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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Profile: Gerry Adams
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The inscrutable face behind the beard shows little sign of the strain, but make no mistake, Gerry Adams the politician - and his party - have been through the wringer.

Adams copes well with pressure.

He says the pressure he has faced since December's Northern Bank robbery, and more particularly the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney, is as nothing to the pressure he faced when people were dying during the Troubles.

Gerry Adams has always provoked sharply different reactions
Gerry Adams has always provoked sharply different reactions

But be that as it may, recent events as they have unfolded, were not on his - or Sinn Fein's - career path.

By now, he may have been the leader of a party of government, the man who did an historic deal with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

He could have been feted even more in London, Dublin and Washington.

Instead, he finds himself accused by the Irish prime minister, no less, of having prior knowledge of the UK's biggest bank robbery; of being a member of the IRA's army council and being snubbed by influential former supporters like US Senator Ted Kennedy.

And once more under scrutiny - possibly like never before - is the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, and his own influence over republicans apparently defying his orders to give themselves up and answer for January's murder of Mr McCartney.

Gerry Adams has always provoked sharply different reactions depending on your point of view.

Is he an IRA terrorist implicated in the Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast in 1972? Or is he an architect of the peace process who should have been awarded the Nobel prize?

Gerry Adams claims to have never been a member of the IRA. Yet at crucial periods he has spoken with authority about the IRA's intentions

Will he be remembered as a true Irish republican who achieved more than any in undermining partition?

Or as a traitor to his cause who sold out grass-roots republicans, settling for respectability and a seat at Stormont?

Virtually mobbed during his visits to the United States, some admirers viewed Gerry Adams as Belfast's answer to Nelson Mandela.

But for many unionists, he remains the supreme hate figure, an apologist for IRA violence.

Gerry Adams claims to have never been a member of the IRA. Yet at crucial periods he has spoken with authority about the IRA's intentions.

'Purely a political activist'

Born in October 1948, in his youth he worked as a barman in a Belfast city centre bar where he was fascinated by the political gossip traded among its clientele of journalists and lawyers.

However, as the civil rights movement gathered pace in the late 1960s, the young Adams did not spend long pulling pints.

Soon he was out on the streets, involved in the protests of the time.

Mr Adams is "equipped to ride out the current storms"
Mr Adams is "equipped to ride out the current storms"

According to his own account, he was purely a political activist.

But his family was steeped in the traditions of the IRA. His father was jailed in the organisation's campaign during the Second World War. Security sources insist young Gerry followed suit.

During the prison hunger strikes of the 1980s, he recognised the lessons of Bobby Sands's election as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

After the hunger strikes, the IRA did not reduce its commitment to "armed struggle" but its political wing, Sinn Fein, increasingly looked to the propaganda potential of fighting elections.

Gerry Adams's own election victory in west Belfast in 1983 marked a major achievement for this dual "Armalite and ballot box" strategy.

Soon afterwards, Adams brushed aside the old southern leadership of Sinn Fein, led by Ruairi O Bradaigh.

Together with Martin McGuinness, he was now in an unrivalled position to guide republican strategy.

In December 2004, Gerry Adams broke new ground by meeting Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Hugh Orde - a clear signal that republicans were considering supporting the police

Sinn Fein's electoral successes unnerved the British and Irish governments. They came up with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, partly in an attempt to shore up the constitutional nationalism of John Hume's SDLP.

However, within three years of the Agreement, John Hume and Gerry Adams held private talks.

The Hume-Adams process eventually delivered the 1994 IRA ceasefire which ultimately provided the relatively peaceful backdrop against which the Good Friday Agreement was brokered.

In 1986, he dropped Sinn Fein's policy of refusing to sit in the Irish parliament.

In 1998, 90% of the party backed their president in taking seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont - a remarkable piece of political management given Sinn Fein's "no return to Stormont" slogan in the 1997 general election campaign.

'Sea changes in policy'

In December 2004, Gerry Adams broke new ground by meeting Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Hugh Orde - a clear signal that republicans were considering supporting the police who they once regarded as "legitimate targets".

The meeting came as the IRA offered to destroy its entire arsenal, and pondered requests to allow this gesture to be photographed for posterity.

All this would be done to usher in a once unthinkable agreement between Gerry Adams and his bete noire Ian Paisley.

Given the personal and political risks he has taken, Adams's leadership skills in navigating these sea changes in policy cannot be underestimated.

Mr Ahern accused Mr Adams of prior knowledge of robbery
Mr Ahern accused Mr Adams of prior knowledge of bank robbery

Historically, disagreements between republicans led to violent feuding, but during the peace process major splits have largely been avoided.

Gerry Adams is always careful to use close supporters to test controversial ground in advance, ruthless in isolating and marginalising his opponents and far-sighted in never allowing the swirl of events to knock the strategic direction of his "project" off course.

He is probably better equipped to ride out the current storms than anyone else.

Certainly better than fellow party members who have been anything but surefooted as they attempt to deal with the crisis which has enveloped the party since Christmas 2004.

If nothing else he can always wear down opponents with what one commentator calls his "weary patience" repeating over and over the mantra that the "Peace Process is the only game in town".




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