A- A A+

Gerry Adams arrest inflames ghosts of Ireland's past

Brian Lennon |  06 May 2014

A family walks past a mural in honour of Gerry AdamsMy uncle, Michael Lennon, fought with Eamon DeValera in Boland's Mill in Dublin during the 1916 Rising. As a young fellow I worshipped Michael for his struggle for Irish freedom. In the intervening years, having sat beside too many empty chairs, I wished that he had stayed at home.

Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, sees himself as a successor of Michael Lennon. But 98 years after the Rising, Adams was last week arrested for questioning about the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, living in a run-down block of flats. The IRA accused her of giving information to the British army, kidnapped her in front of her children, shot her in the back of the head and buried her in a beach. They did not tell her family what had happened to her. She was one of the 'disappeared'. Her children were put in care.

Adams vehemently denies any involvement in her murder. He also denies he was ever in the IRA. I know no one who believes this latter claim.

His arrest was linked to taped interviews made by historians working in Boston College. In these Brendan Hughes claims Adams was a senior commander in the IRA in Belfast and was directly implicated in McConville's murder. Hughes had no problem with the killing because he agreed with shooting informers and made no distinction between men and women. But he did have a problem with Adams' denials of IRA membership.

At the time of the murder, and since, a central plank of Republican demands has been for due process, and — often correctly — they criticise failures of the British Government in this respect.

Republicans cry foul play over Adams' arrest for several reasons: the absence of arrests of security force members for atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, the failure to hold inquests for many killed by the British, the refusal of the British Government to release documents. They also allege that the timing of the arrest was politically motivated: three weeks before European and local elections, in both Northern Ireland and the South.

At the root of all this lies the problem of the past: how do we deal with it? The 1998 Agreement was a political compromise. Like all such settlements it failed to be just in many ways. People from all sides who had lost loved ones saw their killers given early release from prison. There were suspicions that Republicans were not being prosecuted. Only a small proportion of the security forces was brought to court.

So what do we do? Prosecute all who broke the law? Most of the time this will not be possible. If it were we would not have room in prison for all those convicted.

Forgive everyone? This approach often appeals to Christians. But they ignore the anger of God at wrongdoing, and it is often, but not always, an approach advocated by people who have not suffered.

A South African style truth commission, in which people are offered amnesty, but only if they tell the truth? But in South Africa one side won. In the Irish conflict both the British and the IRA accepted that they could not win. So what pressures are there on any group to admit terrible wrongdoing?

There is a further issue: often the worst perpetrators are major players in the peace process. So the huge mural erected by supporters of Adams this week which reads 'Peacemaker, a leader and visionary' is true: without his astute leadership, the risks he took and his persuasive ability, the vast majority of Republicans would never have accepted the compromises of the 1998 Agreement. And the peace we have, with all our divisions, is infinitely better than the violence.

However, the mural is only part of the story, as Jean McConville's children know only too well. Whoever killed her was in the IRA.

Brian LennonBrian Lennon is a Jesuit working in Northern Ireland with prisoners and on peace issues. He is author of So You Can't Forgive...? Moving Towards Freedom. His most recent book is Can I Stay in the Catholic Church?


Brian Lennon

Recent articles by this author


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Being of Irish stock I can empathise with the irish Catholics but don't have a lot of time for the IRA. In this case the biggest obstruction to justice is the IRA threat to the children that the IRA would come back and kill them if they ever told who had taken their mother. If the timing is wrong too bad. Let all the thugs suffer rather than prosper.

John 06 May 2014

Such a sad story. There are no white knights here . I think it's true that now, Gerry Adams is trying to help bring peace to Ireland. What he did or did not do in the past ... Who knows? We Australians have not had to live with these terrible political and personal wounds, thank God.

Tony kevin 06 May 2014

Far from adversely affecting SF's campaign for Euro seats, the arrest of Adams has revitalised it.

Frank O'Shea 07 May 2014

Australians do have 2 live with a similar bloody history Tony. When we forcefully n cruelly wrested this land from Aboriginal peoples. And the injustices continue. These r indeed personal n political wounds for many Australians.

Colleen 07 May 2014

Reading this excellent article straight after reading the latest on the Royal Commission hearings here in Perth the question "Forgive everyone? This approach often appeals to Christians. But they ignore the anger of God at wrongdoing, and it is often, but not always, an approach advocated by people who have not suffered." really hits home. God (not simply the vengeful God of the OT) is angry at wrongdoing. As Catholics (some of us hanging in there almost against our deeper judgement) really need to reflect seriously and urgently on how we respond to God's anger.

Margaret 07 May 2014

To Magaret: ...but notwithstanding all this, I saw truthfully that our Lord was never angry, nor ever shall be, for He is God: He is good, He is life, He is truth, He is love, He is peace; and His power, His wisdom, His Love, and His Unity do not allow Him to be angry. (For I saw truly that it is against the character of His Power to be angry, and against the character of His Wisdom, and against the character of His Goodness.) God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for He is nothing but goodness...I saw no wrath except on man's part, and that He forgives in us….(which failure is not in God but it is on our part — for we, because of sin and miserableness, have in us a wrath and a continuing opposition to peace and to love...For this was shown: that our life is all based and rooted in love, and without love we cannot live. And therefore to the soul it is the most impossible thing that can be that God would be angry, for wrath and friendship are two opposites…. I saw no kind of wrath in God, neither for a short time nor for a long - JoN, an English anchoress.

Annoying Orange 07 May 2014

I think the political decision, whatever the evidence against Gerry Adams, which must, anyway, be assessed by a jury, will be not to prosecute him. The truth may only be fully known years hence. That will give no closure to the McConville children. It appears there is no simple win/win strategy here.

Edward Fido 07 May 2014

Annoying Orange: we read the same books as well as watching the same TV... Thank you for the reminder from the wonderful Julian of Norwich.Who assuredly was living in a world as unjust as our own...

Margaret 07 May 2014

How do we deal with it? Just just put it behind, and move on. There were two world wars in the 20th Centrury, and many, many smaller ones, and other conflicts. And they're happening at this moment. Get over it. Get on with it.

Louw 09 May 2014

Similar articles

Ukraine races towards civil war

Tony Kevin | 06 May 2014

Pro-Europe protest in Kiev on 29 November 2013Tim Judah, highly regarded historian of the post-Yugoslavia wars of secession, predicted things were about to go very badly in Ukraine. He wrote that in the east he witnessed 'the same brave talk, euphoria, and delusions' that beset Yugoslavs before they 'tipped their country into catastrophe in the 1990s'. Just two weeks later, Ukraine races towards civil war, prompted largely by the provocative clumsiness of Kiev and its Western cheerleaders.

Star Wars fails the colour test

Fatima Measham | 02 May 2014

Star Wars logoAs I scanned the actor profiles for the new Star Wars film, it became apparent that no brown actress was among them. The mythology George Lucas created 40 years ago remains predominantly male and white. What happens when brown women are kept out of the picture is that their invisibility is normalised. We are not seen to contribute, much less lead. This is not harmless. It makes our presence in society incidental. Dispensable.

Don't let plane panic paint all men as paedophiles

Catherine Marshall | 02 May 2014

Plane passengersFor feminists who have fought for generations against sexism, the argument that men should be excised from children's orbit lest they commit the same atrocities of which a small percentage of other men are guilty is chilling. It rubber-stamps the notion that people's character and behavioural choices are determined by their gender, and presupposes that individuals can be judged on the basis of their group's collective history.

Workplace safety issues in South Korean ferry disaster

Andrew Hamilton | 29 April 2014

The capsized ferryIt would be unfeeling and presumptuous to speculate on the causes of the disaster. But it may be helpful to enumerate the questions that have been asked, as they disclose a pattern. In travel by ship, as in many other enterprises, there are two sets of interests: the operational interests of those who provide the service, and the interests of those who benefit from the service. Companies ideally take both seriously, but they stand in tension.

A plague of killer robots

Andrew Hamilton | 23 April 2014

Arnold Schwarzenegger as The TerminatorKiller robots — drones in an advanced stage of development — are now a daytime reality. They will be autonomous in their operation, able to identify targets, track them down, work out the best way to destroy them, and learn from their failures, all without the need for human direction. These qualities raise serious ethical questions. Obama's use of just war theory to defend such drones was misguided at best, pernicious at worst.