Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was back in America this week to attend the opening of the Rockland GAA clubhouse. On Monday I caught up with him in New York at Bobby Van’s restaurant where he was holding a meeting with Irish American labor leaders.
Our interview lasted 30 minutes. We have been friends for over 30 years. He is the most extraordinary Irishman I know.
Renowned journalist Vincent Browne once wrote that without Adams The Troubles would have started, but without him they would never have finished. Browne got it just right.
He and Martin McGuinness risked life and limb to bring about that peace. They could easily have just remained in their expected roles, but they chose to risk everything. The peace process remains an extraordinary achievement. I have been privileged to witness many of the great moments, the first U.S. visa for Adams from President Clinton in 1994, the first IRA ceasefire, etc. I often thought back to my first encounter with Adams as he continued to scale the heights.
The first time I interviewed him was in a pokey Sinn Fein office in West Belfast in 1983. Outside The Troubles were in full flow, but Adams had far more questions for me than I for him.
His curiosity about the United States, the Irish American lobby and the 1984 race for the presidency was intense. This was no inward looking revolutionary. Afterwards, he asked me for a lift to another West Belfast location.
I had come from hip San Francisco, from a small Irish American newspaper I had founded myself. I had driven around Belfast that morning.
I was ill-prepared for the city’s blown out bars and ever present sense of claustrophobia and menace. I learned to know which part of the city I was in by the color of the curbstones, painted the royal colors in Protestant areas, and Tricolors in nationalist areas.
I remember thinking how easily it would be to get in trouble. Here in America it was always pretty clear just by the general appearance of a neighborhood where you were going.
I was sure I was being watched, and sure enough my bright little red car carrying my famous passenger along was confronted by a British Army checkpoint. I was sitting with arguably the most hated Irishman in Britain, who seemed remarkably cool and composed.
Not me. Little wonder I could feel my knuckles tightening and whitening on the steering wheel.
The squaddie with a big rifle glared in the window at us, ignored Adams and asked for my ID instead. He disappeared with my California license. While we were waiting Adams recounted how one squaddie had said to him during a previous stop, “What's your name Mr. Adams?”
We were sent on our way but I was in no doubt I had been sent a message that my presence with Adams was noticed.
It was just a small glance for me into what it must have been like for Adams in The Troubles. He would survive assassination attempts, massive vilification, being burned in effigy and much else.
Over the intervening years I have interviewed him probably 30 times, about once a year. He has never disappointed. His great partner McGuinness has passed but Adams continues on as relentless as ever.
Ireland was lucky to have him. As Bill Clinton once said, if Adams as opposed to Yasser Arafat ran the PLO Middle East peace would have worked. There can be no greater tribute.