The Taming of a Terrorist

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams; drawing by David Levine


Even in Ireland, where popular culture used to be skeptical and irreverent, there are now magazines devoted to the worship of celebrities. The best-selling native equivalent of People in the US or Hello in Europe is called VIP. Its issue for September 2002 had the usual mix on the cover: a TV anchorman, the model who advertises the Wonderbra, a member of the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy. The main picture, however, was devoted to a smiling man in a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, with a neatly trimmed beard and a well-groomed sweep of gray hair adding distinction to his temples. The blurb was “Gerry Adams the charismatic leader reveals the man that few people know.”

The revelations inside were, of course, insipid. Readers learned that the leader of Sinn Fein and the pivotal figure in the Irish peace process has teeth that are “a credit to a top-class orthodontist.” He is sometimes moved to tears by “good music or a happy memory,” has given up Guinness beer in favor of red wine, loves dogs, and has a special affinity with trees. In the relentlessly fawning style of such magazines, Adams appeared as a sweet, avuncular figure, full of the self-confidence of calm middle age but with a gloss of New Age mysticism to keep him in touch with his inner child.

Trivial as all of this undoubtedly was, it had its own significance. The final absorption of Gerry Adams into the soporific world of celebrity journalism marked the astonishing success of his political strategy. Until quite recently, Adams was an international pariah. He was not allowed to enter the United States until President Clinton granted him a special visa against the advice of the State Department in January 1994. Only in the same month did the Irish government lift an order banning all interviews with him or members of his party from radio and television. In the UK, his voice could not be broadcast, so interviews with him had to be dubbed by an actor speaking his words.

Adams was reviled because he was regarded by the Irish, British, and US governments as a terrorist. Though he operated in public as the leader of a legal political party, Sinn Fein, and had never been convicted of a terrorist crime, no serious observer of the Northern Ireland conflict questioned his private status as a senior figure within the clandestine Irish Republican Army. That status had been confirmed as early as July 1972, when Adams was just twenty-three years old. The British government arranged talks with the IRA leadership in London. One of the IRA’s conditions for agreeing to take part was that Adams be released from custody to join its negotiating team.1 In January 1973, the US embassy in Dublin reported to Washington that the IRA was led by a “Troika,” namely Daithi O Conaill, Joe Cahill, and Gerry Adams, “who is still…

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