Paramilitary Victims: Inconvenient Truths in N. Ireland

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has, for now, put his alleged role in the IRA’s 1972 murder of Belfast woman Jean McConville behind him as his party topped polls in European and local government elections. Irish journalist Susan McKay analyzes the impact of the McConville case, and of Northern Ireland's broader effort to come to terms with its past. 

Sinn Fein has swept the boards in the European and local elections in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The party has taken European seats in all four of Ireland’s provinces and, along with other opposition candidates, almost demolished the Labour party and seriously dented the Fine Gael – Labour coalition government. A triumphant Gerry Adams, the party’s president, has vowed that he will lead Sinn Fein into the next general elections, which take place during the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Adams has put behind him the furor over his arrest in April as part of the investigation of the IRA’s 1972 kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten children. He dismisses the episode now as “dirty tricks” and has said that his wife told him that the next time a journalist asks him if he is going to resign, he should tell them to “catch themselves on.” Loosely translated this means, “Are you mad?” Adams has been photographed beaming beside successful candidates in all corners of Ireland, and has flown to the US to brief President Obama’s chief advisors on the current state of the peace process. It is all a far cry from the cell in which he was recently held for four days in the fortified concrete bunker that is Antrim’s Police Station, with the world’s media waiting outside.

Adams, who denies having had anything to do with the murder, was released without charge. A spell in prison never hurt a Northern politician among their own, and Sinn Fein’s core supporters in the North were galvanized by this new brush with victimhood. The scale of the party’s success in the Republic is more disturbing for the established parties. Jean McConville is probably the best- known victim of the Northern conflict - indeed it sometimes appears to Northerners that she is the only victim whose name is known in the Republic. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has more than once tried to shame Adams in the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann, by invoking his alleged role in her murder. He appears oblivious to the fact that Adams topped the poll in Louth not long after Jean McConville’s body was recovered in the constituency in 2003. Now a whole raft of idealistic young Sinn Fein politicians are at large who can never be accused of having handled an armalite or given an order to kill.

The PSNI investigation of the McConville murder, apparently based on tapes from the flakey and partisan Belfast Project at Boston College, is highly unlikely to result in convictions. However, given that it was underway, it was inevitable that the PSNI would arrest Adams. Widely believed to have been an IRA leader during the 1970s, he has been accused by former comrades of masterminding the strategy of abducting, murdering and “disappearing” certain alleged informers.

The fury with which Sinn Fein reacted to its president’s detention was disproportionate. “How dare they?” demanded Bobby Storey, Sinn Fein’s Belfast chairman, and allegedly the IRA’s former head of intelligence, at a rally in the republican heartland of West Belfast. He said republicans had a message for the British and Irish governments: “We haven’t gone away, you know.” It was an eyebrow raising if not a chilling echo of something Adams said about the IRA a year after its 1994 ceasefire.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the party’s deputy leader, Mary Lou MacDonald denounced what they called “political policing.” They said that the arrest was timed, in the middle of election campaigns north and south of the border, to harm their party, which had been doing well in opinion polls. McGuinness spoke of “dark forces” and a “cabal” within the PSNI.

Despite his denials that he was even a member of the IRA, there is ample evidence that Adams was a leading figure. Credible allegations have been made against him in relation to the McConville murder. The allegation, by contrast, that Jean McConville was an informer, is utterly without credibility. As one senior republican commented to me privately, “What could she have known?”

She was a depressed, impoverished and isolated woman with 10 young children, a Protestant outsider in the fiercely paranoid environment of republican West Belfast. She was a scapegoat. She was dragged away from her children by a gang of men and women, some of them her family’s neighbours. They drove her to a remote beach, murdered her and buried her body. It lay undiscovered until 2003.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, understood well the “stones of silence” cast in the aftermath of her disappearance, “the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge” he wrote about in the poem “Punishment.” Now in this era of “civilized outrage,” Sinn Fein has admitted that her murder was wrong, but it persists in slurring her with the allegation that she was giving information to the British Army.

Sinn Fein’s decision to accept the North’s new policing arrangements definitively marked the end of its long war against the British. There have been PSNI recruitment drives in former republican areas. The party is on the Policing Board, which has extensive powers to monitor the police. It has expressed confidence in the office of the Police Ombudsman. In April, when the Republic’s chief of police had to resign over a controversy which also involved the Minister for Justice (and has since led to his resignation), Sinn Fein urged the Dublin government to carry out reforms and to take the North’s arrangements as a model.

After Adams’ arrest, McGuinness, the North’s deputy first minister, intimated that Sinn Fein’s ongoing support for policing might depend on whether or not the “scenario” over Adams’ arrest was “resolved in a satisfactory way.” The Alliance party Justice Minister, David Ford, and the former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan were among those who criticized him for this. The Taoiseach said if the party had complaints it should bring them to the Police Ombudsman. Adams emerged from custody eager to calm things down. His party fully supported the PSNI, he said.

Adams is a cultish figure – inspiring unquestioning loyalty from his insiders, and obsessive hatred from those who were once insiders but now find themselves for one reason or another out of the sun. They include former IRA comrades and a certain set of journalists known for their “Get Adams” agenda. There is a ghastly hypocrisy about the way some of his enemies have been dwelling upon the horrors of Jean McConville’s murder. After all, many of these people turned against Adams precisely because he played such a major role in the peace process and because they cannot forgive him for ending the “armed struggle”.

Unionists who revelled in Sinn Fein’s shame over the McConville murder ought to remember that this was a family that had earlier been forced out of Protestant East Belfast during a sectarian pogrom. Unionists support the idea that there are “innocent victims,” mainly those killed by the IRA, and otherswhose innocence is implicitly questioned or denied. This is profoundly wounding to the many victims of the British security forces whether in uniform or in covert collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Thousands of people bereaved in the Northern conflict failed to get any measure of truth or justice. Many murders were simply not investigated. In some cases, the most emblematic of which is that of solicitor Pat Finucane, the authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up the evidence.

The McConville family has been blighted by the tragic loss of their mother, which came soon after the death of their father. The damage is all too obvious, not least in the bitter splits among the now adult children, who still sometimes sound like the frightened children they were that night when their mother was taken. There was much irresponsible media reporting. Who can blame Jean McConville’s eldest daughter for privately wishing dead the man she believes ordered her mother’s murder? But it should not be splashed across the front page of a tabloid paper just because she said it to a reporter.

A year ago, the First and Deputy First Ministers promised to initiate a process to try to sort out some of the North’s most divisive and intractable issues, in particular, how to deal with the past. The US diplomat Richard Haass and Harvard Professor Megan O’Sullivan gave it their best effort and the proposals they came up with after intensive negotiations with the political parties had great potential. An independent investigative process was envisaged, with a separate information recovery process. Sinn Fein and the SDLP signed up – but unionists, and Alliance, rejected them.

The Boston College debacle is not over – in recent days both the PSNI and the American news organization NBC have sought broad access to its previously sealed IRA oral history archives. Sinn Fein’s wild allegations against the PSNI look bizarre in the light of new figures from the Policing Board, which show that 89% of people in the North have confidence in the PSNI.

Sinn Fein is calling for the implementation of the Haass proposals, but in this regard Adams remains a liability. Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, Mary Lou MacDonald, has gained a reputation for her ability to hold politicians and financiers to account, her skill at cutting through lies and evasions with well-honed questions. During the McConville flare up it was painful to watch her saying that yes, she believed her leader had never been in the IRA—because he said so.

When the people of Ireland North and South voted for the Good Friday Agreement, they signed up to release the prisoners, and for the handing over and destruction of weapons. These acts were symbolic. They were supposed to mark a new beginning. That has to include a way to lay the past to rest that provides a modicum of relief to those who suffered most from the conflict. Here is what President Michael D Higgins said on his way to the State visit to London in April: “Affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value to you, you are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows. How could I say to any family whose family member might be in a wheelchair or somebody who is dead, you must put it behind you?”

All of the political parties on this island, along with the British and Irish governments, are going to have to face up to the implications of the President’s question.