It is a difficult time for Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. His brother Liam has been found guilty of rape against his own daughter, and questions have been asked about how much Gerry Adams knew about his brother’s actions and, if he did know, why he didn’t do anything about it.
While this has been damaging to Sinn Fein’s leader, it is something from further in Adams past that is causing real controversy. Ever since the recent BBC documentary on the ‘disappeared’ Adams has been on the defensive over his past. While the documentary came out with no new evidence, it does raise the question of why Adams will not come clean about his past.
If there is a hierarchy of victims of the Troubles, then right at the top are the 16 people abducted, murdered and secretly buried by Republicans (15 by the PIRA and 1 by the INLA). Even amongst these 16 victims there is one that stands out above the rest. That is the case of Jean McConville.
Jean McConville was abducted and murdered in 1972, leaving behind ten children. Her body wasn’t found until a walker discovered it on Shelling Hill beach in 2003. At first the IRA denied any involvement in the killing, before later claiming she was acting as an informant for the British. The Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, Nuala O’Loan, found in 2006 that there was no evidence to suggest she had any involvement with any intelligence gathering organisations. Jean McConville’s family tell a very different story. They say she was murdered because she had tended to a wounded soldier outside her home. Regardless, it is clear that McConville as an outsider in a tightknit community surely . While she was married to a catholic (who was dead at the time of her murder), she was herself a protestant living in the heart of Republican West Belfast, in the Divis Flats.
Where does Gerry Adams fit into this story? He has always maintained he was never a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). But many believe that the available evidence all belies this claim. The BBC documentary featured a recorded interview of former senior IRA commander (and one time close ally of Adams) Brendan Hughes, who was very clear there was only one man who could have ordered the murder. Hughes is now dead and his interview is part of the Boston College oral history project, with a number of figures from different paramilitary groups taping interviews to be released upon their death. Hughes not only says that Adams ordered the murder of Jean McConville, but he is also very clear that Adams was the IRA’s commander in Belfast at the time.
Hughes is not alone. The documentary also featured an interview with Billy McKee, one of the founding members of the PIRA and a former commander of the terrorist organisation in Belfast. He challenged Adams to look him in the eye and tell him that he was never involved in the IRA, leaving the clear impression that he believed that Adams had been involved in the 1970s.
Dolours Price, another senior IRA figure, also had a story to tell before her death earlier this year. Price, along with others including senior Sinn Fein member (and close ally of Adams) Gerry Kelly, were convicted of the bombing of the Old Bailey in 1973. It has been alleged that she was part of a special hit squad who took orders directly from Adams, and which may have been involved in the murder of Jean McConville. Price alleges that Adams was not only a senior member of the IRA, but that he was also the man who gave the order to kill Jean McConville.
Adams has always repeatedly asserted that he had “no act or part” in the abduction and murder and that and that his accusers have been “telling lies”. When Jean McConville’s case was generating pressure from Sinn Fein’s American backers during the 1990s he told the family how glad he was to have been interned at the time of the murder so therefore not linked to it. Adams was not interned until March, while the murder occurred in December. I suspect that he knows when he was interned, but only he knows whether or not he was consciously lying.
It has never been made clear what motive former IRA militants had in making such accusations against Adams, nor has it been established in a court of law that Adams had anything to do with the McConville killing.
The controversy around this particular aspect of Adams’ past has caused him considerable political damage. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has previously challenged him to come clean over his involvement in the murder. Kenny has also accused Adams of having not only been a member of the IRA but a member of its leadership group, the Army Council. Could this be the reason that Martin McGuinness stood in the last Irish Presidential election instead of Adams? While McGuinness is a former senior IRA member himself, he has admitted involvement as part of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Could any political party potentially enter a coalition government with Sinn Fein while Adams is still their leader? This is a question that the party has to answer before the next election, where they may well hold the balance of power.
Jean McConville’s murder is indicative of a greater problem for Adams. Very few people genuinely believe that he had no involvement with the IRA during the Troubles. The British government certainly believed he was, interning him as a member in 1972 and then releasing him to negotiate as a senior IRA member, which continued on and off until the Good Friday Agreement.
Adams has always called the allegations against him lies and libel, but he has never tried to prove this in court. I think we can take an educated guess as to why he is wary of publicly testing his innocence.
What the former MP for West Belfast did in the past is very important, especially due to his party’s demand for a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the Troubles. If Sinn Féin’s leader isn’t perceived as being fully honest about his activities during the troubles, how can they expect anyone else to be?
The past is always controversial, no more so than in Northern Ireland. It is said that history is written by the winners, but no one ‘won’ the Troubles. There is no accepted narrative about what really happened; every side and subsection has their own version – as do I. There is no way that Northern Ireland can break away from the sectarianism that still mars it to this day, without dealing with the past in some way. The problems with doing this are perfectly illustrated by the McConville case and Adams’ reluctance to discuss his past.
It is the time for the truth about the Troubles to be established. Adams claims to be a leader of Northern Ireland; it is time for him to lead by example. There is only one way to do this, and that is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about his own past and about the events surrounding the Jean McConville’s murder.