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The Strange Detention of Gerry Adams


It’s the old guard using the old methods

Gerry Adams, 5 May, 2014

The link between the gun and the boardroom, the grenade and the meeting resolution, may seem tenuous.  In reality, they are often progressions. Those links between Sinn Féin and the IRA have always been intimate, dark, and even toxic.  When the killing stops, the talking must begin. Some are simply better at doing one thing than the other.

The Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, has been released by Northern Ireland police after he voluntarily checked in for four days of questioning.   “While I have concerns about the timing, I am voluntarily meeting with the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Island]” (Boston Globe, May 1).  He left an Antrim police station by the rear exit to evade noisy Loyalists who had gathered outside the station.  The cloud over proceedings had one overarching theme: whether Adams had a role behind the abduction and murder of alleged informant and mother of ten, Jean McConville, in 1972.

The point being made by Adams’s opponents is that the party animal of diplomacy was once a killing animal, signing off on lives he scant knew.  Various members of the IRA have insisted that Adams was not the angelic sort, let alone the sort who kept all matters of blood at a distance.  Some critics, such as an ill-tempered Kevin Toolis, simply regard anything Adams’s says as balderdash, the behaviour of an instinctive liar (Daily Mail, 3 May).

Much of the material that has made it into Adams’s file is based on the Boston College oral history program known as the Belfast Project.  It is filled with hearsay reflections and observations over those violent times in Northern Ireland that have come to be called The Troubles.  Two participants, in particular, pointed the finger at Adams: Brendan Hughes, something of a legend in IRA circles, who had a torrid falling out with Adams over the latter’s peace program, and Dolours Price, who claimed Adams ordered her to drive McConville to her fate.

Bureaucrats connected with that project have not covered themselves in glory, capitulating to requests to obtain information that had been provided under strict conditions of confidentiality.  There was one proviso: that the information remain confidential till the death of the interviewees.  Federal prosecutors executed subpoenas in 2011, less an issue for Hughes, whose confidentiality clause ceased being as important after his death in 2008, than Price, who only died in 2013.  Boston College did fight the Price application, but decided to cave in and hand the material to British authorities.

This legal tussle has left researcher Ed Moloney, a journalist with the BC Belfast Project, suitably unimpressed.  “The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a blow by the Obama Department of Justice” (Boston Globe, 1 May).  The broader result in Northern Ireland is that everybody will lie before the tape recorder on matters connected with The Troubles, certain that any testimony is bound to be scoured by subpoena and claim.

The entire Adams case centres on linking individual tragedy with a historical movement.  McConville’s death in 1972 still lingers in its grief, a heart wrenching throb about the political object can become lost in the blood mist of revenge.  Sadly, it also seems to linger as an object of political gain for Adams’s opponents, who have only tolerated his political presence begrudgingly.  First Minister Peter Robinson of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is not atypical, suggesting that Adams had made a “thuggish attempt at blackmail” against the police forces.

For Robinson, the arrest, which is more accurately a formal submission to police custody by Adams, should be determinative, lest his side of the aisle lose face.  “The threat now means that ordinary decent citizens will conclude that the PSNI and the PPS have succumbed to a crude and overt political threat if Adams is not charged.  I warn Sinn Féin that they have crossed the line.”  To gain a march on your political opponents, always throw the fait accompli back at them.

The policy of the Northern Ireland police has been suspect in this regard. Why make a line for Adams now?  According to Maloney, the PSNI were already conducting inquiries about McConville’s deaths some months ago, though they were on rather shallow ground in seeking evidence from those who were teens at the time of McConville’s death.  “The PSNI seem to be ploughing fairly sparse ground.”

Adams’s loyal deputy Martin McGuinness is in no doubt: it stinks of electoral expediency, the handiwork of “dark forces” in the PSNI.  Sinn Féin is, after all, running in European and local elections later this month.  Nor is the file that is in the hands of Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions likely to go far – after all, Barra McGrory, head of the prosecution service, is Adams’ former solicitor.  The question cannot be answered with any certainly till a decision is made, and even then, a trial is most likely to acquit in the absence of vital living witnesses.

These moves on the part of the PSNI do not inspire confidence in good policing. If stirring a hornet’s nest was what was intended, they certainly have had the desired effect.  The political balance in Northern Ireland remains precarious, an unnaturally imposed understanding that still imports the threat of terror to keep people in their place.  A dance of sorts has been initiated, and the only effect once everyone resumes their chairs is the hope that politics as normal and abnormal, resumes.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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