to Blair, even though he was also given the ceasefire on a plate, it took him to come in, seize the opportunity and build on it. Under Adams, republicanism developed political potency. When I joined, he says, Sinn Fein was a protest party, and here we are moving it to be a party in government, a party dealing with unionism, a party dealing with myriad social and economic issues.
He believes the peace process is now entrenched. I ask him whether dissident republicans such as the Real IRA might undermine it. The peace process will not be reversed, but it could get into difficulties because they do have the capacity to kill people. We are targets; Im a target. They have no popular support, but they do have a capacity to carry out individual actions. They have killed people, and there could be an atrocity tomorrow. What about the other side? If a united Ireland did move closer, wouldnt there be a risk of some unionists resorting to the sort of tactics the IRA used? In the same way that were wedded to working for Irish unity, theyre wedded to accepting Irish unity if that be the will of the people, he says. It sounds too good to be true, and probably is. Adams is nothing if not an optimist.
The last year has been a testing one for him. His wife, Colette, was diagnosed with cancer, though the prognosis is good, and his brother Liam was accused of sexually abusing his own daughter, allegations that led Adams to reveal that their father had been abusive. Add the Hughes controversy and the pressures of his many-layered political role, and I wonder how he can manage to display such apparent equanimity. It was a testing year, and it does shake you to your core, he says. Life isnt fair. But weve come through it. I remember one time I was standing at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road. It was raining, but I felt in good form. An old woman who was standing beside me said Hello, and I said Isnt it an awful bad day? But I didnt think it was an awful bad day, and I resolved from that moment never to say stuff like that. I believe in living in the now. People have attempted to kill me a number of times, and that gives you some sense of value.
So godfather or grandfather, twentysomething troublemaker or sixtysomething statesman, man of war or man of peace, the Armalite or the ballot box? Which is it? And is it true, as Ive read, that he is keen on opera? Light opera, he says, and the music of Bruce Springsteen, a fat collection of whose discs sits on a table in his office. None of us are one-dimensional. Were all who we are, and Im very happy with who I am – an opera-buff subversive. But I think its very important to be a subversive.