A new mural on a Belfast wall, painted in response to the arrest and detention of Gerry Adams for four days, comes close to proclaiming Adams a saint: “Man of the people: Peacemaker, Leader, Visionary”... That view of him is held by many northern Ireland Catholics.
Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, member of Dail Eireann, could not have been arrested and held for four days on the mere say-so of middle ranking Northern Ireland police officers. His arrest must have been sanctioned at the highest level.
Who sanctioned it? Why?
Who will benefit? Sinn Fein's leaders indignantly point out that they are in the middle of an election campaign. This reminder of Sinn Fein and the IRA's past may have been intended to damage them in the election, to reduce the Sinn Fein vote to hard-core supporters.
It isn't difficult to see why the arrest of Gerry Adams in Belfast, and his prolonged questioning in custody, should anger and perplex Republicans. Adams was being questioned about the abduction and murder of a suspected informer, Jean McConville, more than 40 years ago, in 1972
Martin McGuinness, the sub-state's Deputy First Minister, spoke about the “dark forces” in the PSNI. He came close to making a threat that Sinn Fein would break with the Police Service Northern Ireland unless Adams was released. Unionists responded with the accusation that he was “bullying the police”.
After his release, the much more subtle politician, Adams pledged continued if Sinn Fein support to the PSNI. McGuinness' threat will continue to reverberate in both the Protestant and Catholic segments of the population
The main beneficiaries, however, most likely, will be the dissident republicans, who see Adams and Sinn Fein as traitors to republicanism.
Adams is an ardent supporter of the Northern Ireland government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He led the IRA to end its long war, disarm, and enter mainstream politics. His party, Sinn Fein, supplies the power-sharing Northern Government with its Deputy Chief Minister, Martin McGuinness.
That Adams, who has played such a big part in ending the conflict which engendered the killing of Jean McConville, should now be apprehended in connection with a long ago incident in that war, is strange indeed. The PSNI turning on Adams like that will seem to many Northern Ireland Catholics to be proof that the PSNI is only another edition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The authorities claim that the police are not under political direction or control, that their investigations follow their own logic, go where the facts lead them.
And newly available testimony, that of one of Adams's closest political and military associates in the early 70s, Brendan Hughes, names Adams as the man who gave the order to kill Jean McConville.
Those were terrible times in Northern Ireland. IRA bombs were reducing the centre of towns to rubble. The British Army ran rampage in Catholic districts. Unionist assassins were picking off Catholics at random. But even against that background this was an exceptionally horrible deed.
The widowed mother of 10 young children living in the Divis flats at the bottom of the Catholic Falls Road, Jean McConville was taken by armed Republicans in full view of her children, who helplessly tried to stop them taking her. She was not found for 30 years, not until the IRA finally told where they had buried her body and her remains were dug up.
It seems she was not in fact an informer. It was a miscarriage of even the rough justice in operation at that time.
For fear of reprisals by the supposedly non-existant IRA , her children have never dared identify those of their neighbours who, without masks, were part of a large group of Republicans that invaded McConville's flat to take her away. They now say they will bring a civil action against Adams and others for the killing of their mother.
Terrible, indefensible deeds, incidents in a terrible war that was both a half-suppressed Catholic-Protestant communal war and, for the Catholics, a war against the powerful British state. It is not hard to imagine the hysteria that must have gripped those who killed Jean McConville and those of her neighbours who turned so savagely on the widow – and on the children who were thereby doomed to be separated and to grow up in care.
That her children should want justice, and revenge, for both their mother and themselves, is only natural.
But it makes no political sense to treat even such terrible things as the killing of McConville as individual crimes that should now be punished after all these years as individual crimes.
Certainly it contradicts such aspects of the so-called peace process as the release of Republican and Loyalist convicted prisoners.
There was no general Amnesty, no Act of Oblivion covering all the past, in the peace process. The Republicans balked at agreeing to an “Amnesty” for the deeds of the British Army during the long conflict. That is what now allows the police, in disregard of the political implications of the arrest of Adams, to treat the McConville case as just an individual crime, which it surely was not.It makes no sense to treat it in retrospect as an individual crime.
Calls for a South African style confession and rehabilitation ritual for de-toxifying events during the conflict, miss the point about Northern Ireland. The conflict in South Africa is over. It ended in bourgeois-democratic, majority, rule. Only an unimaginable white re-conquest of South Africa could undo that settlement.
In Northern Ireland, there is only a pro tem settlement. The issues have not gone away. The conflict is not resolved. Under the Good Friday Agreement they have erected an intricate sectarian, political and social power-sharing structure.
With the help of 60 internal walls in Belfast, to keep the peace between adjoining Protestant and Catholic districts, this manages and regulates communal relations. But in doing that, in its way of doing that, it also strengthens, reinforces and perpetuates them.
The ratio of Unionist-Protestant to Nationalist-Catholic people continues slowly to shift in favour of the Catholic-nationalists – that is potentially in favour of a majority for Irish unity.
The politicians on both sides continue the old sectarian-national conflict, but in a legal, muted way. The past and past events are weapons in their jockeying for advantage, for legitimacy, for the moral-political high ground. What Gerry Adams did or may have done or is plausibly accused of having done 42 years ago is still a living factor in current Northern Irish politics and in the competition for the moral high ground.
It is astronomically improbable that there could be again a combination of the political-social elements that led to the breakdown of the old, Protestant majority, rule in Northern Ireland, the Catholic revolt and the IRA's long war. But the present arrangement is intrinsically unstable. It could begin to unravel.
At some point in the future, most likely, it will begin to unravel.