A Terrible Beauty: The Gerry Adams Story Continues


For those who missed it, Gerry Adams was arrested in Northern Ireland on April 30 in connection with the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville in December 1972. The Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) extended his detention for several days, and then released him without formal charges. Further evidence is being submitted to the Public Prosecution Service, and prosecution lawyers will decide if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.

For Americans unfamiliar with Northern Ireland, the McConville case is one of the ugliest episodes in the Troubles. McConville, a widowed mother of ten, was dragged from her home in Divis Flats, West Belfast by a team of up to a dozen men and women, reportedly members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). She was accused of being an informant, interrogated, and executed, and then her body was buried over 50 miles from Belfast. The murder was controversial enough that the PIRA refused to take responsibility for it, only admitting their involvement in 1999 after the ceasefire that ended the conflict. McConville’s body was found in 2003.

This arrest is important for a number of reasons, which vary based on perspective. For historians, it reinforces the old truth that violence in Ireland resonates for generations, and raises troubling legal questions about archival research and interviews. For analysts of terrorism and conflict resolution, it raises important questions about termination of violent conflicts, negotiations with non-state actors, the security of post-war political arrangements, and the role of truth, justice, and vengeance in reaching an acceptable peace. For those who seek to use the Northern Irish Peace Process as a model for other conflicts, it reemphasizes the tenuous separation between “political” and “military” wings of the Irish Republican movement in the 1980s and 1990s. For analysts of Irish and Northern Irish politics, it reopens questions about Adams’ role in the re-emergence of Sinn Fein and raises questions about that party’s future.  But to all, it again reinforces the pain and suffering of the families of Northern Ireland, and the vicious, dark side of irregular warfare.

Historians will not be surprised to see memories of violence re-emerging after more than a decade of peace, particularly in Ireland. After all, the two major parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are descended from the two opposing sides in the Irish Civil War. Fianna Fail continued to have an ambiguous relationship with the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) well into the 1930s, and that relationship re-emerged at the beginning of the Troubles in 1969-1970. Leading Irish political figures — including but not limited to Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Sean Lemass, Sean MacBride, and Frank Aiken — served as members of the IRA in the struggle for Irish independence and the civil war that followed before entering political life.

Adams is similar — a complex figure who evolved from charismatic ideologue and street fighter to effective politician. Widely reported to have played a major role in the PIRA leadership in the 1970s, he publicly separated himself from the operational side of PIRA violence, becoming first vice-president and later president of Sinn Fein, the PIRA’s “political wing” in the 1980s. According to Ed Moloney, Adams became a member of the PIRA Army Council in 1977, and remained a member of the Army Council after 1982, when he no longer held a military position in the IRA and was elected to public office. In this role — the only non-“military” member of the PIRA Army Council — Adams was the leader in shaping IRA strategy in the 1980s, in developing Sinn Fein electoral and political efforts, and in moving the Irish Republican movement towards the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles in 1998. Although Moloney is accused of personal bias against Gerry Adams, his book provides a balanced assessment of Adams as a highly capable political leader.

Moloney’s role in this controversy is direct and unfortunate, as a research project he founded may provide critical evidence in this case. Moloney conceived of an archival project,  the Boston College IRA/UVF Oral History Project, interviewing former members of armed groups from both the Republican and Loyalist communities to capture their memories for the historical record. A similar project, carried out by the Irish government has provided a wealth of data for historians at the Bureau of Military History. Dozens of former paramilitaries were interviewed, and promised that their transcripts would not be made public until after their deaths. It does not appear that either the project organizers or Boston College did extensive research into the legal validity of that promise. In 2010, Moloney published Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, based on the interviews of the recently deceased David Ervine and Brendan Hughes, the latter a close friend, ally, and confidante of Adams throughout the Troubles. In an interview transcript included in the book, Hughes accuses Adams of responsibility in the decision to both execute and “disappear” Jean McConville. Shortly after publication, the British government asked the U.S. to hand over this and other tapes and interview transcripts as part of an ongoing investigation into the McConville case. Recent interrogations of both Adams and Ivor Bell (see below) were based on these archival transcripts. The legal case surrounding release of these interviews is complex and disturbing to many historians.

Analysts of irregular war and conflict resolution should pay close attention to this case. How can former violent opponents of a state negotiate a peace if they cannot be confident of some level of legal immunity in the peace that follows? This is not an argument to excuse or exonerate Adams. But given the difficulty of “negotiating with terrorists,” how much of an obstacle will legal immunity become in the future, given the Adams example? After all, Adams has been a member of either the British or the Irish parliament for 30 years, negotiated a ceasefire and disarmed one of the most persistent and competent terrorist groups in the world, and is the leader of one of the most important political parties in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. He still was arrested for a 40-year-old murder more than 15 years after the end of the war. What obstacles will this pose to future efforts to negotiate settlements between armed minorities and governments?

The case also raises fundamental questions about the role of truth, justice, and vengeance in securing a lasting peace. In the wake of the arrest, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian made a powerful argument that the needs of peace outweigh the McConvilles’ desire for justice:

But we should remember that Helen McKendry made two demands: for justice, yes, but also for truth. If the former is impossible, there is no reason why the latter should forever be out of reach. It’s telling that South Africa’s solution was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – with no mention of justice, a tacit admission that truth might be the most the victims could hope for and, through the truth, eventual reconciliation.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, in response, made an equally powerful argument that peace requires justice, and that Adams is not above the law. As she points out,

…in the Good Friday Agreement, approved in 1998 in referenda north and south of the border, there was no amnesty – only a concession to the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes that if found guilty, they would serve only two years in jail.

Justice, in many cases, is inextricably linked with vengeance. As part of the pursuit of justice, the perpetrator must somehow pay for the crimes that have been committed.  In some cases, like South Africa, the community has decided that a simple revelation of the truth is enough. In the case of the Holocaust, determined investigators continue to hunt the guilty, and Adolf Eichmann was famously captured in Buenos Aires in 1960, tried in Israel, and executed. In Northern Ireland, vengeance is a common commodity, and although the McConvilles may pursue justice without vengeance in their hearts, Adams’ many enemies would surely love to take advantage of the case for other purposes.

As mentioned above, Adams’ record with the PIRA is disputed by no one but himself and his Sinn Fein Party, which produced great moments of awkwardness for party leadership after his arrest. He was part of a team with five other members of the PIRA leadership that participated in a secret mission to London to negotiate with the British government in 1972. Moloney contends he was commander of the Belfast Brigade of the PIRA in 1972 — the most important unit in the fiercest combat zone during the most violent year of the Troubles. Moloney further suggests (and many British and Irish analysts agree) that he was head of the PIRA Army Council while not technically being a member of the PIRA, and was simultaneously the president of Sinn Fein. The firewall between political and military wings of the Republican movement, therefore, was fairly thin.

This should not come as a surprise to observers of 20th century Irish history. Throughout the turbulent history of the IRA and Sinn Fein, key figures in the “political wing” were former or active IRA leaders.  One could argue, theoretically, that having a “political” leader on the Army Council was the best way to assert greater vision and control on an organization that distrusted politics and glorified violence and armed resistance. Adams and other leaders of the Republican movement in the 1980-1997 period had a reputation for effective organization, careful strategy, and ruthless violence. Without that reputation, they could not have led the IRA to the peace table.

Embracing the political myth of an Adams sympathetic to the PIRA’s struggle but somehow unengaged with it is probably bad history. Accepting the analytical myth that Sinn Fein was remote from the PIRA’s violence is equally bad history, and could lead to deeply flawed analysis. Anyone extrapolating from the Sinn Fein case needs to carefully examine the close synchronization between Republican political and violent efforts. In the eyes of some of his Republican critics, Adams looks much more like Mao than like George Washington or John Adams.

Sinn Fein, the only party which contests elections in both Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, has responded to the arrest with charges of a political attack by the “dark” side of the Northern Irish security forces. This is ironic as Sinn Fein has been a strong supporter of the new Police Service Northern Ireland, which is carrying out the investigation. In addition, Sinn Fein took more than 24 hours to put up a formal statement on the arrest at its website, and the initial response was frustrated and sometimes incoherent.

It is surprising that the highly organized Sinn Fein political apparatus was not more prepared for this contingency. Adams’ name has regularly been associated with the McConville case; his former colleague and close collaborator Ivor Bell was arrested on similar charges in March 2014, and Adams voluntarily appeared at the Antrim police station, accompanied by his attorney. The tale of the subpoenaed Boston College tapes is more than two years old, and former PIRA member Dolours Price basically confirmed the accusations of Adams’ involvement in the McConville execution in interviews held in 2010 and 2012.

How this will affect Sinn Fein’s political fortunes is unclear. Adams is a dominant figure in the party, but also moved his constituency from Northern Ireland to the Republic in 2011. His affiliation with the PIRA is probably more of an asset in Northern Ireland than in the Republic (the leader of Sinn Fein in the north is former PIRA leader Martin McGuinness). In the north, in fact, a brief prison stint may actually be an electoral advantage. In the Republic, however, Sinn Fein has been capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction with traditional parties and policies, and was anticipated to again make gains in local and European elections. Sinn Fein’s reflexive response was to criticize the political nature of the arrest and reiterate the declaration that Adams was never in the PIRA. All this suggests party concerns that any news relinking Sinn Fein in the Republic to its violent roots in Northern Ireland will hinder its Irish electoral prospects. It is not, however, clear that the impact will be a long-term one, as the more traditional political and economic issues on which Sinn Fein’s success has been based to date might well prove more important to Irish voters.

The most important element of the arrest, however, is how it highlights the devastation of the victims of the Troubles. Jean McConville was a Protestant, who married a Catholic ex-soldier, converted to Catholicism, and then was forced out of her home in East Belfast by Loyalist threats. Of the ten children in the family, one died shortly thereafter from a protracted illness, and the others went into foster care or to live with other families. McConville’s then 11-year-old son Michael claims to know the identity of some of her abductors, but will not talk out of fear of IRA retaliation, despite Sinn Fein’s call for him to speak openly. Helen McKendry, McConville’s then 15-year-old daughter, has stated that she will name names, and reports suggest that at least one of the eight men and four women engaged in the abduction was not wearing a mask (this report also states that Michael was kidnapped by the PIRA, held at gunpoint, and forced to promise he would never report his mother had been abducted).

It is likely that at least some of the abductors would have been known to the family. Divis Flats in West Belfast was a close community, with a prominent PIRA presence, and McConville had already been threatened and beaten by the PIRA over claims of collaboration with the British. Brendan Hughes insisted in his testimony that he had found a “transmitter” in her flat. Investigators have dismissed claims of collaboration as spurious; there is no evidence from British records that McConville was in contact with the police or army. More likely, she was suspect because she was once a Protestant, married an ex-soldier, and was not a long-time resident of the community.

It is not clear that Adams will ever be tried, much less convicted. The key witnesses against him are deceased, and the Boston College researchers are determined not to cooperate with an investigation they believe is based on illegally acquired interviews. He has many devoted followers and loyal supporters, but also has a long list of powerful enemies. This case will not vanish, nor will those of the many other murders, kidnappings, and crimes committed in the 30 years of Northern Ireland’s war.

And that is only right. The passions and resentments war causes linger long after its end. Societies struggle to make peace possible, and then to make it last. As Carl von Clausewitz says in On War, “ … in war the result is rarely ever final.” This is particularly the case in Ireland, where an ideology supporting violence in the Republican cause has survived for over a century, and underwrote wars against British rule in 1916, 1919, 1939, 1956, and 1969. These wars have been dirty, nasty conflicts, with too many innocent victims and too many of the victims killed while alone and afraid. Balancing the demands for truth, justice, and vengeance with the desire for a lasting peace will not be easy.

Ireland has seen enormous political change in the 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement. The Queen of England has visited Dublin, and Martin McGuinness has visited the queen. The Democratic Unionist Party has made an uneasy peace with Sinn Fein — stranger bedfellows are hard to imagine. After Adams’ release, Sinn Fein publicly compared him to Nelson Mandela. Mandela, however, was in prison and a symbolic figure for most of South Africa’s freedom struggle. Gerry Adams, it appears, was an operational commander — and until that question is finally settled, he will remain a magnet for attention, resentment, and distrust — one of the most able figures in the Republican pantheon, but also one of the most divisive.


Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other institution of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: Sinn Féin