Gerry Adams talks to MEMO: 'Personally I have found that the hardest negotiation is with your own side'

Gerry Adams

During Britain's long conflict in Northern Ireland the British media branded IRA members "mafia" and "godfathers", recalls Gerry Adams. He says it was part of a negative propaganda campaign to dehumanise and undermine the republican struggle for freedom in the same way Britain has always pitted itself against "terrorists", "gunmen", "fanatics" and "extremists" during their colonial wars.

"The logic was simple," Adams explains. "In order to defeat an enemy, especially in a guerrilla war, you must undermine its base of support. Separate the freedom fighter from the people who provide the personnel and the resources it needs to survive. If you can convince those citizens who support your enemy that they are not liberators or freedom fighters then the objective of winning has moved significantly closer."

When these "terrorists" succeed, they become statesmen, he says. This is how it happened for Gerry Adams- he went from "mafia don" to Member of Parliament for Louth and East Meath. Throughout this transformation, Adams has remained President of the Irish Republican party Sinn Féin that has been linked with the IRA, although Adams denies he was ever a member. In the late eighties to early nineties British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed a ban on the media broadcasting the voices of Sinn Féin party representatives. Now they can take up their seats in Westminster, but prefer to boycott them: "Our time is better spent in our constituencies," Sinn Féin politician Michelle Gildernew told the Guardian in May.

A huge factor in bringing Sinn Féin in from the cold was the Good Friday Agreement signed on April 10 1998. It envisioned a lasting settlement to the 30 year Troubles and in its aftermath, Adams, who was one of the architects, was credited with steering the IRA away from violent struggle and towards peaceful resistance. "The major difference between it and all its predecessors is that at its core is the issue of equality," says Adams.

"It isn't a perfect agreement," he reflects. "It was after all a compromise between conflicting political positions and after decades of violence and generations of division." The hardest part was implementing it: "The twists and turns from April 10th 1998 to now have been many. At times the process has collapsed. At other times it looked as if the securocrats and the wreckers were going to succeed and the whole peace process was going to unravel. But with patience and perseverance, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, we have power sharing arrangements and political institutions that are working."

Whilst the Agreement may not be flawless, many consider it a blueprint for successful conflict resolution. International delegations regularly visit the Northern Ireland Assembly, whilst Unionists and Republicans visit trouble spots around the world to share their experiences. One of these trouble spots is Palestine.

Just as Sinn Féin was inspired by the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century and received support from the ANC of South Africa, Palestinians have looked to Northern Ireland's struggle to try and make sense of their own experience. After all they have both been subject to British colonialism, negative propaganda campaigns, discrimination, the partition of land and segregation. "While no two conflicts are the same, the Irish peace process has transformed the political conditions in Ireland and the broad principles that worked in our situation could be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian situation," says Adams.

Unlike the Good Friday Agreement, Israel and Palestine's peace treaty, the Oslo Accords, is regarded by many Palestinians as an abject failure: "I do not have the detail of the Oslo Agreement but it is clear that commitments given to the Palestinian representatives have not been delivered on," says Adams. "This is especially true of the massive increase of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the illegal blockade of Gaza and the huge suffering inflicted on the civilian population by its military onslaughts. All with international impunity."

Sinn Féin has said that a line of communication remained open between themselves and the British government for some 20 years, although British ministers said publicly they would not negotiate with Irish republicans. It wasn't until the mid-nineties that the two sides entered into an open dialogue. Whether it was behind closed doors or in the public eye, dialogue with the British government was no doubt tough. But Adams says dialogue with his own associates was tougher. "Personally I have found that the hardest negotiation is with your own side," says Adams. "Persuading comrades and supporters who have been the victims of oppression to take a course of action which seeks - as Mandela described it to 'make friends with your enemy' - is very challenging. It becomes even more difficult if those you are negotiating with treat the process as a means to defeat you. Negotiations which are conducted in bad faith only risk perpetuating conflict." Dialogue is a key part of that process and that is why the British government should open channels of communication with Hamas, he says.

Snaking across Northern Ireland's major cities are "peace walls," or physical reminders that not all of the country's troubles are over. They separate nationalist and unionist neighbourhoods and since 1998 have actually increased in number and size. Likewise, the separation wall in Palestine is also growing. Its construction is "primarily about land" says Adams; it is also a ruse for stealing water and building more illegal settlements. He adds: "It is a scar on the land and conscience of Israel and of the international community."

Walls are viewed as a means of protection and, in a climate of fear, persuading citizens to remove them can be difficult, says Adams. But walls between communities cannot achieve peace, especially lasting peace between the people they separate: "Ultimately walls or fences only reinforce the isolation and separation of citizens. They minimise the possibility of breaking down community barriers; of building human relationships and reducing the sense of fear that exists in conflict situations. But worse walls are also used as a means of taking and controlling territory and of excluding citizens. In the north of Ireland society has been ghettoised for centuries as a consequence of colonisation. This was most easily identified in urban areas."

"The separation wall, and the sterile roads that Palestinians are banned from, are symptomatic of an institutionalised, deliberately structured system of economic, cultural and social apartheid that brings shame to Israel and to the international community that has failed to take a stand against it," says Adams.

As part of the international effort to secure recognition of a Palestinian state, last year Sinn Féin proposed a motion to do just that in the Irish Parliament. The outcome was that both houses of the Parliament supported the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; calling for the recognition of a State of Palestine, and endorsed the right of the Palestinian people to independence and sovereignty. Adams says: "The tragedy is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Israelis want peace. They know that this requires mutual respect and good neighbourliness. They know too the likely shape of the outcome – a two state solution."

The Irish struggle, explains Adams, was about self-determination free of British government involvement. It was neither religious nor nationalist. To understand modern Irish republicanism he directs me to the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a document issued during the Easter Rising in Ireland which has equal rights, equal opportunities, religious and civil liberty, anti-sectarianism and ultimately a democratic Ireland at its core."These words are a promise to every Irish citizen that she and he can share in the dignity of human kind, as equals with equal opportunity. That we can enjoy freedom, educate our children, provide for our families and not exploit our neighbours," says Adams.

For Palestinians, the struggle for self-determination is a familiar story; this and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees are at the very heart of their struggle. Just as Sinn Féin has never given up their goal of a united Ireland, should Palestinians relinquish their dream of total liberation of their land and the right of return to the villages from which they were expelled?

"Only the Palestinian people through their representatives can decide what they will or will not accept as part of a solution. I believe in the right of the people of Palestine to self-determination, and to have their own state, as well as the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders. I also believe that the Irish government should recognise the State of Palestine, on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, as established in UN resolutions, as a further positive contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

How can this be achieved? "The key to finding political strategies...that can advance a peace process requires dialogue," says Adams. "This is imperative."

This interview was conducted via email.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor