DUBLIN (Reuters) – As the public face of the Irish Republican Army during its bombing campaigns, then peacemaker and mainstream politician, Gerry Adams has been a defining figure of Northern Ireland’s 50-year journey from sectarian torment to relative stability.
Adams announced his intention to step down as leader of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party on Saturday with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland still elusive.
But the party he leaves is not only the dominant Irish nationalist force in the British-ruled province, but also strong enough across the border in the Irish Republic to have a chance of entering government there, too.
During the 1970s and 80s, at the height of an IRA bombing campaign to end British rule over Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein operated as the IRA’s political wing. As its leader from 1983 onwards, Adams thus became, for many in Britain and Northern Ireland, the face of the IRA.
As a result, he was loathed by pro-British unionists and the British government, but lionized in equal measure by Irish nationalists.
Yet when the prospect of political progress arose, he showed himself ready to compromise, working with late former IRA commander Martin McGuinness to swing the IRA and the province’s Roman Catholic minority behind a 1998 deal with the pro-British Protestant majority.
The Good Friday agreement gave the province’s Catholics a share of power and largely ended a conflict in which some 3,600 people had been killed, many at the hands of Irish republican groups such as the IRA, and others by pro-British unionist paramilitaries and British security forces.
Since then, Adams has helped to build Sinn Fein into the dominant Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, overseeing its agreement in 2007 to share power with its bitter rival, the Democratic Unionist Party and, in recent months, its efforts to restore power-sharing after it collapsed in January.
Adams also announced on Saturday that he would not stand for re-election to the Dublin parliament, where he has sat since 2011, moving Sinn Fein from the fringes to become the Irish Republic’s third party and its main left-wing force.
Adams was born into a Belfast family steeped in revolutionary politics, several of his relatives having been involved in armed republicanism.
At 20, he left his job as a barman to help defend fellow Catholics from what they saw as a hostile British state, and to fight for Northern Ireland to split from the United Kingdom and unite with the Irish Republic.
Like his father, Adams was interned – held without trial – on suspicion of being a senior IRA commander.
He has always denied membership of the IRA, although accusations from former IRA fighters that he was involved in its campaign of killings have dogged him throughout his career.
Between 1988 and 1994, Adams was banned from speaking on British airwaves. While his oversized glasses and red-tinged beard were instantly recognizable, his voice was unknown as broadcasters had actors dub his words.
Former British conservative prime minister John Major, one of the architects of peace in Northern Ireland, once said the thought of sitting down to talk with Adams had “turned my stomach”.
But Adams was at the time walking a political tightrope – between IRA “hawks” who argued that only a continuation of violence would chase Britain from the island, and “doves” who said that negotiations were the route to a united Ireland.
He emerged from the political cold in October 1997 when he shook hands with the new Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, at their first meeting. Sinn Fein had polled 17 percent in Northern Ireland’s elections and returned Adams to the British parliament, although he refused to take his seat.
Within a year, Adams and McGuinness had helped to broker a peace deal that largely ended the violence in the province.
Since that deal, his role as statesman has grown, and he has made several visits to the White House.
He was arrested in 2014 as part of an investigation into one of the province’s most controversial murders, but no charges were brought.
Latterly he has used social media to create a grandfatherly image in the Irish Republic, with posts about his dog and his taste in cartoons.