Six Counties can of worms
Yassamine Mather analyses the Gerry Adams arrest
Last week Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams was questioned for four days by the Police Service of Northern Ireland regarding allegations of his involvement in the disappearance of Jean McConville, who in 1972 was abducted from her Belfast home, shot and secretly buried by the Irish Republican Army.
According to Adams, speaking at a press conference after his release, the arrest was part of a “sustained, malicious, untruthful campaign”. He rejected the police’s case, saying it was based entirely on hearsay, and implied that those who had made the allegations against him were unreliable witnesses. Adams had been questioned for 17 hours a day about his political activities since his adolescence - all recorded on 33 tapes. Despite all this, the Sinn Féin leader distanced himself from the threats of his colleague and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, who had warned that their party might withdraw support for the PSNI: “I am an activist and expect to be arrested by the police,” said Adams.
Graffiti appearing on west Belfast walls attacked the “Boston College touts” - former IRA members who had agreed to record their experiences, on condition that what they said would not be released until after their death. Meanwhile, the gathering of a few dozen union jack-waving loyalists trying to prevent Adams leaving Antrim police station was not just a vivid reminder of the ‘troubles’, but also stood in stark contrast to pictures taken only a couple of weeks earlier of McGuinness wearing white tie and tails and sharing pleasantries with the British monarch.
No-one can seriously believe that the arrest of such a high-profile figure as Adams, less than three weeks before the May 22 European and local elections, was down to a few “rogue” elements in the PSNI. It must surely have been authorised at the very top and, for all the denials of ‘political involvement in a criminal investigation’, we now know that prime minister David Cameron did discuss the issue with Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villers on a number of occasions during Adams’ detention.1
McGuinness is clearly wrong: this was not the action of a “small rump” in a provincial force, but those of a state. As for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, it is a rebranded version of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, set up in 2001. The majority of PSNI officers remain Ulster Unionists, although the force’s sectarian composition is not as pronounced. And here lies Sinn Féin’s problem: the enemy it is facing is an institution with which it now collaborates - indeed the peace process was based on an acceptance of British rule and its police.
Allegations about Adams’ involvement in this particular incident have been around since 1972 and repeated on a number of occasions over the last few years. He told Sunday’s press conference that he had approached the police in March, saying he was available for questioning over the McConville case. So why did it take the PSNI well over a month to ask him for the interview that led to his arrest?
An attempt to derail Sinn Féin’s election campaign could be part of the story - recent polls have projected a large increase in Sinn Féin’s vote in both parts of Ireland. However, it is unlikely that this was the only reason for the arrest. After all, the publicity will hardly do SF much harm amongst its core constituency.
Speculation has also surfaced around the thorny issue of austerity and cutbacks, which has remained an area of contention between the Conservative government in London and Sinn Féin as the junior partner in Stormont. Less than a week after winning the 2010 general election, the Conservative-Liberal coalition announced that Northern Ireland should prepare for £128 million in cuts. McGuinness’s response at the time was one of acceptance: “There is going to be more pain ahead and what we have to do is prepare for it.”2
However, on March 14 2014, Democratic Unionist Party finance minister Simon Hamilton said that Stormont would have £300 million less to spend in 2015-16 than it will in the incoming financial year - and wrangling over welfare reform was making a bad situation worse: “It is becoming increasingly clear that the next number of years will eclipse even the last four years of austerity.”3 In April 2014 DUP leader Peter Robinson blamed Sinn Féin’s “southern-based politicians” for a failure to advance an agreement on cuts in the Six Counties. Robinson claimed that last year he had reached agreement to implement welfare cutbacks and the bedroom tax with McGuinness, but this had been overruled by Gerry Adams, who has “had a very negative influence on the party’s team in the Six County executive at Stormont”.
Later Robinson claimed that Adams was blocking progress and suggested that powers for social welfare could now be handed back to London. Adams responded in a tweet, saying he took Robinson’s complaints as “a compliment”, while McGuinness said that Robinson’s comments “bear no reality” to what really happened and the DUP leader had “crossed the line”.4
In 2007 Gerry Adams had been the focus of an attack by unionists, when he was accused of attempting to interfere in a PSNI investigation after urging the release of republicans Gerry McGeough and Vincent McAnespie, arrested in connection with an IRA attack in 1981. It was claimed that Adams had telephoned Downing Street demanding their release and he was accused of “attempting to pervert the course of justice”.
He responded: “My protest at that time was entirely appropriate, given that the British government had given commitments to resolve the anomaly of the OTRs” - former IRA men still ‘on the run’, because of uncertainty over whether or not they could still face prosecution. The claim that the Northern Ireland Office was trying to avoid arresting republicans was “nonsense”. What is more, it “ignores the virtual amnesty provided to the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary for killing hundreds of citizens”.
So why is Sinn Féin still supporting the peace process and why did it not ask for firmer guarantees at the time of the deal?
The reality is that at the time of the Good Friday agreement Sinn Féin/IRA had lost its international backers following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The party had little choice but to accept the conditions imposed by the UK government: it was not winning the war, and ambitions of office also played their part. Ironically SF’s current electoral success is based on nostalgia for that period and respect for the martyrs of the war, yet in seeking legitimacy and electoral success Sinn Féin keeps tripping over its past.
In rallies called by the party to support Gerry Adams, the crowd carried pictures of Adams standing next to Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress. The two formations, together with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, were the most renowned ‘national liberation movements’ of the late 20th century. None of them were ever revolutionary forces of the working class: their political demands were at best limited to reform of the existing system. However, their uncompromising attitude towards occupation meant they had a solid base of popular support and the majority of the radical left in Britain and worldwide gave them critical backing. However, in office they have showed themselves to be as nepotistic and ineffective as the regimes they succeeded.
None of this should excuse apologists for the British state - the social-imperialists who refused to take a principled position regarding the Northern Ireland conflict. The Provisional IRA emerged in response to British military repression in the Six Counties: for example, the imposition of internment without trial in 1971; the shooting dead of four Catholic residents of the Lower Falls, as the area was put under curfew and sealed off; the use of tear gas and indiscriminate door-to-door searches; the murder of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, a crime sanctioned by the British state.
No doubt the IRA was responsible for some appalling actions during the conflict, but no-one should forget the brutal repression of the occupying army. If the British state adopts a policy of pursuing old cases against former IRA members, then it will be opening a can of worms: Sinn Féin/IRA leaders will not be the only politicians who could be charged. And there will be calls to end the virtual amnesty provided to the British army and RUC for dozens of killings in the Six Counties, starting with Bloody Sunday.
2. The Guardian May 24 2010.