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The Hunger Strikes
Sometimes I go to the edge of the world: to the northwest of Ireland, where on dark clear nights the skyscape stretches forever. I'm there now, trying to figure out how to tell the story of the Irish peace process. Here on the edge of Europe, a huge expanse of ocean stretches in front of me to New York and the Americas. Inland, at my back, across rugged mountain ranges lies the road to Belfast. Beyond, separated from Ireland by a narrow sound of water, is Britain.
I try to imagine how it would appear if I were a hundred miles above myself, looking down. I imagine everyone, on a night like tonight, doing all the things that people do on nights like this. I used to get this feeling in Belfast sometimes, occasionally brought on by some street event or incident. The incident might be the entire focus of your attention or indeed of others involved in it or close to it; but if you lift yourself above it, you will see other realities. Yards or streets away, people go on about their lives as if nothing were happening. They have their own concerns and preoccupations, their own priorities. And it would be this way in any case, even if they knew what was happening close at hand. But many of them don't.
Yet the specific, the particular, affects us all. It may connect us all, if only for a minute. Even though we approach it from different realities. Television, that small-picture medium, sometimes has this effect.
Pondering on all of this, I appreciate the need for distance, for a wider context. I feel a need to rise above my reality, and tell this story in a way that allows you to share my experience, my reality. That's the challenge for me.
As I sit here now, reflecting on all that has passed, my mind is crowded with memories, with different and conflicting emotions. How do I make sense of all of this so that it becomes your sense? It's difficult to absorb all that has happened. The reader may think that people close to events have a sense of what's happening, but that's not always the case.
For example, an image has remained with me of a friend of mine, Jim Gibney, in the days after he was released from prison after serving a six-year sentence. This was around March 1988-the month three unarmed IRA volunteers were shot dead by undercover British troops in Gibraltar. When they were being buried some days later in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, there was a loyalist attack on the mourners at the gravesides. Three people were killed and scores were injured. A day or two later at one of these funerals, two armed undercover British troops who drove into the cortege were seized by the crowd and shot dead by the IRA.
This maelstrom of events-from the killings at Gibraltar through the long journey home of the remains, the Milltown Cemetery killings, and the subsequent killings of the two British soldiers-were among the most frightening, dramatic, tragic episodes of the recent past.
My memory of all of this is vivid, and I will return to it later. But in the course of the attacks, of the panic, the fear, the noise, the screams, the color, the scariness of it all, Gib's presence sticks out. Days before, he had the exhilaration of release from prison. To be pitched into this madness from the relative sanctuary of a prison cell-that was his reality. Those who died, died in a different reality, and those who killed them had their own reality as well.
And all around us-skirting the pandemonium, the killing, the dying-buses and cars whizzed by, people got on with their lives. If you had lifted yourself high above the scene, you could have witnessed all this. But if you stayed in the eye of it, you could see only what was immediate to you.
So why with all else that was happening is it the image of Gib that stays in my mind? Maybe because I thought it was worse for him than for the rest of us. But was it?
In telling the story of the Irish peace process, I can tell only my experience of it, my understanding of it, my role in it. It is not my business to offer an objective account of events or to see through someone else's eyes. Nor is it my responsibility to document these events. My intention is to tell my story. My truth. My reality. My task is to connect this small-picture perspective to a big-picture screen. In trying to write a personal narrative from inside the process, I want also to make sense to the reader standing outside it.
How do you get a sense of all the players, all the organizations, all the twists and turns? How do you convey in a book of this size the history of this period in its context of eight hundred years? How do you stay with the particular, the specific while at the same time rising above it to observe the bigger picture?
I say it is my story. I don't say it will be the full story. It is impossible to see how this tale will unfold. Even as I pen these words, the story is unfolding, still sensitive, still fragile. A happy ending, finally, eventually, it seems to me is more important than a tell-all story now.
Telling my truth is not an excuse for being untruthful. This book is a frank account, essentially a story of change. The change involved is specific: it is personal, it is individual. It is a personal journey, but it is also communal. It is the story of a process which affects not only those who are directly involved, but others who are yards or miles away from it as well.
The process affects all who live on the islands of Ireland and Britain. In looking back on these changes, it is worth noting that they occurred and were influenced by a world also in transition. The road to the end of apartheid in South Africa; the reunification of Germany; the attempt to modernize and the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R.; the end of the Cold War; the beginning and the end more recently of a peace process in the Middle East.
Getting to an agreement was difficult. Getting that agreement implemented and resolving the consequences of an unprecedented phase of conflict involving the IRA, British forces, and their allies within Irish loyalism is a mighty task indeed. Can a peace process deal with all of this? Clearly that is the hope of those who want it to succeed.
Or will the peace process collapse? That is the intention of those who are against the changes that are required.
But what of the story which has evolved thus far? Where do I start to recount that? Where do I begin to tell my tale?
Perhaps by introducing myself. My name is Gerry Adams. My life began in 1948 in the city called Belfast on the island called Ireland. Belfast is the second city of this island, but it holds fewer than half a million souls. I have lived here all my life. Belfast is a fine city. Its greatest asset is its people. But for all our fine points, we Belfast people are divided in our loyalties, subjected on this account to great difficulties. The last thirty years or so have been very cruel years. I have survived them so far. Many others have not. Friends. Enemies. People I knew well. Others I did not know. It is a wonder to me that we have come through it all.
Division is our middle name. The divisions in Belfast go back centuries. This is not unique. There are many divided cities throughout the world-divided geographically and physically, by religion or by politics or by culture. Even those without apparent political divisions are separated by class. Each city has its poor, its underclass, living cheek to jowl with the less badly off, alongside the more affluent. And so it goes right from the bottom to the top of the social ladder.
But the divisions in our city of Belfast are more obvious than the social divides which separate others. Our city is physically divided from itself. It reflects our island. It too is divided. Both these divisions stem from British government involvement in our country. Most of Ireland is governed by an Irish government based in Dublin in the south. Belfast is in the north, and the north or at least the northeasterly counties-six in all-are at this time within the British state.
It has been this way for eighty years or so. Before that, all of Ireland was under British rule. British rule, or at least the English conquest of the island called Ireland, goes back eight hundred years. The Irish never accepted the conquest. There has always been resistance. Even if at times there was an absence of war, there has rarely been peace. And never justice.
Belfast is a city which loves and hates itself. I have lived here over fifty years, yet there are parts of this small city I do not know. My lack of familiarity with parts of Belfast arises from the reality that I would not be safe in sections of it.
A sad thing, but that is the reality. Parts of Belfast are tough parts indeed. I come from such a place, or at least a place with such a reputation. But whether worthy or not of such titles, tough is only part of any story of any place or any person. The tough place that I come from has many other facets to its character.
Belfast is also kind, dry-humored, scary, openhearted, sectarian, compassionate, and generous. It is a complex place. And Belfast is where this story begins.
I returned there from Long Kesh prison camp in 1977. I had been interned in Long Kesh since 1973. This was my second period of internment-imprisonment without trial. (Internment without trial was used in every decade since the state was established in 1921.) I had first been interned in 1972-for a time on the prison ship the Maidstone, anchored
in Belfast Lough. After protests by those of us imprisoned there, the Maidstone was closed and we were transferred to the cages of Long Kesh. Several months later, I was released by the British and, along with others, flown to London as part of a high-level republican delegation to negotiate a truce. When that initiative failed, I was on the run again, living underground for over a year before being arrested again and returned to Long Kesh.
I am not a violent person. I have often been accused, particularly by my opponents, of being in, or having been in, the IRA. It is a charge I have always rejected. I have been a member of Sinn Féin since my late teens. Sinn Féin is not the IRA, though the two organizations are often erroneously lumped together. The IRA is an armed organization, an army which pursues its objectives through armed actions. Sinn Féin is a political organization which pursues its objectives through peaceful political means.
In the internment camp at Long Kesh, I spent my time trying to escape. By 1975 when the policy of internment finally ended and the internees were released, I found myself in a different part of Long Kesh, the result of my capture after two failed escape attempts. Poetic justice. When the rest of the internees were released, a handful of us wannabe Steve McQueens were kept behind at Her Majesty's pleasure. Who says the British establishment doesn't have a sense of humor? It is enough to make you cry. I cried all the way from the no-jury court. When all the rest of the internees were back home with their friends and families, I and the rest of our motley crew were transported back to Long Kesh, all trussed up like individually wrapped turkeys in the tiny claustrophobic compartments of a heavily armored paddy wagon. Internment was dead. Long live internment.
My next few years were spent in Cage 11. When I was released in 1977, the Belfast I returned to was a different place from the one I had been scooped-arrested-in. For one thing I was "free." But I had decided not to live in our family home. It was too dangerous. I also wanted to continue with the work which internment had interrupted. But I had a wife and a young son waiting for me. Colette had prepared a good home for us in my absence. Gearóid had been born months after my arrest in '72. He was now over four years old. Our time together so far had been limited to the prison visits. We had a lot of catching up to do.
Lots of our friends were working. One dear comrade offered me night shift work in the local bakery. That way he reasoned I could continue with my republican work during the day and earn a few pounds for my family during the night. A baker by night-a revolutionary by day. And the dough was good, he said. It is a testament to Colette's steadiness that she put up with me during this period.
I plunged back into politics. I had also renewed my relationship with my cousin Kevin Hannaway, with whom I was close prior to my imprisonment. The Hannaways were one of Belfast's spinal republican families, particularly in the Clonard area. Kevin was a republican activist, arrested and tortured by the British Army following the introduction of internment. He and a handful of others-known as the "guinea pigs"-were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, sensory deprivation, and ill treatment over a protracted period. Following his release from Long Kesh, Kevin and his wife and family lived in Clonard, also home to the monastery where the Redemptorist Order was based in West Belfast. It was where Father Alex Reid lived.
Father Reid was a persistent priest. I met him on the first Easter Sunday after my release, when at my request he had intervened to negotiate an end to the interrepublican feuds in Belfast. Our friendship had grown since then. Father Des Wilson worked with Father Reid on that initiative. I have known Father Des since 1969. Both these men were deeply committed to living the gospel message and to making it relevant to the particular circumstances in which they ministered. The two were tenacious peacemakers.
They had different relationships with the institutional church. Father Des was a Belfast man, from the Ormeau Road. Ordained in 1949, before becoming a priest in my home parish of St. John's in 1966 he had been a staff member and the spiritual director for a decade and a half in St. Malachy's College, one of Belfast's main Catholic grammar schools. The move from comfortable middle-class academia to disadvantaged deprived working-class reality was to have a profound effect on him. It soon brought him into dispute with the Church authorities over the use of Church resources. He resigned from clerical positions and founded Springhill Community House Education Development Project in 1972. He went on from there to be involved in a range of progressive community, educational, economic, and anti-sectarian projects. Father Des was now more or less his own man.
From the Hardcover edition.