Gerry Adams, Wikimedia
“ …I walked the ice
And saw two soldered in a frozen hole
On top of each other, one’s skull capping the other’s
Gnawing at him where the neck and head
Are grafted to the sweet fruit of the brain,
Like a famine victim at a loaf of bread.”
“…When he had said all this, his eyes rolled
And his teeth, like a dog’s teeth clamping round a bone,
Bit into the skull and again took hold.”
Heaney, from ‘Ugolino’
These are extracts from a Heaney translation of a scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Dante describes his encounter with Count Ugolino, a treacherous politician doomed to die, by starvation, with his sons and grandsons in a boarded-up tower. Condemned to hell with his murderer Archbishop Roger, Ugolino gnaws the subject of his hate in an act of endless, sorrowing revenge. You may disagree, but I’ve yet to read a more powerful, suitably gruesome analogy for Northern Ireland’s tribal violence, and its intractable, unteachable sources of subjective justification. The almost total diminution of this violence, even by tainted means, should not be taken for granted.
At the time of writing, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has been released from police custody, pending a report to the public prosecutor. During his detention, he was questioned on his role in the seizure, murder and ‘disappearance’ of widowed mother of ten Jean McConville. For an account of McConville’s tragic life, I can’t improve on this LRB article by Susan McKay.
No right-thinking person will be unmoved by McConville’s story, or the testimony of her children. No compassionate person will deny their right to seek justice – that is, justice on their terms. This being Northern Ireland, there is a callous however.
Justice – presumably involving the conviction and sentencing of all those involved in McConville’s fate – is incompatible with the durability of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams’ descriptions of his role in the conflict have been the source of much mockery and snark. He has consistently denied membership of the Provisional IRA, with much nonsensical dissembling, which no-one seriously believes. Adams was a Belfast PIRA commander during some of its bloodiest years. Since then, he has been a senior, commanding figure in both the PIRA and Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams gradually became an architect of, and a lynchpin of the peace process.
Adams did not take on this role in spite of his controlling, strategic position within the republican struggle. Rather, his position made his role possible and effective.
Under his leadership, which also included current Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly and other figures inarguably linked with violence, the broad ‘movement’ co-ordinated and controlled by the overlapping leaderships of Sinn Fein and the PIRA came, intact, into a durable peace. The negotiations to produce this peace were lengthy and the compromises this movement made to secure the peace were difficult and fundamental. An arbitrary focus on Adams’ role in one tragic murder erases this history and this work, which was essential in almost totally ending a dismal cycle of death and destruction that had gone on for decades.
The arrest of Adams is not simply the partial culmination of a relatives-led justice campaign. Policing in the north is complex, to say the least. The ‘rule of law’, which will be cited, partially and tiresomely, as this story goes on, simply doesn’t exist. Quasi-fascist loyalist protesters are ‘facilitated’. Extortion and drug-dealing by Loyalist gangs goes more or less unchecked. Republican ‘on the runs’ – suspects once or possibly sought for pre-peace process crimes – exist in a legal grey area. Active paramilitaries are as likely to be bought off with funded community sector ‘projects’ as given convictions.
Policing in an era of nominal power-sharing and republican involvement in police accountability is subject to a shady dialectic of anti-police grievance between nationalist and unionist leaders. This dialectic usually resolves into an ambiguity saleable to the main parties’ bases, which sows the seeds for the next crisis. If perennial crises dictate the substance of ‘politics’ in the North, tribal politics (and its formal political machinery) stays secure.
This policing and justice dialectic has become increasingly unstable as the mainstream unionist parties embrace a resurgent revanchist strain in their communities.* The failure of unionist leaders to contend with their base’s increasing, implicit nostalgia for the ethnic domination and discrimination of the past has reduced their own scope for ambiguous deals and understandings. For a party sharing power with Sinn Fein, and party to discussions involving its violence-complicit leaders since the start of the peace process, their pious declamations and resultant acts of brinkmanship are ridiculous. The DUP has been content to sow ethnic hatred and extremism throughout its existence, effectively outsourcing the violence to other community actors**. For the smaller, more establishment UUP, violence was mediated through the state, indigenous or imperial. This shared deniability allows unionism’s leaders room for histrionics over their take on the ‘rule of law’.
An additional complicating factor is the existence of an unrepentant sediment of the old RUC within the PSNI, the so-called ‘dark forces’ recently cited by Martin McGuinness and others. Regardless of Sinn Fein’s mandate as the largest nationalist party, or its compromises within power-sharing, the political agency of security personnel inherited from de-facto unionist paramilitaries is doubtless at work behind Adams’ arrest. Trends in unionism, combined with feeble-minded conservative governments in Dublin and London, would give these elements the political cover for a late suppression of Sinn Fein, just before an election.
Political predictions are foolish, especially in Northern Ireland, with its unique opacities and complexities. Still, whatever happens, it is difficult to see how Adams’s arrest will not precipitate a power-sharing crisis.
Sinn Fein cannot long tolerate the one-sided unpicking of the understandings underpinning the peace process. Adams is no more or less guilty of orchestrating killings than the entire old guard of Sinn Fein. If their leader is facing arrest and more in 2014, what position are the rest in? They will have noted Tory Secretary of State Theresa Villiers’ intent to ‘focus on the violence of paramilitaries’ while downplaying the importance of the most squalid acts of the state. In deciding on their response, Sinn Fein’s fear of Tory direct rule in the event of a collapse in power-sharing, along with fear of risking their new mass party status in the Republic, will vie with fears over combined co-option and suppression.
Meanwhile, the revanchist unionist and state elements I have described will be emboldened. A decision to not charge Adams will simply create a unionist-centric power-sharing crisis. Charging and prosecution will lead to uncontrollable calls for further arrests, of figures like McGuinness and Gerry Kelly. Unionism will see this as a golden opportunity to marginalise and humiliate Sinn Fein. If they must share power, they would much prefer the tame and witless SDLP for their nationalist partner. Incidentally, every one of these scenarios vindicates and emboldens the small but growing rump of dissident republicans opposed to Sinn Fein and the peace process. On both sides, the act of the arrest has set in motion a number of possible scenarios that can quickly escalate beyond the yoke of formal politics.
Jean McConville’s execution is haunting and terrible. Regrettably, justice on the terms of her relatives does not seem to be compatible with the safe, continued operation of the peace process. That’s the tormenting irony: all signs point to the righteous cause of this victim endangering the means by which the gruesome flow of victims was largely staunched.
* I’ve described the ‘flag protests’ in my last piece for this site. This piece also goes into more detail on Sinn Fein and Adams’s contemporary flaws.
**Apart from this episode.
The Economist requires you to pay a pound a week to use its website. We’ll never charge for our content, but that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. If you can chip in a pound a week, please do.
Get our weekly email