The member for West Belfast

Gerry Adams still doesn’t walk on the Shankill Road

“I was stripped naked,” says Gerry Adams. “Once, I was aroused from consciousness by a British Army doctor. He seemed concerned about damage to my kidneys. After he examined me, he left and the beatings began again.”

This sensational recollection appears in the first chapter of the Sinn Fein president’s new book, a collection of speeches and newspaper articles written between 2004 and 2007.

It was prompted by news stories alleging that British soldiers had mistreated Iraqis. As a former internee himself, Adams professed himself unsurprised. Indeed, he says his own humiliation was captured on film just like the torture in Abu Ghraib.

The book ends, hardly less sensationally, with Adams being photographed alongside his erstwhile enemy, the Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley, at a press conference earlier this year announcing their intention to form a coalition government.

It's published as news emerges that Adams’s colleague, Martin McGuinness, co-chaired secret peace talks between Iraqis in Helsinki last weekend.

It’s not known what was discussed at the conference, but the Iraqis may have been inspired to learn how former enemies are working together in Belfast.

One particular achievement that Adams mentions with pleasure – when I meet him in his office at Stormont – is persuading Paisley that local cattle should be designated Irish, rather than British, in order to avoid EU restrictions relating to the recent foot and mouth outbreak in England.

Until recently, it would have been impossible to publish the previous sentence outside the realms of satire or science fiction. Adams has an office at Stormont? Paisley agreeing to call Ulster’s cattle Irish? Yes, and yes.

All of a sudden, Northern Ireland has become a kind of template for overcoming conflict. Indeed, the Iraqi peace talks concluded with Sunni and Shia representatives taking away a 12-point plan for non-violence and democracy modelled closely on proposals that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

And yet much remains still to do in Northern Ireland – as I noticed when I took the Belfast city tour bus through parts still divided by “peace gates” that close every night at 6pm, and throughout weekends.

The loyalist Shankill Road and the republican Falls Road stand divided by a tiny strip of land, and resemble each other in all but the most particular detail. Both have memorial gardens commemorating the victims of terrorism, political murals, flags, tatty shops and impoverished residents. It’s only the colour of the flags, and the faces on the murals, that indicate any difference.

Indeed, the two roads share the same member of parliament – Gerry Adams.

Does he regularly wander along Shankill chatting to constituents? “I have not been on the Shankill Road for a long time,” he concedes. But if you set aside the big constitutional issue of a united Ireland, independent of Britain, he represents all his constituents alike, he says.

I tell him that, as a first-time visitor to Belfast, I found the gates and the elevated peace wall surprisingly shocking. I could never understand, as a child growing up in London, petrified about IRA bombs, why the opposed communities couldn’t see that they have more in common than they have differences.

“When a colonial power is engaged in a conquest,” Adams explains gravely, “you hold that by using native people and giving them a slight advantage over their neighbours. So people who were deemed to be loyal to the union were given jobs in the shipyards, and houses. The others weren’t. It’s divide and conquer.

“The walls need to come down, that’s for sure, but they can only come down when those communities are ready for that. Sectarianism needs to be tackled even where there are no walls. Take racism.”

Remembering Trevor Phillips’s warning, two years ago, that Britain is sleepwalking into segregation, I can only accept Adams’s point.

I ask about the idea that Northern Ireland provides a model for conflict resolution. To my surprise, he’s ambivalent. “Each conflict is different. It would be very arrogant to say that you can use this as a template. But we did learn from South Africa.”

In conflict resolution, he says, the most basic requirement is dialogue. And that means that nobody can be left out, or treated as a pariah – as Sinn Fein was, when Adams and McGuinness and others were banned from speaking on TV – because that gives them no alternative to violence.

The IRA inflicted death and injury on soldiers, policemen and civilians – including children – in Ireland and Britain, and Adams has long been regarded as the IRA’s public face. He’s considerably less demonised now than he was in the 1980s, but unlike that other leader condemned by Margaret Thatcher as a terrorist – Nelson Mandela – Adams is a long way from getting his own statue in London’s Parliament Square.

For the record, he denies ever being a member of the IRA. “Sinn Fein was always independent of the IRA. A sizeable core of the party may be supporters of the IRA but that was never a condition of membership. I joined Sinn Fein in the mid-60s when the IRA was non-existent.”

He grew up in the Falls Road area, and had republican and trade union family connections. He was unusual in his family in getting into grammar school, left early in order to bring a wage into the house, but still developed an interest in literature – he has described how he used to lie in bed reading by the light of a streetlight – and while carrying on the struggle has managed to write poems and fiction. Some of it is rather good.

He has always maintained a private life, but the new book affords occasional glimpses of his family – one son, six daughters, grandchildren, plus a series of pet dogs. In one chapter he says that the British army used to poison dogs, that one of his own dogs was knocked down and killed by a Saracen tank, and another, a German shepherd, was stolen by the army only for Adams to meet it again in the cages of Long Kesh prison. (“He had been forced to change sides.”)

More fascinating even than these details is the light the book sheds on the shifting alliances and manipulative strategies employed by the four main groups involved in Good Friday – republicans and loyalists in Northern Ireland, and governments in London and Dublin. As a non-specialist Englishman, I had always rather taken for granted that Dublin would do all it could to help Sinn Fein, but that’s obviously not true. Indeed, relations with the Taoiseach deteriorated dramatically as Sinn Fein became more of a force in southern Ireland.

Their relationship became particularly fraught after the Taoiseach accused Adams and McGuinness of complicity in the robbery of Northern Bank in Belfast. The IRA (and Sinn Fein) deny any involvement but many opponents still consider them, essentially, to be thugs. After Robert McCartney was killed in 2005, outside Belfast’s Hilton, Adams invited McCartney’s five sisters to the 100th birthday of Sinn Fein and told them: “His murder was dreadful because Republicans were involved in it. I am not letting this issue go until those who have sullied the name of the republican cause are made to account for their actions. Margaret Thatcher couldn’t criminalise us, and we won’t allow anyone within Republican ranks to criminalise this party or this struggle.”

I bring up the recent incident in which an alleged drug dealer was tarred and feathered in South Belfast. Adams’s spokesman interjects that that took place in an area controlled by loyalist paramilitaries, and adds that Sinn Fein has long been working on restorative justice.

Long after most others had decided to talk to Sinn Fein, Paisley and the DUP declined all dialogue. As recently as 2004 Paisley was demanding that the republicans be “humiliated” with ever more onerous conditions. But under the terms of Good Friday, this stalling couldn’t last forever and eventually Tony Blair obliged the DUP to talk directly to the “Shinners” – and this partly explains Adams’s unfashionable respect for the former New Labour prime minister.

Indeed, the man who has struggled so long to rid Ireland of “the Brits” goes out of his way to forgive Blair’s adventure in Iraq. “I told Blair very directly that he should not go into Iraq, on more than one occasion. We said that once you put the army in, they will behave as an army does, and be seen as an occupying force.”

Likewise, Adams the former internee warned Blair against demonising Muslims with over-the-top terror laws. Again, to no avail, but he seems unbothered, apparently because Blair deigned to argue back. “I think his responses were thoughtful.”

This does seem remarkably forgiving. But Adams these days is a mild man. (“I learned long ago that hatred is a wasted emotion.”) He may not yet have achieved a united Ireland, nor independence from the British, but he has been the most successful republican leader since the 1920s. His party shares power at Stormont, has MPs at Westminster, TDs in Dublin and MEPs in Brussels. This allows him to be remarkably generous towards his former foes.

One of the most startling instance of this comes towards the end of the new book: “Success has many parents” – he writes – “but in the final analysis, Ian Paisley is the one who deserves the credit for what he did on 26 March.”

I ask him to describe day-to-day relations with Paisley. “The person who works most closely with him is Martin McGuinness. They're like Siamese twins. One can't do anything without the clear approval of the other. They have a good relationship, and a lot of that is down to Martin being personable and affable, but it's also down to Ian Paisley's willingness to engage. I have found him affable too.”

If this all sounds too good-natured to be credible, I should perhaps give an account of what happened when I ran into Ian Paisley Jnr in Stormont’s vast lobby. Spotting in my hands a copy of Adams’s book, entitled An Irish Eye, the younger Paisley performed a brisk but correctly lugubrious impersonation of the Sinn Fein president, then quipped, “The Irish wiped my eye, more like!” – a gloating reference to Sinn Fein’s recent, dismal performance in elections south of the border. And then he left.

It was less generous than Adams’s saintly discourse, but represented true progress: the kind of knockabout that takes place between politicians who don’t see the need to get each other knee-capped, or tarred and feathered, or blown up. Just the kind of banter they could use in Iraq.