He was born Gerard Adams, Jr. in West Belfast into a strongly activist and nationalist Catholic family. He left St. Mary's Christian Brothers School early and became a bartender, but increasingly he became involved in the Republican movement, joining Sinn Féin and Na Fianna Éireann in 1964. He has stated repeatedly that he never was a member of the Irish Republican Army, but British and Irish state papers released under the "thirty year rule" named him as a senior IRA figure in the early 1970s. Following the introduction of internment without trial in 1971 (the Special Powers Act ) Adams was briefly interned in 1972 on the Maidstone , a British prison ship. He was considered important enough to be freed to take part in peace talks in 1972 but he was again arrested and interned from 1973 to 1977 at Long Kesh internment Camp and briefly again in 1978.
President of Sinn Féin
In 1978 he became vice-president of Sinn Féin. The republican movement in the 1970s was split between the allegedly more radical Northern leadership which surrounded Adams, and the more traditional nationalist cadre surrounding longtime southern-based leader, school teacher Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. A major split on tactics, both military and political occurred in 1983, when the southern leadership was replaced by the Northern leadership under Adams. Central to this division was a change, in 1986, in the longterm policy of abstentionism, under which Sinn Féin had refused to recognise the authority of the British government to rule Northern Ireland and had refused to accept the legitimacy of the Republic of Ireland arguing that it was in effect created (under a different name) in the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. As a result of this non-recognition, Sinn Féin abstained (hence the name) from taking any seats they won in the British or Republic of Ireland parliaments. It was the abandonment of abstentionism, one of Sinn Féin's previous core values, with regard to the Republic's Dáil that provoked a split, with a small minority under the deposed the southern leadership of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh leaving. They insisted that they were the real Sinn Féin republicans, hence their adopted name, Republican Sinn Féin. Adams was elected leader of Sinn Féin, and a new Northern cadre of leadership, including such figures as Danny Morrison and Martin McGuinness, took control of the movement and its policy. Adams and others, highlighting Sinn Féin electoral successes in the early and mid 1980s, when Hunger strikers Bobby Sands and Ciaran Doherty were elected to the British House of Commons and Dáil Éireann respectively, advocated that Sinn Féin become increasingly political and base its influence on electoral politics rather than paramilitarism. The electoral effects of this strategy were shown when Sands was replaced on his death by Sinn Féin candidate Eoin Carron , and later by the election of Adams and McGuinness as MPs, as well as the election of Alex Maskey as Lord Mayor of Belfast .
Moving into mainstream politics
Sinn Féin however continued its policy of abstentionism towards the Westminster parliament even after Adams won the West Belfast constituency. He lost his seat to the SDLP in the 1992 general election but regained it at the next election in 1997. Under Adams, Sinn Féin moved away from being a political support base to the Provisional IRA to becoming a professionally organised political party in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Unofficial contacts began with the British Northern Ireland Office under the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, and with the government of the Republic under Charles Haughey.
Gerry Adams was involved in secret talks with SDLP leader John Hume, MP from 1988. The series of contacts, between Adams and Hume, and both with the British and Irish governments provided the groundwork for what was later to be the Belfast Agreement, as well as to the milestone Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Document .
The successes of Sinn Féin led to the IRA's cease-fire in August 1994. Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who had replaced Haughey and who had played a key role through his Special Advisor Martin Mansergh in setting up inter-party dialogue, regarded the ceasefire as permanent. However the slow pace of developments, led in part by the reliance of the British government of John Major on Ulster Unionist Party votes in the House of Commons led the IRA to end its ceasefire and resume its violent campaign.
A relaunched ceasefire later followed as part of the negotiations strategy, which saw teams from the British and Irish governments, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and representatives of loyalist paramilitary organisations, under the chairmanship of former United States Senator Mitchell, produced the Belfast Agreement (also called the Good Friday Agreement as it was signed on Good Friday, 1998). Under the agreement, structures were created reflecting the Irish and British identities of the peoples of Northern Ireland, with a British-Irish Council and a Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly created. Article 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, which was seen as claiming a territorial ownership over Northern Ireland, were reworded, and a power-sharing Executive Committee was provided for. As part of their deal Sinn Féin agreed to abandon its abstentionist policy regarding a Northern Irish parliament, it as a result taking seats in the Stormont-based Assembly and taking two seats in the Northern Irish power-sharing government.
Opponents in Republican Sinn Féin accused Sinn Féin of "selling out" by agreeing to participate in what it called "partitionist assemblies" in the Republic and Northern Ireland. However Gerry Adams insisted that the Belfast Agreement provided a mechanism to deliver a united Ireland by non-violent and constitutional means.
When Sinn Féin came to nominate its two ministers to the Executive Council, the party, like the SDLP and the Democratic Unionist Party chose for tactical reasons not to include its leader among its ministers. (When later the SDLP chose a new leader, it chose one of its ministers, who then chose to remain in the Committee.)
Adams remains the all-Ireland head of Sinn Féin, with Caomhín Ó Caolain serving as Sinn Féin parliamentary leader in Dáil Éireann and Martin McGuiness the party's chief negotiator and effective party head in the Northern Ireland Assembly.