Sunday 8 December 2019

Adams's arrest is dramatic and unprecedented

Are we so blase about our recent dark past that we can shrug off this development and move on?

Martin McGuinness and Martina Anderson addresses nationalist gathered on the Falls Road in support of Gerry Adams. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell
Martin McGuinness and Martina Anderson addresses nationalist gathered on the Falls Road in support of Gerry Adams. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell
Gerry Adams

Eilis O'Hanlon

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me. That was the standard Sinn Fein response last week to the arrest of Gerry Adams for questioning about the murder, 40 years ago, of a widowed mother of 10.

Regardless of one's political persuasion, it seemed an inadequate reaction, to say the least. As Newstalk's political editor Shane Coleman pointed out on Thursday's Right Hook, the arrest of a major political leader in Ireland in such circumstances is both dramatic and unprecedented.

Have we really grown so blase about Ireland's recent dark history that we can immediately shrug off this development and move on? Were our sensibilities really so dulled by the Troubles that we fail to even notice, let alone process, how strange the country has become?

Of course Sinn Fein was always going to allege that the timing of the arrest of Gerry Adams during an election campaign was "politically motivated". What else could it say?

History has slung this albatross called Adams around its neck. Sinn Fein has to explain its presence as best it can. Even Mary Lou McDonald, used to making a silk purse out of a sow's ear in interviews, was struggling to present this latest development in a positive light; but then she was caught in a dilemma of her own making.

When Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin recently went public with serious allegations about the internal cover-up of rape and sexual abuse by members of the republican movement, Sinn Fein's response was unequivocal: bring these matters to the proper authorities. Let the police decide what to do about them. In the meantime, shut up.

Suddenly, the narrative of trusting the police to be the final arbiters of what should and should not be prosecuted is replaced with a different line. Now, apparently, Sinn Fein reserves the right to the final say about which crimes should be investigated.

Mary Lou mutters darkly about "shadowy forces" within unionism and the Northern security services; the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness channels his inner Obi Wan Kenobi and blames the "dark side".

Niall O'Dowd at Irish Central even claims that Adams had been targeted for arrest because Sinn Fein "present a threat to the established order" and the establishment will "do anything to bring them down" and stop them ... well, what? Taking some seats in the European Parliament? That's hardly going to bring down the system from within. Form a coalition after the next election with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail? Ask the PDs, Greens and Labour if that's such a glittering prize. In fact, it could be said the best way to stop Sinn Fein's rise is to get it into coalition as soon as possible, as annihilation tends to follow swiftly for the junior partner in any such deal.

There are undoubtedly elements within unionism and the security forces who would love nothing better than to claim Gerry Adams's scalp, but it's hard to make a credible case that his arrest is part of some grand masterplan to thwart the rise of Sinn Fein when there is just as much chance that it would have the opposite effect.

The forces of which Mary Lou and McGuinness talk may be shadowy, but they're not stupid. Sinn Fein is simply discovering, once again, the perils of having a party leader who remains unable to meld the two parts of his character – tribal leader and bridge-building peacemaker – into a convincing whole. It's always going to be a hostage to fortune whilst Adams is around, and, even if this latest drama does blow over, it's only a matter of time before the next crisis comes along.

Sinn Fein doesn't own the past. Other people have memories and tales to tell too. They can't all be silenced. The attempt to uncover the truth about Jean McConville's fate is not an isolated conspiracy, but part of an ongoing effort to make sense of the past.

Speaking last week, Mary Lou almost made it sound as if Gerry was going North to answer questions about the abduction, murder and secret burial of this woman out of the goodness of his heart.

He had told the police "he was available", she said, and they had "taken him up" on his offer. He "voluntarily wished to speak to them".

She made being arrested sound almost jolly, like arranging drinkies with friends. Are you free on Thursday, old bean? You are? How splendid. See you there.

It may be to Sinn Fein's advantage to present what happened last week as proof that there is political interference in policing to damage the party's inexorable rise to power; but the real truth is that what political interference there has been in policing in the North in recent years has all been to Sinn Fein's advantage.

Take the recent revelations about the way the scheme to grant effective amnesties to so-called On The Runs was operated. Sinn Fein did not appear to have any objection to political policing when it was IRA bombers who were being granted Get Out Of Jail Free cards as a result. Sinn Fein representatives in the North openly admitted to acting as secret conduits who both sought, and then delivered, private agreements to known terrorists from the British government over the heads of the Northern assembly and the police and courts.

Last month, the Westminster committee dealing with the ongoing controversy over the On The Run scheme even heard claims from a former PSNI officer that Tony Blair, as prime minister, personally intervened in an effort to have two IRA gunmen released from custody. According to former detective chief superintendent Norman Baxter, Blair did so after receiving a call from the Sinn Fein leader asking him to intervene.

The former policeman's credentials have been called into question by Sinn Fein, and there is no way of confirming that Adams or Blair did make any such calls. But in their own way, the slew of similar allegations about political interference in policing in order to "save" the peace process are much more significant than the Sinn Fein leader's arrest last week. That can ultimately be explained away as dirty tricks. It's much harder to justify why Sinn Fein continues to believe the law of the land should apply equally to all ... except when it's republicans who are in the frame.

Imagine for a moment that senior figures within Fine Gael or Fianna Fail had been on the telephone last week secretly putting pressure on Judge Martin Nolan not to imprison Anglo executives Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer. We'd now be in the middle of a political crisis that would make the recent scandals around the Garda Siochana look like a walk in the park by comparison. Yet when Sinn Fein effectively does the same for On The Run terrorists, no one bats an eyelid.

The nonchalance in some quarters about the arrest of Gerry Adams is just more evidence that we don't know what normal political life looks like anymore.

Sunday Independent

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