Adams: peacemaker or paramilitary?

The arrest of the decades-long leader of the 'republican movement' in Northern Ireland, Gerry Adams, has provoked international surprise. It shouldn’t—but it does provide a lesson in the perils of suborning the rule of law.

Robin Wilson
1 May 2014
Gerry Adams in profile

Facing the past: Gerry Adams. Flickr / Chris Elward, Some rights reserved.Isn’t Northern Ireland sorted?

In as far as the tiny region, juridically part of the UK and geographically part of Ireland, has crossed the mental radar screen of anyone around the globe In recent years, it has been to occasion a querulous furrowing of the brow—a vague sense of surprise that what had been taken to be the capping of its volcano of internecine violence by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had nevertheless been succeeded by recurrent eruptions, betraying sustained underlying unease.

In what was a prime example of the ‘spin’ for which the self-styled ‘New’ Labour administration of Tony Blair in London was notorious—most infamously in the presentation of the Iraqi dictatorship as an imminent threat to the UK unless dislodged by US-UK military occupation—the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ was not only presented as a resounding success in bringing centuries of ‘ancient hatred’ to a close but in providing a model for the rest of the world’s ethnic troublespots to follow.

The arrest yesterday evening of Gerry Adams, the paramilitary leader who used the process—like Blair’s amanuensis, the patrician official Jonathan Powell—to reinvent himself as a leading international peacemaker, thus engendered head-scratching in the newsrooms and so news headlines across the world. Yet in Belfast this was all anticipated—indeed Adams, knowing it was coming, presented himself at Antrim police station, where he was held overnight, under investigation in connection with the grisly murder and “disappearance” of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten in west Belfast, in December 1972.

Security dilemma

No more than the denizens of former Yugoslavia do those who inhabit Northern Ireland suffer from a mystifying, historically-programmed propensity for visiting inhumanity on one another. The cause in each case of the spiral of bloodletting was the entirely comprehensible and contemporary “security dilemma” ensuing from the collapse of the state. In Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1972 that “state” was the monopoly administration of a Protestant bourgeoisie, to whom a mentally disengaging British ruling class had amorally delegated power in 1922 when an ethnic-nationalist insurgency assumed control in the rest of Ireland. Half a century on, a civil-rights movement combining Catholics and secular liberals and leftists shattered Stormont’s own ethnic carapace—invulnerable to prior nationalistic assaults—by rallying international support behind the universal banner of non-discrimination.

But with the British state so reluctant to assume political authority once more, chaos ensued amid the loss of any social steering, as “no-go areas” and sectarian paramilitary monsters on either side—including a by then almost non-existent IRA—re-emerged. Troops were sent from London but their repressive behaviour towards members of the Catholic community, most notoriously the massacre of civil-rights marchers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972, only compounded the death spiral, forcing a reluctant “direct rule” from Westminster two months later.

in the early 70s Adams had established a unit in the Belfast IRA called the “unknowns”, which conducted several “disappearances”, including that of McConville, whom the IRA—perhaps because of her Protestant background—alleged to have been an “informer” for the British

From that moment on, however, London sought to extricate itself once more by setting up a new coalition administration at Stormont, combining Catholic and Protestant political representatives. A painstakingly prepared and debated project engaging moderate leaders began in January 1974 but was quickly brought down by an unconstitutional Protestant “strike” led by the fundamentalist firebrand Ian Paisley.

Several failed such initiatives later, the 1998 agreement—by comparison put together in cavalier fashion in just days of serious private negotiations—was perilously translated the following year into a fragile power-sharing administration, this time with the destabilising political leaders of the IRA at its heart, only to collapse in 2002 over an extraordinary IRA spy ring at Stormont. It was determinedly revived by London in 2007, at the expense of including with a veto role the party of Paisley—scourge of all reconciliation efforts but now recast as an avuncular statesman—alongside Martin McGuinness, the man who emerged in the early 70s maelstrom as IRA leader in Derry. With his Belfast counterpart, Adams, McGuinness was spirited to secret meetings with a British government minister in 1972, alongside the Dublin-based formal leadership of the movement, in recognition of the pair’s de facto status.

Paisley has now been replaced as Northern Ireland first minister by his long-time deputy, Peter Robinson, who was convicted in a court in the Republic of Ireland of unlawful assembly, having led an incursion across the border during frequently violent Protestant protests against an intergovernmental agreement between London and Dublin in 1985. As part of the protest campaign, he and Paisley wore paramilitary-style berets as they presided at the launch at a private Belfast rally of an organisation called Ulster Resistance, which later become involved in gun-running in South Africa.

The desperate willingness of London to include such previously fringe figures in an ostensibly democratic administration in Belfast could only be at the expense of official amnesia about their pasts. And yet these determined ethnic protagonists were bound to treat politics as a war of sectarian narratives over just what the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ were about—and so whether the region’s geographical or juridical locations would define its constitutional status. Hence the recent “loyalist” protests over the decision by Belfast City Council not to fly the Union flag every day of the year. As Orwell sardonically put it in his totalitarian dystopia, 1984, he who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.

An uncontrollable past

But just as ‘dissident’ paramilitaries have continued to disrupt the present, the past has not proved controllable either—with those for whom Adams and McGuinness turned traitors to the cause being willing to break the IRA culture of omerta to speak about the crimes in which they engaged.

Such were the sources of the incendiary A Secret History of the IRA, published fully 12 years ago by the respected Belfast journalist Ed Moloney. Moloney revealed that in the early 70s Adams had established a unit in the Belfast IRA called the “unknowns”, which conducted several “disappearances”, including that of McConville, whom the IRA—perhaps because of her Protestant background—alleged to have been an “informer” for the British. Moloney also named McGuinness as the “northern commander” of the IRA when Northern Command instigated the “human bomb” tactic, which saw a workman, Patsy Gillespie, forced to drive to an army checkpoint in Derry with a bomb in his van, detonated to kill five soldiers (as well as Gillespie) in 1990.

When the book was published, Adams spoke darkly about possible legal action against its mainstream publisher, Allen Lane. No such action was ever taken.

Moloney, having moved to the US, subsequently engaged in an oral-history project with Boston College, interviewing protagonists of the conflict. A former IRA member close to Adams in west Belfast, Brendan Hughes, said on tape that the latter had directed the killing of McConville. Hughes is now dead and before she died last year another former IRA member whom Moloney interviewed, Dolours Price, made a similar claim in public in attesting to her role in the murder. It is on the basis of evidence from this project, which the Police Service of Northern Ireland obtained after a long legal battle, that Adams has now been arrested. 

In recent days, another former IRA figure, Peter Rogers, has publicly described how Adams (who now claims never to have joined the IRA) and McGuinness (who now claims to have left it in 1974) ordered him to take explosives to England in 1980. The operation was intercepted by the Republic of Ireland police, the Gardaí, one of whose officers he (Rogers) shot dead. Robinson has said that McGuinness—who was convicted in a Dublin court of IRA membership in 1973 but is now deputy first minister at Stormont and recently attended a royal banquet in London—should be prosecuted if the evidence so suggests.

The increasingly dysfunctional administration at Stormont, mired in mistrust between the parties, faces growing disillusionment on the ground, which will be reflected in a further plunge in turnout at this month’s municipal and European elections. A recent newspaper survey of young people in Northern Ireland found that two thirds did not believe they enjoyed peace and the same proportion wanted to leave to pursue their aspirations.

Kosovo and kidneys

But this is not just a Northern Ireland story: it is a story of what happens when Realpolitik supplants the rule of law in the management of ethnic conflict—and of how this not only echoes the amorality of the protagonists but also stores up trouble for the future through the acceptance of impunity for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

And it is a story which will soon have a former Yugoslav destination. The prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, is the ex-leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the paramilitary organisation which fought for independence for the province, under Serb-nationalist rule from Belgrade, during the war of 1998-99. In 2010, a Council of Europe report, following a two-year investigation, named Thaçi repeatedly in conjunction with a revolting organ-trafficking operation by the KLA.

Hashim Thaci and William Hague meet in London

A willing hand: the UK foreign secretary, William Hague, meeting Thaci in London last year. Flickr / FCO. Some rights reserved.A week ago, the Kosovo parliament accepted the establishment of a war crimes court backed by the European Union to investigate the affair. Thaçi said it was a “humiliation”.

The masters of Realpolitik—backed by the strong “realist” tradition there in international relations study—are of course not the British but the Americans. The then president, Bill Clinton, basked like Blair in the Belfast agreement. And Madeleine Albright, his secretary of state at the talks on Kosovo at Rambouillet in 1999, thought she could do business with Thaçi.

He reminded her of Gerry Adams.

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