Adams episode sounds warning on peace process
Opinion: Agreement on outstanding Haass issues needed to reduce tensions
‘Parties to the Belfast Agreement (1998) were very conscious of the situation of victims.’ Above, British prime minister Tony Blair and taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the agreement. Photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters
Most people whose concern is that peace in Northern Ireland and the institutional arrangements that underpin it should endure will have been unsettled by events of the last week.
The arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and his interrogation for four days at Antrim police station, not only about the murder of Jean McConville 42 years ago but about his whole life in the republican movement, have no precedent since the days of Parnell.
The murder and disappearance of Jean McConville, widowed mother of 10, a Protestant in a mixed marriage who sought refuge in west Belfast from loyalists, was, regardless of pretext, a cruel and heinous act. Proving responsibility is very difficult. Such deeds, many almost forgotten, have left grieving families suffering a life sentence. Dark forces were at work, sometimes including state elements; the one creating the most victims, even in its own community, was the Provisional IRA.
The Belfast Agreement was not just negotiated between opposing political parties. It involved the taming of dark forces, by persuading republicans and loyalists that there existed a balanced alternative democratic way that would allow the peaceful resolution of deep-seated differences peacefully in the shorter and longer term, while allowing people to get on with their lives in a more normal atmosphere.
Parties to the agreement were conscious of the situation of victims. Paragraph 2 states: “We must never forget those who have died or been injured and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start . . .” As Nancy Soderberg, president Clinton’s deputy national security adviser, argued in a powerful article in the Financial Times on Monday, the allegations against Adams should not be used to justify an intensification of “the righteousness of the victim”, further delaying the necessary compromises.
De facto amnesty
The agreement sought to draw a line under the past. Qualifying prisoners belonging to an organisation on ceasefire were released within two years, regardless of their convictions. It was a de facto amnesty, later extended privately to on the runs, where evidence was not sufficient. It was not envisaged that anyone would be charged with prior membership of a paramilitary organisation or a directing role in the absence of new activity or offence. As Nancy Soderberg notes, it is Adams’s past IRA association that enabled him to exercise the influence that brought about a ceasefire, and later disarmament and dissolution.
No one foresaw that internal opponents of the peace process would become so embittered as to testify against Adams, albeit as part of a research project under supposedly guaranteed lifetime confidentiality.
The Boston tapes project may have been modelled on the Bureau of Military History statements collected 50-60 years ago from survivors of the independence struggle, which only became generally available after everyone’s death. With a broad consensus behind the independence struggle, no one faced prosecution by the State for their part in it. Those collecting the statements acted impartially.