"We have now established a sort of Republican veto"
Michael Farrell interviews Gerry Adams MP, vice-president of Sinn Fein.
Farrell There has been a lot of argument about whether the Sinn Fein vote was a vote for violence. Was it, or what do you see it as a mandate for?
Adams The IRA does not need an electoral mandate for armed struggle. It derives its mandate from the presence of the British in the six counties. A large percentage of the Sinn Fein vote was a vote for the armed struggle, but I don't know how to quantify that. The others showed an understanding of the need for armed struggle. Attempts are now being made to explain the vote away as a protest against bad housing, unemployment, discrimination. If we got votes because of that I think that is a good base to build on. We stood on four clear points: against the British connection and the loyalist veto, for a democratic socialist republic and defending the right of people to engage in armed struggle.
What is your strategy now? Will your success in the elections affect the balance between political and military action by the Republican movement?
Our strategy has three main prongs, not in any special order. We want to show clearly the degree of support for Sinn Fein and restrict the SDLP's freedom to manoeuvre - the British, in order to maintain the partition set-up, need the support of a party which appears to represent the nationalist population and the SDLP have fulfilled that role admirably. We have now established a sort of Republican veto which I believe will grow. And we want to politicise our own organisation.
I don't think the election will make a big difference to the IRA's tactics. Although there have unfortunately been some exceptions over the last few weeks, the IRA has for some time been adopting more discriminating tactics, has been a bit more refined in its tactics. It is up to them to learn the lessons from the application of armed struggle.
I would be confident that if the IRA continue to refine their operations and make sure they have the maximum propaganda and political effect, there won't be any conflict between what they're doing and what we're doing. I think over the last few years the lessons of the previous period - the need for control, the need for a change in tactics, the need to militarise the war, to concentrate against the British, the RUC and the UDR - have been learned by the IRA.
Revolutionary movements which use force usually argue that it is made necessary because political action is closed to them. Sinn Fein has been able to take political action very successfully recently. How does that, in your view, affect the justification for the use of force?
It doesn't. I believe the use of force in the six counties is justified by the British presence. They don't give people much choice. At the end of the day they won't be argued or talked out; a movement that wants them out will either
have to use force or the threat of force.
What are your short and medium-term objectives in the North?
We want to consolidate and strengthen our organisation. The Westminster election took us into some completely new areas and showed up other areas where we were weak. We want to build up our organisation there. We are planning for the next local elections in 1985 when we can probably win the balance of power on a number of councils, certainly Derry city council, and we will contest by-elections which may be coming up. We have not yet decided our attitude to the EEC elections - whether to stand and whether to say we would take seats - but I think our vote could be increased there. We found, especially in the rural areas, that we can eat into the SDLP vote. Our longer term objective is to become the majority nationalist party as well as, of course, making considerable inroads in the 26 counties.
Even if you do replace the SDLP as the majority nationalist party you will still be left with the Protestant population. What is your attitude to them? Do you accept that you have to win the consent of at least some of them to a united Ireland?
The Unionist working class have no great reason to move away from their present position. The sectarian divisions are caused and maintained by the British. They have mar• ginal privileges and the Unionist ruling class have significant privileges. You have to get rid of the prop which causes the sectarianism and in that new situation working class unity can be built. It would be preferable, but I don't think it is possible, to win Unionist consent to break the British connection. We have to break the loyalist veto. But I don't think it would be possible to build a democratic socialist republic without the consent of all the people, including what would then be ex-Unionists.
Sinn Fein appears to have moved a lot to the Left in recent times and talks a lot about socialism, the working class and the rights of women. What are you doing to put all this into practice?
There have been a number of problems. Republicans, especially in the 26 counties, compartmentalise their activities a lot. I have found many Republicans who have been active trade unionists for years at shop steward or trades council level but who make a distinction between their trade union activity and for example selling An Phoblacht.
We have established a trade union department which brings Republican trade unionists together and tries to get them to integrate their trade union activities and their Republicanism. We have a lot of trade union members now but we are years behind the Workers' Party in this and have nothing like their position in the unions. But their influence may not be so great in the long run because they have grafted themselves orito the unions, they are not springing up from the bottom of the labour movement.
We have a department of women's affairs going for about two and a half year. It would see its role as politicising women Republicans to fight for their rights as women and politicising male Republicans to support equality for women. It is not a feminist department though there are some strong feminists in it. They are involved in working as Republicans in women's centres, rape crisis centres and so on, North and South. To be frank, it is only in the last few years that we have begun to treat women's affairs in a political way and we do stand open to criticism on that issue.
You devoted a large part of your recent Bodenstown speech to the need for Sim Fein to develop new strategies in the South. There seemed to be a hint that you would contest Dail elections and that you might drop the traditional abstentionist policy. Is that so?
We have not decided to stand for Leinster House. What I was saying at Bodenstown was that Republicans have to come up with a strategy which accepts the fact that most of the people in the 26 counties accept the Free State institution as legitimate. It is no use Republicans burying their heads in the sand and saying - although all these things are true - that it is a bastard State as a result of the Treaty and so on, if everyone else has a totally different view. You can't develop a strategy without taking into account (1) the effects of the acceptance of the State institutions and (2) the effect an abstentionist policy by Republicans is going to have on that strategy.
Sinn Fein does have a position, however, that we will not give recognition to Leinster House. I can't be pragmatic about that. While that remains the position I will support it.
Essentially what I was trying to say was that you've got to take - all these things into account and you can't proceed on the basis of what's happening in the North, on the basis of Sinn Fein being an IRA support group. You can't get support in Ballymun because of doors being kicked in by the Brits in Ballymurphy. You've got to become a relevant political party with realistic policies which crystallise the disillusionment felt by people at the Thatcherite monetarist policies and the corruption by the Leinster House politicians.
There are rumours of discontent by more traditionalist elements in Sinn Fein at the emphasis on socialism and the increasing involvement in elections. Is there likely to be a backlash against this trend?
The moves to radicalise the movement have been won on the floor of the Ard Fheiseanna. There are people there
certainly - and I think it's understandable given the history of Republican politics - who are opposed to involvement in what they call politics. What they are really opposed to is constitutionalism which I am equally opposed to. I have found that once you explain things on the basis of the Proclamation saying the ownership of Ireland should belong to the people of Ireland and what Connolly and Pearse said, and how this should be updated by the nationalisation of major industries and how financiers and multinationals shouldn't be allowed to suck the wealth out of Ireland, people start coming round.
I don't believe there are, in any significant numbers, ideological differences. I don't forsee any situation where, on the road to radicalising policies and strategies there would be a split. I think that some people might leave, as happened in the past.
The referendum on the anti-abortion amendment will probably be held soon. What will Sinn Fein do about it?
Probably nothing. You're into the silly situation there where Sinn Fein doesn't recognise the constitution of the Free State and can hardly take a stand on amending it. I would be against the amendment. I think it's nonsense, introduced for party political advantage, and doesn't deal at all with the issues involved, the conditions which force women to seek abortions.
You have recently developed links with people like Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council. How much importance do you place on the development of a solidarity movement in Britain?
We see it as very important. We decided some years ago to do all we could to encourage the development of an anti-war movement in Britain, even if some of the elements in it were there for chauvinist reasons like not wanting their soldiers killed in Ireland. Recently we have refined our attitude somewhat and we are making an effort to develop contacts with people with influence in the British, Labour party. This is especially important with the Labour party in disarray after its defeat in the elections. Ken Livingstone thinks there may be a big swing to the Left and the party might eventually come to power committed to withdrawing from Ireland.