Northern Ireland’s chickens may be coming home to roost

Prosecuting Gerry Adams may come down to a stark choice: do you want peace or justice?

Pat MurphyTORONTO, ON, May 5, 2014/ Troy Media/ – While it’s early days, the chickens from Northern Ireland’s peace process may be coming home to roost. Last week, Gerry Adams was arrested and detained for four days pursuant to the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville. Although he was subsequently released without charge, his file has been sent to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration. So the story isn’t necessarily over yet.

First, though, a brief background primer.

Adams is the long-time president of Sinn Fein, the Irish political party associated with the paramilitary IRA. Although he has never made any secret of his IRA sympathies, he has consistently denied ever being a member himself. Many people, on all sides of the conflict, don’t believe him.

Whatever the truth of that matter, Adams did play a key role in the evolution of the peace process that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And he’s now a major political figure in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Jean McConville, a Belfast widow with 10 children, was murdered by the IRA in 1972 and surreptitiously buried on a remote beach. When her body was eventually found in 2003 by a man walking his dog, the cause of death was ascertained to be a bullet to the head.

Ostensibly, McConville was killed for being an “informer.” But a 2006 investigation by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman found no evidence to support that allegation.

The catalyst for the current developments is an oral history committed to tape by Boston College. In it, various participants in the Northern Ireland conflict told their story on condition that nothing would be made public while they were still alive.

One of them, an erstwhile Adams friend named Brendan Hughes, subsequently died in 2008. And it transpires that his taped remembrances implicate Adams as the commander of an IRA death squad that killed and secretly buried a number of people, one of whom was Jean McConville.

For his part, Adams strenuously denies the allegation. He also argues that the rift between himself and Hughes was a function of the latter’s objections to the peace process.

On one level, the whole thing is morally simple. McConville was murdered, there’s an investigation in process, allegations have been made, and nobody should be above the law.

However, it gets trickier than that.

Writing in the Times, Ben McIntyre worries that historical researchers “have now been turned into police informers.” Boston College didn’t want to turn over the tapes, and only did so after a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While McIntyre explicitly recognizes the McConville family’s claim to justice, it’s clear that he believes the right of historians to protect their sources takes precedence. Not everyone will agree.

And regardless of the underlying truth, there’s a genuine question as to the viability of a successful prosecution. Would the tapes be admissible in court? Indeed, given that dead men aren’t available for cross-examination, should they be admissible?

As for others who might be in a position to give evidence, there’s a world of difference between speaking to the media and providing an affidavit, never mind testifying under oath. For instance, two people who recently made incriminating claims about Adams have apparently declined to make statements to the police. There’re several reasons, some sinister, why this would happen. But that’s reality.

Reality also intrudes in another way. In situations like Northern Ireland, where the conflict had no unequivocally conclusive military resolution, it may well come down to a stark choice. Do you want peace or do you want justice? Full measures of both aren’t simultaneously available.

If that strikes you as tawdry and morally tainted, it’s because it is. But that doesn’t obviate the choice.

In any event, recent Irish history has form in this regard. In 1927, a cabinet minister in the then Irish Free State was gunned down on his way to Sunday mass. The minister, Kevin O’Higgins, had been one of the “hard men” on the victorious government side during the 1922-23 civil war, and his murder was a result of the ensuing residual animosity.

Here’s the thing, though. Although the identity of the killers became common knowledge, nobody was ever prosecuted. And the last of the three shooters died in his bed in 1980.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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