Six months ago, Malachi O’Doherty claimed that with his arrest over the murder of Jean McConville, Gerry Adams’ political career was as good as over; “Adams’s southern political ambitions are now dead, whatever happens next”. Just a month later, following European and Local elections that saw Sinn Féin maintain their position in Northern Ireland and surge in the Republic of Ireland, the talk turned, in Colm Keena’s words, to whether Sinn Féin “will hold the position of Dublin Lord Mayor in Easter 2016”. Maíria Cahill’s claims of her rape at the hands of a Provisional IRA member and her subsequent treatment at the hands of the republican movement have in recent weeks returned the spotlight to Sinn Féin. And that is before we even mention the “On-The-Runs” crisis which threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland in the spring. And yet, Sinn Féin seems to have been able to shake off each successive crisis and continues to see its popularity surge according to recent polls.
What links the reporting of all of these events are persistent questions over Sinn Féin’s commitment to the rule of law. The four days that Adams spent in Antrim police station, with its supposedly inedible meals, were the product of the PSNI’s success in its long-running quest to secure the Boston College tapes. The tapes recorded the experiences of members of the Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries in the Troubles on the basis of pledges that the recordings would not be released until after their deaths. As historian Cliff Kuhn, interviewed in the Times Higher Education, put it, “most people doing projects that involve criminal acts take precautions to make sure that promises are not made that can’t be kept.” In their recorded interviews prominent republicans from Brendan Hughes to Delores Price make claims regarding Adams’ involvement in Jean McConville’s murder. As soon as the PSNI became aware of this trove of potential evidence, they took steps to gain access. As I wrote in these pages last summer, the PSNI’s successful legal battle to secure the tapes had the potential to derail power sharing in Northern Ireland. With Adams’ arrest the worst fears of a dramatic implosion seemed set to be realised.
But then the wheels came off the investigation. An arrest under the Terrorism Act 2000 does not have to carry with it a high likelihood of subsequent charges to be lawful, as the then PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott made clear, but uncorroborated recordings of accounts of 42-year-old events made for a thin evidential basis on which to pursue charges. The use of extended detention powers under the Terrorism Act played into Sinn Féin’s narrative of “securocrats” and “dark forces” within the PSNI, blinded from the damage they were doing to the peace process by their attitudes to the Republican movement. Sinn Féin’s continued support for the PSNI in these circumstances not only defused the crisis in the peace process, but allowed Gerry Adams to position himself as magnanimous (to the incredulity of Unionist thinking).
The On-the-Runs (OTR) scandal followed a similar trajectory. Erupting in February following the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey for the Hyde Park bombing on the basis that the accused had been given an official “letter of assurance” that he was not wanted in the United Kingdom (and that the prosecution thereby amounted to an abuse of process), the scandal quickly embroiled Sinn Féin in accusations of secret deals and claims of scant regard for the rule of law. Questions over whether the return of on-the-run individuals, many of whom linked to the Provisional IRA, should be linked to their long-term commitment to the rule of law and constitutional politics have dogged the issue (when he was leader of the Labour Party, Ruairí Quinn questioned the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on this issue back in 2002). But for Dame Heather Hallett, chair of the Inquiry into the scandal, questions like this (and the official responses) pointed to a general knowledge amongst political actors engaged in the peace process. This very much scotched the histrionic disavowals by leading Unionists (see her Report, at 2.62):
In all the thousands of documents we have examined, there is just one reference to Gerry Adams suggesting that it would be better if there was an “invisible” process for dealing with the OTRs. This appears in a minute prepared by UK officials on 30 May 2001. Gerry Adams did not approve the minute and does not recall the comment. He does not accept that he argued for the process to be kept secret at any stage. We have found no other record of attempts by Sinn Féin or anyone else positively trying to prevent the scheme from becoming public knowledge.
Maíria Cahill’s revelations again call into question Sinn Féin’s commitment to the rule of law, but with different effect from the earlier scandals. In the Republic of Ireland, the general public seem more willing than political commentators to seal off the darkest days of the Troubles and separate them from contemporary politics. Similarly, wheeler dealing over loose ends in the Northern Ireland peace process is by-and-large shrugged off as par for the course. And accounts have long circulated of sexual offenders (including Adams’ own brother, Liam) being relocated from Northern Ireland to the Republic in order to protect against the possibility of the UK security services using such allegations as leverage to force them to act as informants. Michael Martin accused the republican movement of being associated with numerous cases of protecting sexual offenders in the aftermath of Liam Adams’ conviction. The Cahill case is different. It brings the story into Belfast of 1997, not 1972. In doing so, it tests the credibility of the current Sinn Féin leadership’s commitment to constitutional politics.
In these circumstances it is unsurprising that the Irish electorate’s attitude towards Gerry Adams has seen a dip, whilst Sinn Féin’s star continues to rise to all-time highs in the latest polls. Adams (and even Roy Greenslade, in his Guardian blog) have been quick to suggest a smear campaign at work:
These type of smears against me without any substance whatsoever or against the party of Sinn Féin, a proud party which makes mistakes of course we do and we’re not perfect, but any suggestion or innuendo or indeed assertion that I or the party which I’m very proud to be a part of was involved in any cover up whatsoever is entirely wrong.
Given the absence of a sustained media campaign in the Republic of Ireland in light of the OTR scandal or Adams’ arrest, the idea that Gerry Adams is now somehow being “demonised” seem scarcely credible. The unanswered questions which swirl around Adams on this issue are of a different magnitude of importance for constitutional politics than the ongoing will-he-pay, won’t-he-pay saga of Adams’ future water bill (if it wasn’t beyond parody that Sinn Féin’s strategy for recapturing the media agenda did not involve a dart into populist law breaking). For Adams continues to try to achieve that most difficult of political tricks. Unlike Martin McGuinness, with admission of involvement in the Provisional IRA’s leadership, his handshake with the Queen, his emotion at Ian Paisley’s funeral and his slog through Government as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, Adams has tried to remain out of phase with the politics in Northern Ireland. He presents himself to the Republic’s electorate as being of the peace process, but removed from the messy compromises required for it to work on a day-to-day basis. Just over a month older than Prince Charles, he seems to be in the curiously similar position of still waiting for life’s great role. Unlike Prince Charles, Adams requires the assent of an electorate to fulfil that role, by bringing Sinn Féin into Government in the Republic. To succeed, the Irish people will have to accept that Adams has, separate from many amongst the younger generations of the party he leads, fully embraced constitutional politics. Sinn Féin may be making the best of its time in opposition in the Republic, but at the ballot box Adams’ leadership may yet prove more of a hindrance than a boon.