Gerry Adams at the Kennedy School: No going back

The president of Sinn Féin and abstentionist MP for West Belfast was at Harvard last night, speaking to 300 or so people in the JFK Jr. forum. He wished the crowd a belated beannacht lá fhéile Pádraig, and noted, to many laughs, that he’d heard in the Boston area it was more of a “Saint Patrick’s Week.”

It was Adams’s fist visit to Cambridge since 1994 — back in the bad old days before the IRA had ended its armed campaign, and when his voice wasn’t even allowed to be played on the BBC and his “dulcet tones” (as he put it with a chuckle) had to be dubbed over by an actor.

A lot has changed since then. The most notable milestone, of course, is the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland.

Recently, however, with the separate murders earlier this month of two British soldiers at an army base in County Antrim and an on-duty policeman near Belfast by IRA splinter groups, some have expressed fears that the peaceful past decade is threatened and that history is poised to repeat itself.

would have none of it. “Those days are gone,” Adams said emphatically of the Troubles’ three-decade reign of terror. For those fearing a backslide into violent tit-for-tat sectarianism, he pledged: “That will not happen.”

Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, surprised many — and angered a few hardliners — when he called the perpetrators of the recent attacks “traitors to the island of Ireland.” Some have noticed a certain circumlocution on Adams's part in the wake of the killings, a perceived refusal to use that t-word. Asked about his friend's comment, Adams (who'd offered lengthy answers all evening) said simply, “I agree with Martin."

Decades ago, Adams had supported the IRA’s armed resistance, he admitted. “I make no apologies for this.” Today, however, violence should never enter the equation, he said. Because “we now have in place a political and democratic way forward. A political and democratic way to achieve Republican objectives.”

And he made no bones about his strong wish for the future: “I want to see an end to British rule in my country,” he said. “I hope God spares me, that I will live to see that.”

An audience member asked which lessons from the Irish peach process are not being applied — or not being applied well enough — to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Adams put it plainly: “I don’t think any of the methods used in the Irish peach process are being applied in the Middle East at all.” He noted that during his visit to Washington earlier this week, where he met with President Obama, he’d also spent an hour or so with former Senator George Mitchell — who of course played a crucial role in helping broker the Good Friday Agreement — and wished him luck in his work as US special envoy for the Middle East, telling him he’d need to bring all his skills and more to the table. It’s “an international shame that that conflict has continued,” Adams said, adding that intense US involvement in the region was crucial. He noted that America’s help bringing peace with Northern Ireland has been “the most successful foreign policy issue you’ve had in the last 30 years.”

has been hit particularly hard by the global recession, and Adams was asked how the economy affects the political struggle for unification. “Irish unity makes economic sense,” he said, explaining how having two competing economies on an island the size of Maine with six million inhabitants was simply counterproductive.

Finally, toward the end of the evening, one questioner asked Adams to comment on the Basque movement in Spain, and another asked about Hezbollah and Hamas. He declined to offer advice to any of those groups, noting only that there are “very few liberation struggles, if any at all, that will be won by guns.”
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