Gerry Adams, disarming charisma

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President of the Sinn Fein party since the early 1980s, Gerry Adams is the best-known face of the Northern Ireland peace process, rousing rancour among unionists, admiration from less hardline republicans.

He led the party to eventual participation in electoral politics, after it had long opposed the role of the British by not taking up seats it won in the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.

Belfast-born in 1952, into a family close to the Irish Republican Army, by the late 60s he was in the civil rights movement.

He has always denied others’ allegations that he was ever an IRA member, let alone in the Army Council.

By the 1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings by soldiers of the British Army of 26 civil rights protesters and bystanders, Northern Ireland, created in 1921 as part of the United Kingdom, was in a state of ethnic Protestant and Catholic civil war commonly known as ‘The Troubles’.

Adams was imprisoned several times with others suspected of militant activity, under the short-lived Special Powers Act passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which gave the government the power to ‘take all steps necessary to preserve the peace and maintain order’.

Sinn Fein in the 1980s and early 1990s contested elections while the IRA used guns against the British Army, Ulster police and UK-loyalist paramilitary groups. Adams won a seat in Westminster twice, but to accept it would have meant pledging allegiance to the Crown, so he didn’t. His political stature at home grew.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, Adams moved from his armalite and ballot box strategy and seized the chance to meet him, behind closed doors at first, finally at Downing Street.

Thus began the work on a multi-party agreement between the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland.

It was a negotiated end to the conflict, with a renunciation of violence and the pursuit of democratic political means.

The British-Irish Agreement was sealed at Stormont Castle in Belfast on Good Friday, 10 April 1998, and came into force on 2 December 1999.

Adams thus contributed to the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups and Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the normalisation of security arrangements in Northern Ireland.

To some, Adams is a terrorist disguised as a politician, to others he is a visionary and architect of peace.

He remains an enigmatic leader.

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