Adams will be remembered as a tough negotiator but with a stain on his legacy

Bowing out as leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams’ denial of IRA involvement continues to anger many of his political contemporaries, but all acknowledge his skills in delivering a peace deal, writes Political Reporter Elaine Loughlin.

Adams will be remembered as a tough negotiator but with a stain on his legacy

In 1972 a 23-year-old Republican activist being held under internment was flown on an RAF plane to London for a top secret meeting with the British Government.

Now, 46 years on, Gerry Adams — who remains a key player in the Republican movement while continuing to deny involvement in the IRA — will step down as Sinn Féin president.

Unlike the late Martin McGuinness — who was also among the IRA delegation that attended the covert London meeting with top level officials and politicians and who later came clean around his membership of the organisation — Mr Adams has always denied being part of the armed stuggle.

It is this denial which will stain his legacy.

It is this denial, along with aloofness and detachment that strained relationships, or resulted in them never being developed in the same way as Mr McGuinness who was able to forge strong connections across the divide.

“He was as deep as a draw well as we would say at home, you couldn’t really get to the bottom of him,” Reg Empey, who was involved in the Belfast Agreement negotiations and who went on to be a member of the Assembly, put it.

For Theresa Villiers, who came to know Mr Adams much later as Northern Ireland secretary, he was “less approachable” than Mr McGuinness.

“I would not say I knew him like I knew Martin McGuinness who over those four years I had continuous dialogue with,” she said.

The only person to dismiss this notion was former taoiseach Bertie Ahern who said there would have been “good bickering” over some issues but “by and large he was a good person to deal with”, adding that they often “had the craic” before serious peace negotiations began.

Mr Ahern recalls a crunch secret meeting at Chequers which included then British prime minister Tony Blair and Mr Adams: “It was my birthday that day so he brought me a birthday card.”

It is clear that after almost 35 years as leader of Sinn Féin, and having been essential in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, Adams will step down as someone who is revered and scorned in equal measure.

A man of contradictions which even those who have worked with him find difficult to reconcile or even to separate.

For those who became wrapped up in the murder, maiming and brutality of the Troubles, Mr Adams is someone who has been both the cause and the cure.

Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for innocent Victims United believes that Mr Adams’ legacy will be one of “deep-seated pain”.

Michelle Williamson, who lost both her parents in the Shankhill Bombings in 1993, says he will be remembered for denying many victims and families the truth.

“Mr Adams retirement means I won’t have to see him on the TV every day but it also means that he just slipped away without telling the truth. He will be remembered for the blood he has on his hands, he will be remembered for the lies, he will be remembered for saying ‘I was never in the IRA’.”

Almost 25 years on from the deaths of her parents, Ms Williamson finds it hard to accept Mr Adams’ position and hopes he someday might change his public stance on his involvement in the IRA: “I never had an opinion on the Troubles until it impacted me.”

“It’s like an open sore and the more he comes out the more that sore keeps festering. It’s very hard to accept the good things that he has done when he has not

admitted the bad things,” she said.

Politically, many view him as a tough negotiator, a person who was difficult to read, but who could undoubtedly bring his own supporters with him.

Peter Hain, secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 and 2007 described him as “an outstanding figure” in the peace process adding that without him we would not have had a deal which saw Ian Paisley and Mr McGuinness agree to self-governance.

“I think he was particularly responsible for bringing together the leadership of republicanism, I would focus on that, that was his contribution,” Mr Hain


“He was extremely professional, a tough negotiator but one of the most professional negotiators I have come across,” he remembered.

Likewise, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern who along with Mr Blair guided the nationalist and unionist sides to reach agreement, said the prolonged and protracted discussions which went on in the lead-up to the historic 1998 were often about “trying to convince Gerry that he would convince others”.

Mr Ahern dealt with Adams on a regular basis form the 1990s and the contact would have intensified to an almost daily basis in the crunch years between 1994 right the way up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

However, it was in his Dublin Central backyard that Mr Ahern first met Mr Adams when he came down to canvass for Sinn Féin candidate Christy Burke.

“He used to come down here with Christy Burke in the early 80s, Sinn Féin at that time were on 1% in opinion polls,” remembered Mr Ahern, pointing out how far the party has come under the leadership of Mr Adams.

In 2016 the party secured 23 Dáil seats and after the 2014 local elections, they saw their number of representatives rocket to 159 seats.

Contrary to many others, who found him distant and a personality that you would never fully get to know, on a personal level Mr Ahern found him easy to speak to on sport and of course about his beloved Donegal, where he has a holiday home and where he is now expected to spend more of his time.

“When he is off the political agenda he is a nice person,” said Mr Ahern.

However, in talks Mr Adams was more difficult: “Martin McGuinness was quite direct but in a good way, you wouldn’t be having to work out the way Martin McGuinness was going,” said Ahern.

“Gerry could be a bit more tricky. He would be quite sticky, he could take up a point and he would be trenchant about it.”

Mr Ahern says he will always remember in the final days of Holy Week of 1998 when all sides were deep in negotiations and a lot of people thought we would not succeed but we were working hard and Mr Adams came to the table with yet more demands.

On the Wednesday of that week, as negotiators thought they were finally getting close to an agreement, Adams came in with “50 or 60 items” to add to the agenda, Mr Ahern now remembers with a chuckle that Mo Mowlam “went berserk”.

This ability to prolong negotiations was echoed by Mark Durkan of the SDLP who remembers Mr Adams as setting many “conditions and quibbles” in talks to drag the process out, whether that be ahead of the Good Friday Agreement, around decommissioning, or more recently on how to deal with On The Runs.

“Like Sinn Féin at large he had a habit of milking — not doing anything until he waited long enough to milk something more by doing it,” he said.

“So many, many times you would have found Tony Blair saying we are drawing a line in the sand and then later he would come out to say the substance has not changed but the language is different then they have been using before.”

“He was someone who would quite often play himself detached from things.

“There was an element of detachment even at a social level,” said the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Ask about Gerry Adams and it is very hard to untangle the man from another Sinn Féin heavyweight, Martin McGuinness.

The two, who acted as negotiators for both Sinn Féin and the IRA, were seldom apart and Mr McGuinness, who was viewed as affable and charismatic, acted as a good balance to Mr Adams.

“We spent a lot of time with him and Martin McGuinness, it was never really on his own, indeed I would struggle to remember a meeting I attended with him on his own,” said Reg Empey, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

“They made a very strong negotiating team.”

However, while many from the unionst side warmed to Mr McGuiness — he and Mr Paisley would later be dubbed ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ — the fact that Mr Adams refused to admit his past and “maintained this fiction” caused a “huge

barrier” in developing true relationships on the unionist side.

“Undoubtedly from a personal point of view Martin was a lot easier to get on with,” said Empey.

“Martin didn’t attempt to cover or deny his past, he openly admitted his past in the IRA and what he had done. Gerry kept this pretence up that he had nothing to do with it. As a result you wouldn’t really develop a personal relationship.”

Even after Mr Adams decided to focus on politics in the Republic, winning a Dáil seat in the 2011 General Election in Louth, his influence still seeped over the border.

Theresa Villiers, who acted as Northern Secretary between 2012 and 2016, said it was clear to her that he was still very much a key leader who would attend meetings when they were reaching a crucial stage.

“When I say he was not around much it was still very evident that he was calling the shots. When he turned up it was a welcome sign because it was usually a sign that we were making some progress when Gerry and Mary-Lou turned up. I was certainly under no doubt that Gerry Adams made the key decisions.”

She added: “For me, as someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, it was odd to find myself working beside someone like Gerry Adams with his history. But he became pragmatic over time.”

However she noted that similar to Mr Adams, the party was very disciplined — meaning it was difficult to discern the internal workings or opinions of Sinn Féin.

But what now for Gerry Adams?

Many in his inner circle claim he is eager to retire completely and let a new generation led by Mary-Lou McDonald take over. Indeed the man himself has been posting pictures on twitter

of a whiteboard with his “countdown to freedom” calendar ticking off the days.

However, others find this version of future events hard to believe.

Reg Empey, for one, said he has no doubt Mr Adams will not completely bow out and will continue to pull some of the Sinn Féin strings from the background.

Mr Durkan claimed he will want to cement more of a solid legacy: “He has a jealous ego, he likes that he is the last standing in the leadership cohort of the Good Friday Agreement. But there is not much in it for the last man standing when the institutions are not standing. I would not be surprised if there is a move to reinstate the Assembly that we will be hearing that the key move happened under Gerry’s authority.”

Meanwhile, Mr Donaldson gives a more black and white analysis of the man: “Gerry Adams may officially step down this weekend, but a legacy of pain remains in his wake and many would suspect that he will continue to occupy a puppet master role with those who supposedly now take on the leadership of the Provo movement.”

There is no doubt that an agreed assessment of the man is impossible.

Bowing out as president of Sinn Féin, Mr Adams will be remembered as open but ruthless; evasive but influential; cautious but decisive; a war-monger and peace broker — but above all complicated.

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