News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

Adams, do the decent thing – retire

Having evolved from rebel to peacemaker, the SF leader is still haunted by many ghosts.

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

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Jean McConville's coffin passing the Divis Flats, in Belfast
Jean McConville's coffin passing the Divis Flats, in Belfast

In his great meditation on the origins of our species, Charles Darwin wrote about the anomalies in the evolutionary process.

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He coined the term "sports" when referring to certain species that turned out to be unusually and unexpectedly adaptive to their environments. Gerry Adams is our outstanding "sport".

In his youth he positioned himself as the long-term intellectual heir of Liam Mellows, the anti-Treaty TD who lent a veneer of philosophical detachment to the Irregulars' campaign of fantastic physical vandalism.

Middle-age saw Adams reach back then to the tactics of the Victorian-era Fenians as he dipped one toe in electoral politics after the hunger strikes. And during the so-called peace dividend era at the end of the Cold War, Adams learned the jargon of "conflict resolution" and was happy to be seen listening respectfully to the petitions of the president of the United States.

Many of his former comrades found that they could not readily distinguish this kind of versatility from outright careerism.

Having watched him surrender hook, line and sinker to David Trimble's "structural unionism" strategy in 1998, his comrade, the late Brendan Hughes, raked Adams with invective on the Boston College tapes.

And despite Adams' persistent and vocal denials of any involvement in the murder and disappearance of the widowed Jean McConville in 1972, denials that were reiterated last week after his arrest by the PSNI, Hughes was having none of it.

What is so magnetising about this particular murder then?

Perhaps more than anything else it forces people down here to think seriously about the meaning of portmanteau terms like "resistance", "anti-imperialism", "self-determination", and "political crime". Above all, we are forced to try to re-enact the mental processes of the gang who abducted her.

In his bravura opinion in the 1984 extradition case Shannon v Fanning, Mr Justice Niall McCarthy attempted to do just that as he tried to think through the idea of a political crime.

He wondered aloud whether "the murder of a young woman shot down on the public street may be characterised as a political offence because her murder might deter her father, a Belfast magistrate, from carrying out his duties as such", before concluding that "the mind rebels against such a view".

Even if all the local IRA charges of spying against Jean McConville were true, which they were not, most people would probably still experience something of the judge's mental rebellion at the thought of classifying her murder as political.

The McConville case is also important for another reason.

It has assumed something of a grand opera character for Adams himself, despite his repeated denials of involvement. And to that extent there is a risk that it might blot out other enormities.

And there are plenty of these in John Campbell's fascinating new biography of Roy Jenkins, British home secretary at the height of the Provisional bombing campaign in Britain between 1974-6.

To read this book is to be reminded again of the full horror of those years.

The no-warning bomb in the urban heartland became the IRA's weapon of choice during that miserable decade.

Alongside Harrod's, Selfridges, the Old Bailey and Edward Heath's house in Belgravia, the IRA incinerated pubs in Guildford and Birmingham in 1974, killing five and injuring 65 in the former, and killing 21 and injuring 200 in the latter.

They also took hostages in Marylebone, and members of the Balcombe Street gang murdered the journalist Ross McWhirter on his own doorstep after he offered money for information on republican bombers.

Jenkins was MP for the Stechford seat in Birmingham as well as home secretary, and he inspected the local carnage personally.

He wrote afterwards of the "pervading atmosphere of stricken, hostile resentment such as I had never previously encountered anywhere in the world".

Jenkins reacted by pushing very hard in the Labour cabinet for total British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, a decision that would have convulsed the Republic by triggering what the then assistant Irish cabinet secretary Dermot Nally called a "holocaust".

At the risk of sounding like Conrad's Professor in The Secret Agent, the monster whose "thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction", the McConville atrocity forces one to try to discern some pattern in this murk.

Is the obliteration of tightly packed taverns, criminal courts and supermarkets worse than the murder of a helpless widow who was struggling to cope with 10 children?

How to relate the mercilessly protracted agony of the McConville children then to the mayhem in the border region such as was detailed by Henry Patterson's powerful recent book, Ireland's Violent Frontier?

Or do we do nothing here except grapple ineptly with the nature of life and the purview of God?

Despite his protestations of innocence, these kinds of questions clank obstinately after Adams.

His Dail comrades must privately yearn for him to discover that ultimate safe harbour: dignity in retirement.

Sunday Independent

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