Gerry Adams’s Arrest: A Case of Peace vs. Justice?

The arrest of Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin, on allegations that he was involved in the abduction and killing of Jean McConville in 1972 has caused quite the stir. Many are wondering what the implications of Adams’s arrest will be for Northern Ireland’s peace process. The crux of the debate concerns the relationship and tensions between maintaining peace and achieving justice. I wrote the article below for the Globe and Mail who were gracious enough to allow me to repost it, in its entirety, here. 

Jean McConville and three of her ten children.

Jean McConville and three of her ten children.

Peace is a process. It takes time and, because it tends to be fragile, it requires careful cultivation. At the same time, communities increasingly expect that peace will allow for mechanisms to achieve justice. Without prosecuting those responsible for human rights violations and atrocities, peace is often seen as somehow incomplete.

This week, the expectations of cultivating peace and pursuing justice came into sharp relief in Northern Ireland. Investigations are ongoing into crimes committed during the Troubles, a period which began in the late 1960s and ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The period was characterized by incessant sectarian violence, primarily between Protestant groups loyal to the United Kingdom and Catholic republican forces.

Last week investigators honed in on the long-time president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, and his alleged role in the 1972 kidnapping and murder of 38-year old widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville.

Adams has been a stalwart and a chief broker in the tumultuous peace process since the 1980s and has carefully cultivated his image as something of a patron saint of Northern Ireland’s peace process. With his arrest, Northern Ireland now finds itself in a position all too familiar to transitional states: weighing the imperatives of pursuing justice with the prerogatives of maintaining peace.

The peace in Northern Ireland remains delicate. Tensions continue to simmer. Dozens of politically inspired murders remain unsolved. Major cities continue to be heavily segregated. Official tour guides pointedly refuse to discuss any recent acts of violence, focusing instead on events from the 1970s and 1980s – periods better protected by the passage of time. A two-story high corrugated iron fence, ironically named “Peace Wall,” carves the capital of Belfast, demarcating Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods.

While sectarian violence has dramatically diminished, it has not yet been extinguished. Militants continue to be “knee-capped” – often by their own sectarian ’side’. Rather than attempting to avoid such fates, victims voluntarily appear before their perpetrators. As one local Belfast resident explained to this author in 2013, the options are clear: “it’s either a bullet in the knee or a bullet in the head.” Despite a commitment from political figures – by both sides of the sectarian divide – to eliminate political violence and eradicate so-called ’punishment shootings’, knee-capping continues. Today, Northern Ireland has become a leading hub for knee cap reconstruction surgery. What many fear is that it could be worse, that Adams’ arrest and potential prosecution will unravel the peace process and instigate a renewal of paramilitary violence.

Republican demonstrators gather at a mural depicting and praising Adams's role in the peace process (Photo: AP)

Republican demonstrators gather at a mural depicting and praising Adams’s role in the peace process (Photo: AP)

The McConville case poses two stark and highly related tests for Northern Ireland. First, is the peace secure enough for justice to run its course? And second, can fair and impartial justice be achieved?

Symptomatic of post-conflict justice is the fact that evidence dredged up for prosecutions long after the alleged crimes have been committed is often unreliable. The evidence against Adams comes, literally, from beyond the grave. Starting in 2001, former Republicans and Loyalists agreed to be interviewed for an academic oral history project at Boston College. A number of the Irish Republican Army participants – who also happen to be political adversaries of Adams – pinpoint Adams as being responsible for McConville’s murder. After lengthy legal wrangling, and despite requests not to release the interviews from former Massachusetts Senator and current US Secretary of State John Kerry, documents from the interviews were eventually turned over to authorities in Northern Ireland. However, the evidence may ultimately be unreliable in a court of law, as their allegations cannot be verified and, due to their deaths, the accusers can never be cross-examined.

The timing of Adams’ arrest has also raised concerns. In particular, Adams’ and his supporters argue that the arrest was timed in order to hamper Sinn Féin chances in upcoming elections in the Republic of Ireland. The U.K. government has responded that no political consideration was given to the timing of the arrest.

But the reality is that there is no clear-cut moment when it becomes feasible for transitional societies to unearth the truth about past crimes and atrocities. A key condition for doing so is a sense of security – the belief that pursuing justice won’t result in violence or intimidation towards potential witnesses. While it is popular to suggest that the truth is the first casualty of war, it often takes many years after the end of war before a tangible commitment to the truth can be resuscitated. In Northern Ireland, this condition has not yet been met. With the passage of time, however, the pervasive fear of retribution for truth-telling in Northern Ireland seems to have subsided.

Fearing violent retaliation from the IRA, one of McConville’s sons has refused to provide the names of those whom he witnessed abduct his mother. His sister, however, has declared that she is willing provide full testimony to the police. When asked by the BBC if she feared for her safety in giving up names to the police, Helen McKendry defiantly responded: “They’ve done so much to me already in the past 42 years, what are they going to do? Come and put a bullet in my head? Well, they know where I live.”

The remains of Jean McConville are removed from the Shelling Hill Beach location where they were finally found in 2003 (Photo: Alan Lewis)

The remains of Jean McConville are removed from the Shelling Hill Beach location where they were finally found in 2003 (Photo: Alan Lewis)

While necessary, however, the shedding of social fear isn’t enough. If justice is to be achieved, it must be perceived to be impartial and fair. To be clear, it is not the prosecution of Adams that risks undermining the peace process but the perception that the nationalists may be unfairly and unduly targeted for a period of horrors for which all sides bear responsibility.

Atrocities were committed by all sides during the Troubles. An asymmetric distribution of guilt and the deliverance of uneven justice poses a real threat to any post-conflict society built on a fragile coalition of pro-peace forces. At the same time, there is a need to be wary of figures using the tension between peace and justice for cynical purposes. Many are genuinely concerned. But others will do so to inspire violence or because it represents a salient way to escape political and judicial scrutiny.

Ultimately, the threat that accountability will undermine peace will continue to loom as long as crimes are left unaccounted for and the truth is suppressed. Only by setting the record straight, shedding light on unfortunate truths and accounting for crimes can the potential menace of justice to Northern Ireland’s peace process be eliminated. But, as the people of Northern Ireland know as well as anyone, that is much easier said than done.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Northern Ireland, Peace Processes, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Gerry Adams’s Arrest: A Case of Peace vs. Justice?

  1. Gary Jessop says:

    This case is unrelated to equality before the law. Even if Gerry Adams is implicated in the murder of Jean McConville (and the evidence looks inadmissible) his later efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland surely atone for any crime. It’s a compromise of course but, as a practical matter peace must trump justice to reduce the chances of fresh violence. That’s the best we can hope for in a society whose memories are still fresh. We can revert to blind justice once the wounds have healed, possibly in the next generation.

  2. Stan Matwin says:

    Very interesting, Marek! And indeed, I agree with Gary: Adams is a different person from the one he was 40 years ago. He was a major contributor to the peace accords.

    It would be fascinating to loomk at other case like this. I have read that Santiago Carillo, the leader of the Spanish communist party in the 70s and 80s and a major contributor the a peaceful transition of his country from dictatorship to democracy, was “implicated” in massive cilivil war crimes at the end of the civil war in Spain, at the time when the Republicans were being pushed out of Madrid, and he was the head of Communist Youth. And yet the democratic Spain, 40 years later, never prosecuted him. Was this right? or wrong? How many years have to lapse before it stops to be a legal and becomes a moral responsibility? Are there cultural differences between societies regardingthis question?

  3. Criminal justice system is too focused on retribution to deliver justice holistically. Allowing police, like law, to take its own mechanistic course does more harm in the long run.We should learn from Mandela.

  4. Luke Moffett (@reparationsni) says:

    Great piece Mark. I would hope that even if Adams was charged in the disappearance of Jean McConville our politicians would have faith in the rule of law and questions of guilt or innocence to be resolved through the courts and the burden of proof, rather than bringing down the government. I completely agree that an asymmetrical distribution of justice can destabilise even long term peace processes, while Northern Ireland did not arise to scale of international crimes, it definitely evinces the practical difficulties in dealing with the past.

    The Prosecution and Police Service in Northern Ireland are pursing a number of cases related to the past, the question is finding sufficient evidence, with paramilitaries blowing up the forensic labs and police stations, witnesses dying or memories fading, it is incredibly difficult to secure a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. The Historical Enquiries Team was established in 2005 to review all unsolved cases (some 2,000) during the Troubles/conflict in Northern Ireland, so far only 3 convictions have been reached. Due to a deal as part of the Good Friday Agreement these individuals will only serve two years. There are other processes to obtain the truth such as the coroners’ inquest, but these have been plagued with delays, and generally focus on state use of force or collusion, leaving little avenue for redress for the majority of victims who suffered at the hands of paramilitaries.

    While it is all good and well saying individuals have contributed to peace, what peace are we building if we allow impunity for certain individuals, particularly for serious crimes? That said, it is all good and well looking forward to the future and enjoying the peace, but for many victims in Northern Ireland they have yet to receive acknowledgement and remedy of their suffering, the truth as to who was responsible, and some form of justice. As echoed by Kathryn Stone last week on Newsnight, some victims will say that “It’s very difficult to move on if you’ve lost a leg …if there’s an empty space in the bed.”

    The Haass-O’Sullivan proposals at the end of last year put forward a dual system of truth recovery while keeping the door open to any future prosecutions. What has been a success in Northern Ireland is the use of use-immunities, where individuals can provide information without it being admissible in a criminal or civil court, such processes as the Commission for the Recovery of those disappeared has allowed Republican to provide information which has led to the recovery of the remains of a number of those disappeared. The Haass-O’Sullivan proposals suggest such a mechanism through their information recovery unit.

    There are no easy answers, Northern Ireland is a very specific situation, with a long historical, geographical, social, and political context that shapes the contours of the transitional justice process. What is clear, is that victims want great attention to their needs, the ability to find out the truth, justice where possible, and remedy and acknowledgement for their suffering. Perhaps the continuing needs of victims in the aftermath of violence is the most comparable lesson for Northern Ireland to situations such as DRC, Uganda and Kenya; if they are not addressed, the ghosts of the past will haunt any future peace and stability.

    I would suggest checking out our website on these issues:

    And the report of the Commission for Victims and Survivors on Dealing with the Past in light of the breakdown in the Haass-O’Sullivan talks:

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