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Gerry Adams arrest inflames ghosts of Ireland's past


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?

Topic tags: Brian Lennon, Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein, Ireland



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Existing 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  

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