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Gerry Adams: The man behind the mask

US reporter Kevin Cullen recalls a SF leader who tightly controlled his public persona

Gerry Adams: “Adams’s insistence he was never in the IRA perplexes me to this day.” Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

I like to say I knew Gerry Adams before he was infamous.

I started reporting from Northern Ireland in the second half of the 1980s, when most American journalists and their editors had grown bored of the killing and the mayhem and the madness.

Somehow, at a fairly young age, when I was the main crime reporter for the Boston Globe, I convinced my editors that we were giving short shrift to the conflict in Northern Ireland, a tragic story, a human rights story, an international story that was, in fact, a local story for our readership, more than half of which claimed Irish ancestry.

Beyond that, I persuaded them that the fact that my grandparents were from Connemara, that I had spent a fitful year at Trinity College, and that I had managed to get myself lifted by British soldiers when I hitchhiked up to Belfast in 1979 and came across a patrol of nervous squaddies who believed my Boston accent was a put-on, somehow qualified me to report on the murderous, generational problem that the Irish in their quaint propensity for understatement called the Troubles.

So, against all wisdom, my editors started sending me over to Northern Ireland, two or three times a year, a couple or three weeks at a time, with no remit, just the odd, “See what you can find.”

At some point, in 1988, I wandered into the Sinn Féin office on the Lower Falls Road and announced that I would like to speak with Gerry Adams.

The man to whom I made this request, a lovely silver-haired guy named Paddy Loughran, said he’d see what he could do. He disappeared upstairs and he soon returned to say, “Gerry’s up the stairs. Go on up.”

Paddy didn’t frisk me. Didn’t ask me for any ID. I guess that my face, my colouring, the fact that I was from Boston and my name was Kevin, was good enough for him.

So up the stairs I went and I was sitting there for maybe 10 minutes and in walks Adams, wearing a less-than-impressive jumper, and he sat down and sighed and looked at me and said, “What about ye?”

Loyalist pub

After some introductions, I explained to Adams that I was a green American, but not green in a republican sense. I told him that earlier that week, in a sincere but perhaps naive attempt to understand loyalist thinking, I had driven around east Belfast and settled upon a pub that had a portrait of King William of Orange on the side of its gabled wall. I went into the pub, at approximately three in the afternoon, and the clientele consisted almost entirely of elderly men. They were charming guys, most of them second World War veterans, and we had some nice chats after I told them my dad had spent the entire war fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

As the minutes melted into an hour or more, the old men melted away and they were replaced by younger, hard men with tattoos on their forearms and menace in their voices.

In walks Adams, wearing a less-than-impressive jumper, and he sat down and sighed and looked at me and said, 'What about ye?'

“Kevin? You’re Kevin, and you’re from Boston?” one of them demanded.

I was naive, but I wasn’t that naive. I knew enough to realise that I was surrounded by loyalists, some of whom may or may not have been paramilitaries.

I took a chance. At this point, what did I have to lose?

“My mom’s a Prod and my middle name is Billy,” I said.

It wasn’t true, of course: my mother was a Catholic from Connemara stock. But the part about my middle name being Billy was absolutely true. This led the guys with the tattooed forearms to sit up, as if they were slapped.

“You’re a liar!” one of them barked.

“No, it’s true,” I said, remarkably calmly given the fact that the guys surrounding me looked like they wanted to put me on a spit and roast me. I pulled my Massachusetts driver’s licence from my wallet and handed it to the guy I thought was the leader.

He looked at it and shook his head.

Oxymoronic name

“F*ck me,” he said, handing to the next loyalist, and then down the line it went.

They all stared at the oxymoronic name: Kevin William Cullen.

I didn’t have the heart to tell that the only reason my middle name was William is because when my parents went to register my birth the city clerk, an old Italian woman, heard what my mother said she wanted to call me, and the old Italian lady said, “Lee-um? Lee-um? What’s a Lee-um?”

My mother, Peggy Flaherty, from south Boston, via Carraroe, the child of Irish-speaking immigrants, responded, “Liam is the Irish for William.”

“Oh,” the old Italian lady replied, nodding, knowingly. She typed my middle name in as she would have it.

At that moment, I became a Billy.

I was about to tell my new loyalist pals that Celtic were shite and that I supported Rangers, imagining Dermot Desmond disowning me, but I figured that would be a bit much. We, my paramilitary buddies, became so chummy that at one point, the loyalist that I presumed was the leader of their group got up and opened the pub’s front door.

“Oi!” he shouted to a group of young boys who, unknown to me, were vigorously rocking my car, trying to turn it over. “F*ck off. That belongs to our friend.”

I never rented a car with Republic plates and drove it to the North again.

In 1988, sitting in that drafty room off the Falls Road, I told Gerry Adams that story and he roared. He had tears in his eyes from laughing

Way too many pints later, my loyalist buddies gingerly placed me into a taxi, probably driven by a murderer, and the guy who most likely was a murderer deposited me at the Europa hotel, telling me as I exited the car, without a hint of irony, “Be careful, mate. The Provos blow that feckin’ place up all the time.”

In 1988, sitting in that drafty room off the Falls Road, I told Gerry Adams that story and he roared. He had tears in his eyes from laughing.

Appreciation of absurdity

In the years that followed, I wondered why the Adams I first met didn’t come through more often, more publicly, as a politician, as a guy who could laugh at jokes, who could appreciate absurdity, because he surely can. He was too serious, too afraid to let down the mask, and, let’s be honest: he wore a mask, figuratively, at least. That’s a loaded thing to say about somebody who insists he never wore a balaclava.

Gerry Adams: “I think Adams should have received the Nobel Peace Prize along with John Hume and David Trimble.”

Adams’s insistence he was never in the IRA perplexes me to this day. I’ve never met anybody in the republican heartland of Belfast – from Andytown to Ballymurphy to the Markets – or other heartlands in South Armagh and East Tyrone and Derry and Fermanagh, who didn’t believe, in their heart of hearts, that Gerry Adams was in the IRA. I have never met an IRA volunteer who denied Adams was in the IRA. You would be laughed at, scoffed at, by other republicans if you said, in the Felons Club in West Belfast, or a parlour in East Tyrone, that Adams was never in the IRA.

I have personally asked the question more times than I care to remember, directly to Adams’s face, and every time he denied it, and I dutifully wrote it down but I didn’t believe it.

And I have tried to reconcile that answer, just as I have tried to reconcile my personal feelings about Adams being able to transition from being someone who took lives or supported taking lives to someone who did a remarkable, extraordinary job in convincing people to stop killing other people.

McGuinness gained irrevocable credibility with unionists when he admitted he was an IRA leader before he turned to politics

I know this is unpopular to say, especially in Ireland, but I think Adams should have received the Nobel Peace Prize along with John Hume and David Trimble. Hell, I think the late Davy Ervine, Gusty Spence and Billy Hutchinson, on the loyalist side, should also have received the peace prize. I would throw Martin McGuinness in there, too.

Adams vs McGuinness

Which raises an interesting comparison with Adams. McGuinness, who all my years of reporting in Northern Ireland showed, was a much more hardcore, murderous IRA man than Adams ever was.

But McGuinness earned the respect and the trust of unionists that Adams never did. If you ask me, McGuinness gained irrevocable credibility with unionists when he admitted he was an IRA leader before he turned to politics. Say what you want about unionists, but, culturally, they like a man who looks them in the eye and tells them what he is, even if they don’t like the thing that he is.

One day, sitting in his education department office outside Belfast, I asked McGuinness what the biggest difference between he and Adams was. He wouldn’t answer and moved the conversation elsewhere. But I think he knew the difference between him and Adams, just as he knew there is a vast difference between Derry and Belfast.

When McGuinness died last year, there were several unionists, including Ian Paisley jnr, whose father had an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship with McGuinness, who said kind and generous things about him.

I can’t imagine unionists saying the same things about Adams, dead or alive.

And part of me thinks that’s a shame. Because I know Adams enough to know that he is a smart, empathetic if enigmatic man. He emerged from a very dysfunctional family at a singularly dysfunctional time in a shockingly dysfunctional place.

Working in a very narrow canal, Adams did much to turn around the battleship that is physical-force Irish republicanism

Working in a very narrow canal, Adams did much to turn around the battleship that is physical-force Irish republicanism. I know that sort of talk doesn’t go over well in Ireland, but where I sit, detached, it makes that judgment no less valid.

He deserves a lot of credit for where Ireland is today, North and South.

Hotel conference

In 1995, there was a ridiculous will-he-or-won’t-he dance about Adams meeting and shaking hands with Paddy Mayhew, the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland. After much tooing and froing, it actually happened, behind closed doors on the sixth floor of the Sheraton Washington hotel.

Not to go too far out on a tangent, but during the White House conference in Washington that year, there was a gunfair at the Sheraton Washington on at the same time as the Clinton administration had organised a conference at the same hotel to bolster the peace process in Northern Ireland.

I ended up steering US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith away from the gun show to the Sinn Féin reception in another part of the hotel. The ambassador thanked me profusely. I retired to the bar, which was full of mad people from the North, roaring out orders for drink. I introduced Courtney Kennedy and her husband, Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four, to Joe English, a UDA leader, and Joe said to Courtney, “How’s your mum?” I’m pretty sure Ethel Kennedy never asked how Joe English was doing.

Hours later, I squeezed myself between some Irish diplomats, including Ireland’s former ambassador to the US, Seán Ó hÚiginn, who told me to piss off, that this wasn’t Smyth’s on Haddington Road on a Sunday afternoon. I appreciated and totally understood the admonition but wasn’t deterred and waved the bartender down, and the poor man was really put upon and beaten down and I asked for a Heineken and he shouted at me,

Beer anecdote

“There’s no more beer! The beer is all gone! The Irish, they crazy! They drink all the beer! I have never been in such a crazy place.”

I beckoned him closer and asked where he was from.

“Eritrea,” he said, proudly, actually, standing up straight as he said it. “I am from Eritrea.”

That story is not a Seinfeld-esque side to the real story. It is the real story. When I told that story to Adams one day, he roared. I have often wondered if that Adams, the man who could laugh and tell a story, was the public man – not the man behind the mask, real or imagined – how different things would have been.

By the way, not for nothing, as we say in Boston, but Paddy Loughran, the lovely man who first brought me to Adams, was murdered in 1992 when a deranged RUC man entered that same building on the Lower Falls and opened fire. Paddy didn’t die alone. Pat McBride, a Sinn Féin activist whose family I came to know and admire, and Michael O’Dwyer, a West Belfast man who had gone there for some advice, were also killed in the rampage.

O’Dwyer’s son, days short of his third birthday, was found, physically unharmed but in shock, next to his father’s body

Every now and then, when I’m having trouble sleeping. I think of O’Dwyer’s son and I pray to a god I don’t even believe in anymore that he is okay. I really, truly hope that O’Dwyer’s son is as old as my sons and really, truly okay.