Gerry Adams, like Mandela, must come clean about his past

Donald M Beaudette is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science of Morehouse College. Cas Mudde is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Georgia (@casmudde).

 Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

By Donald M Beaudette and Cas Mudde

(Reuters) – The arrest of Northern Irish political leader Gerry Adams Wednesday in connection with a violent abduction at the height of the Irish “Troubles” decades ago surprised many people inside and outside of Northern Ireland.

Adams, president of Sinn Fein since it was the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, now presides over an influential party. He is accused of having ordered the 1972 “disappearance” of Jean McConville — then wrongly believed to be a British informant — when he was the alleged commanding officer of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, a militant organization affiliated with Sinn Fein. The disappearance of McConville, a mother of 10, is one of the most notorious acts of the “Troubles,” the violent insurgency that gripped Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 and killed over 3,500 people.

Adams’s connection has come under renewed scrutiny because of allegations made by former IRA militants. As part of the Belfast Project, an oral history project run through Boston College, several prominent former IRA members fingered Adams as a key figure in the McConville killing, ordering her death. Adams denied those claims, even as he turned himself in to the police.

The most damaging allegations were made by Brendan Hughes, the former IRA commander in Belfast. When Hughes died in 2008 the Belfast Project released tapes of his interviews, which the Northern Ireland police confiscated after a prolonged trial. The police also seized interviews of at least 11 other participants in the Belfast Project.​

Adams’s arrest is as much about the future of peace and reconciliation in Ireland as it is about the individual sins of one man. Unlike Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Adams has not admitted his role in the violence. Worse than not coming clean, Adams has actively concealed the truth of his involvement and worked to suppress and discredit those who have sought to bring light to the subject.

Today, Adams is celebrated for his prominent role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Indeed, it was under Adams’s guidance that Sinn Fein began to assert its primacy over the IRA militants. It is fair to say that, without this shift in strategy, the Irish Peace Process would never have happened.

As a result, many of Adams’s supporters see him as an Irish Nelson Mandela, who turned his back to violence and enabled a peaceful transition to power-sharing and inclusive democracy. In their eyes, the arrest for a killing in 1972 is all part of a cynical political plot to destroy Adams’s personal reputation and undermine Sinn Fein’s rise to political prominence throughout the island of Ireland.

But this comparison is misplaced. Mandela, speaking to South Africa’s vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission, admitted his role in the African National Congress’ violent campaign against the oppressive apartheid regime. His admissions, and similar acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict, were fundamental to helping the country move beyond its deeply divided past into a more promising, prosperous, and peaceful future.

Although Northern Ireland has never had a truth commission of its own, with guarantees of general amnesty for participants, many prominent figures in the conflict have nonetheless admitted their past activities.

Most notably, Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness told the Saville Inquiry that he was the second in command of the Derry IRA in the early 1970s. Anthony McIntyre, one of the principal investigators for the Boston College project and a sharp critic of both Adams and McGuinness, has been even more frank in admitting his membership and involvement in the IRA, and other prominent former Republicans have done likewise.

Adams, in contrast, has maintained the façade that he was never directly involved with the IRA. Most analysts agree, however, that he was heavily involved in planning IRA actions before his political career in Sinn Fein took off. For proof, they cite his participation in the 1972 ceasefire talks held between the IRA and then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw.

Adams has actively sought to distort and conceal the truth on both the McConville case in particular and his IRA involvement more broadly. In one notorious instance, he denied his involvement in McConville’s killing, telling members of her family “Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared.” He was, in fact, free at the time.

Similarly, Adams has dismissed McIntyre’s research as “shoddy.” After Irish journalist Ed Moloney published his 2002 book A Secret History of the IRA, which made similar claims about Adams’ involvement in the McConville case, Adams consulted an attorney about a possible libel suit. Tellingly, despite Britian’s favourable libel laws, Adams never pursued the charges.

Adams’s refusal to confront his past — and that of his country — is why his arrest is not simply about getting justice for McConville and her family. Nor is it a matter of political revenge, although the timing of the arrest — less than one month before the European elections in which Sinn Fein was projected to make significant gains — gives it a strongly political tinge.

Rather, Adams’s arrest is also about the future of peace and reconciliation in Ireland. It is about a nation that is still healing, and a process of reconciliation that requires all of its leaders — Northern and Southern, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, British and Irish — to be truthful about their former actions.

The time has come for Adams to play his part in that process.

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