Is Gerry Adams an Irish Nelson Mandela?

Acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict to the vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were fundamental to helping the country move beyond its deeply divided past into a more peaceful future.

Cas Mudde Donald M. Beaudette
7 May 2014
A rally demanding the release of Gerry Adams

A rally demanding the release of Gerry Adams. Demotix/AMMGOfficial. All rights reserved.

The arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams early last week came as a surprise to many people inside and outside of (Northern) Ireland. Adams is accused of having ordered the ‘disappearance’ of Jean McConville, when he was alleged to have been the commanding officer of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, a militant organization affiliated with Sinn Fein. The disappearance of McConville, a mother of ten, for her alleged, although now disproven, role as a British informant is one of the most notorious killings of the Troubles, the euphemistic term for the violent insurgency that gripped Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and killed 3531 people.

Although the McConville killing took place in 1972, Adams’ connection to McConville’s death has come under renewed scrutiny as a result of allegations made by former IRA militant Brendan Hughes as part of an oral history project run through Boston College. When Hughes died in 2008 the Belfast project released his tapes. The release of Hughes’ tapes resulted in a prolonged court battle between the organizers of the Belfast Project and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, ultimately leading to the seizure of additional interviews from the project, including that of Dolours Price, who elsewhere had identified Adams as a key figure in McConville’s murder.

While Adams has always denied having been a member of the IRA, most analysts agree that he was heavily involved in planning IRA actions before his political career in Sinn Fein took off, as indicated by the young Adams’s participation in ceasefire talks held between the IRA – not Sinn Fein – and then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw.

Today, Adams is mostly celebrated for his prominent role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Indeed, it was under Adams’ guidance that Sinn Fein began to assert its primacy over the IRA and it is fair to say that, without this shift in strategy, the Irish Peace Process (as it developed) would have been a practical impossibility.

As a result, many supporters of Adams see him as an Irish Nelson Mandela, who turned his back on violence and enabled a peaceful transition to powersharing and inclusive democracy. In their eyes, the arrest for a killing in 1972 is all part of a cynical political plot to destroy Adams’ personal reputation and undermine Sinn Fein’s rise to political prominence in and throughout the island of Ireland.

But this comparison is misplaced. Mandela, the organizer and commander and chief of the African National Congress’ paramilitary wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, openly acknowledged his role in orchestrating the group’s campaign of violence against the repressive apartheid regime. His admissions, and similar acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict to the vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were fundamental to helping the country move beyond its deeply divided past into a more promising, prosperous, and peaceful future.

Although Northern Ireland has never had a TRC of its own, with guarantees of general amnesty for participants, many prominent figures in the conflict have nevertheless come clean about their past activities.

Famously, Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness admitted to the Saville Inquiry that he was the second in command of the Derry IRA in the early 1970s, although he, too, has gone on to deny any subsequent involvement with the group. Anthony McIntyre, one of the principal investigators for the Boston College project and a sharp critic of both Adams and McGuinness, has been even more frank in admitting his membership and involvement in the IRA, and other prominent former republicans have done likewise. Adams, in contrast, has maintained the façade that he was never directly involved with the IRA.

But worse than not coming clean, Adams has actively concealed the truth of his involvement and worked to suppress and discredit those who have sought to bring light to the subject. In one instance Adams famously, and falsely, denied his involvement in McConville’s killing, telling members of the McConville family “Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared.” In fact, Adams was free at the time of the killing.

Similarly, Adams has dismissed McIntyre as engaged in “shoddy” research, and famously sought legal advice surrounding the allegedly libelous nature of similar claims regarding the McConville case made by Ed Moloney in his 2002 book A Secret History of the IRA (although, perhaps tellingly, Adams never seriously pursued the charges). In short, with regard to both the McConville case in particular and his own involvement in the IRA in general, Adams has actively sought to distort and conceal the truth.

Consequently, the arrest of Gerry Adams is not simply about the past, about getting justice for Jean McConville and her family. It is also not merely a matter of political revenge, although the timing of the arrest undoubtedly gives it a strongly political tinge.

The arrest of Gerry Adams is as much about the future of peace and reconciliation in Ireland as it is about the individual sins of one man. It is about a nation that is still healing, and a process of reconciliation that requires all its leaders – Northern and Southern, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, British and Irish – to be truthful about their former actions. It is time that Gerry Adams also plays his part in that process. 

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