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This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)
This mural along the Falls Road of Belfast portrays Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams as a contemporary statesman. The police are more interested in his past. (PAUL HACKETT/Reuters)

The real threat to peace in Northern Ireland Add to ...

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake - James Joyce, Ulysses

The past is certainly proving to be a nightmare for long-time republican Gerry Adams, whose arrest last week has left Northern Ireland’s peace process in crisis.The dramatic turn of events – he has been released after four days in custody but may still face charges related to a murder that took place almost 42 years ago – raises important questions. Is the failure of Northern Ireland’s peace pact to deal with the sins of the past the real reason for the current crisis? And, by refusing to acknowledge the true nature of his background, did Mr. Adams bring this on himself?

For most of the quarter-century or so during which I reported on the violence, it was an accepted truth among nearly all my colleagues that, like the Middle East, this dispute was impervious to a peaceful resolution. It would go on, we reckoned, forever.

British troops had patrolled the streets of Belfast and the pretty lanes and byways of counties Tyrone and Armagh since 1969 and, while the carnage had declined from the bad, early years, the warring groups – the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which fought to reunite the north with the rest of Ireland, and Protestant paramilitaries that killed to keep it under the Union Jack – had stubbornly resisted all efforts by the British security forces to extinguish them.

The death toll surpassed 3,000 – equivalent (given that the population was just 1.5 million) to 600,000 in the United States and 70,000 in Canada, and large enough to be regarded as a civil war in most countries. The Troubles, as we Irish called the conflict, had touched nearly everyone. There was hardly a person in the place who had not had a family member, a friend, an acquaintance killed or injured, imprisoned, forced to flee their homes or affected in some way.

The political leaders of the divided Catholic and Protestant communities were as immovable as their paramilitary brethren. If anyone symbolized their inflexibility, it was the towering Ian Paisley, who seemed to roar “No!” to almost every suggestion for moving out of the morass.

And then suddenly the ice moved and cracked and things began to change. Of course, it had not happened suddenly, just out of view. Behind the scenes and for several years, unknown even to their supporters, leaders of the paramilitary groups had started to talk about peace.

Prime among the groups doing this was the IRA, whose political wing, Sinn Fein (Irish for We Ourselves), glimpsed the possibility of political gains if the violence ended.

In 1994, an IRA ceasefire was called. It broke down briefly, was restored and, in 1998, with the direct assistance of the U.S., British and Irish governments, the political parties brokered the Good Friday Agreement.

The Troubles had come to an end – or so it appeared.

The peace pact foresaw a power-sharing government in Belfast, a complete end to violence and the destruction of paramilitary arsenals, the release of prisoners and a new policing arrangement, one that was more acceptable to Catholics.

It took another eight long, hard years of negotiating to put all the pieces in place. Eventually the IRA agreed to decommission its weapons, and its political leaders accepted the new police. Strangely, or not, the two most extreme parties, Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, had gained most from the new dispensation, by now officially termed “the peace process.” Gorged with votes and now the dominant representatives of their communities, they formed the senior partners running the new government.

And so the world – and Northern Ireland – was treated to the extraordinary sight of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, and Ian Paisley, the “Mr. No” of local politics, in the two top jobs. A photo of them in 2006 seated side by side and grinning like Cheshire cats earned them the sobriquet, “the chuckle brothers.” The seemingly impossible and unthinkable had happened. Everything seemed rosy.

Who did what to whom

Fast-forward eight years, and not only does the future look less promising but it is the past that dominates. An almost daily squabble about who did what to whom, why, what happened and – most crucially – who should be brought to book and how, permeates both media coverage and the political discourse.

When constructing this most complex of peace deals, much thought and more energy were expended on how to remove the most obvious obstacles, like IRA guns or agreement on the policing of Northern Ireland, and almost none on how to resolve the unanswered questions of the past and, more important, how to bring solace to victims and the relatives of those killed.

That failure is now exacting a possibly destructive cost on the peace process. And in the wings are armed groups opposed to the accords, hoping for the worst.

It is in this context that the arrest of Mr. Adams, Sinn Fein’s longtime leader, has hit the headlines, complicating an already difficult problem.

Dealing with the past was prominent in my mind back in 2000 and 2001 when I was approached by a Belfast academic on behalf of Boston College with a proposal. The college library had a gap in its collection; there was almost nothing dealing with the conflict on its shelves. Did I have any ideas? College funding could be available.

For some time it was clear to me that the war in Ireland was coming to an end and someone had to think about making sure it was chronicled properly. When conflicts draw to a close, the accounts of what happened and why are invariably written by the winners and leaders who always have axes to grind and reputations to preserve or reshape.

Seldom do the activists at the bottom, those involved in the bloody cutting edge, get to tell their stories. The Irish government in Dublin had collected stories from IRA activists involved in the 1916-1921 War of Independence; the project had started in the late 1930s with publication postponed in case the stories had an inflammatory effect in the north. Only with the peace did these accounts start to emerge.

It was doubly necessary to do the same in Northern Ireland because of the length of the conflict, over 30 years. Those who had been 20 at the start were now middle-aged; those in their thirties and forties were approaching death. If it wasn’t started soon, it might be too late.

Boston College agreed. I also stressed the need for legal safety. The archive might not be immune to an American subpoena, but why would any U.S. law-and-order agency be interested in events in Ireland? It was the British we had to worry about.

The college agreed on one principle: Nothing would be allowed into the archive if it was at risk. Contracts we drew up giving the interviewees “ultimate” control over their tapes and transcripts until their death had been, we were assured by the college, vetted and approved by its lawyers. After the deaths of those interviewed, the material became the property of Boston College, to do with as it wished.

Sadly, we had been misled. College lawyers now admit they never examined the contracts, and the librarian who gave us the assurance has departed his post. The damage was done, though.

The U.S. and Britain have a treaty that allows the exchange of alleged criminal evidence, and it was invoked to obtain interviews conducted for the project. This was a disaster but also ironic; we had been happy working with a U.S. college because America was considered neutral by both sides. None of our interviewees or researchers would have trusted a British or Irish university to keep things secret.

But back to 2001 and the project’s beginnings. The first archive dealt with Irish republicans, primarily but not exclusively with the IRA. Another principle behind the project was unique. I had decided that the sensitivity of the subject made it impossible to use conventional oral-history researchers; they wouldn’t know whom to interview or what to ask, and the participants simply would not trust them. So we would need to recruit former combatants who were academically qualified – and, crucially, trusted and knowledgeable. Anthony McIntyre, an ex-member of the IRA who spent 18 years in prison, had later earned a doctorate in political science and his thesis dealt with the IRA in the 1970s. He was an ideal candidate.

We also started an archive dealing with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a ferocious pro-British, Protestant group that killed many people, mostly Catholics, often in awful ways. It, too, was part of the story, and we hired Wilson McArthur, a politics grad from a pro-UVF family. There also were plans to create an archive for the police, but the promised funding dried up.

By 2006 we had created a valuable archive from both sides of the conflict. While small – perhaps 40 interviewees altogether – it was unique and contained insights that would be valuable to historians.

That is when the college suddenly stopped funding. It had asked us to alter the terms of the contract to allow publication while the interviewees were still alive, and we’d refused. A few weeks later, the cheques stopped. We never did understand why but disappointment at our response was clearly a possibility.

IRA leadership a greasy pole

At the outset of the project, we faced a tricky dilemma. The UVF leadership had no problems co-operating with the researchers, but the IRA’s command would never have allowed its rank and file to take part. So it had to be kept in the dark.

The IRA is a much more controlling organization, and no one more so than Gerry Adams. He has been the president of Sinn Fein since 1982 and a member of the IRA’s leadership since the early 1970s. The IRA is a very greasy pole and to stay at the top as long as he has requires particularly sharp claws.

For reasons that even seasoned observers cannot understand, Mr. Adams decided, when the peace process began to get serious, to deny any and all association with the IRA. Now, while it is customary for members never to admit belonging to the IRA, not least because that would mean a jail term, they never deny it, either, because to do so means disowning their beliefs. If asked, IRA members usually refuse to comment or tell reporters to mind their own business.

Mr. Adams decided to deny his past completely, the first ever to do so. It may turn out to be the greatest mistake of his career.

To many of those in the IRA who had killed or maimed and gone to jail for lengthy terms, it looked as though he was seeking respectability, as the peace process brought him into the White House, to Hollywood and to the homes of the rich and powerful in the U.S. and elsewhere. Meanwhile they lingered in Belfast, disowned by their leader and with little to show for years of fighting.

One of those most upset was the late Dolours Price, famous for having led a bombing team that devastated the centre of London in 1973. Caught and jailed, she then embarked on a hunger strike for more than 200 days, kept alive by force feeding and nearly succumbing to anorexia.

“We had worked so closely with him and taken orders from him on many occasions,” she told a reporter in 2010 (three years before her death), “and then to deny us … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny belonging to the IRA. He is a liar.”

Also irate was Brendan Hughes, who had been in a leader of the Belfast IRA with Mr. Adams and was, in the 1970s, his closest friend. He agreed to be interviewed for the archive, telling Mr. McIntyre the denial “means that people like myself ... have to carry the responsibility for all those deaths, for sending men out to die and sending women out to die, and Gerry was sitting there ... trying to stop us from doing it? I’m disgusted by it because it’s so untrue and everybody knows it.”

Mr. Hughes and Ms. Price were both privy to, or involved in, the case that led to Mr. Adams’s arrest: perhaps the most pitiless murder of the Troubles.

It took place in December, 1972 – less than a year after the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings of Catholic marchers in Londonderry. Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 accused by the IRA of informing to the British Army, was abducted from her West Belfast apartment, shot and buried in an unmarked grave across the border. Her children were left to fend for themselves, and her body was not found for 31 years.

In his interview for the archive, Mr. Hughes said that Mr. Adams had given the order – a claim that he asked be kept confidential while he was still living. When it became public in my 2010 book, Voices From The Grave (he had died two years earlier), Ms. Price, who hadn’t mentioned the killing to the college, admitted that she had helped to ferry Mrs. McConville to the republic on Mr. Adams’ instructions.

Arrest is badly timed

In the wake of such revelations, police in Northern Ireland asked the U.S. Department of Justice to serve subpoenas on Boston College. They wanted the Hughes and Price interviews and, last fall, after a lengthy and controversial legal battle marked by conflict between the college and Irish researchers, finally got them.

This led to the arrest of Mr. Adams, which could not have come at a worse time for the peace process.

Months of squabbling over the past between the Irish political parties persuaded Washington to intervene. Last December, former State Department official Richard Haass was dispatched to Belfast to try to broker an agreement that would satisfy victims and allow Northern Ireland to move on. His efforts failed largely because the pro-British parties balked. Some suspect they knew the Adams arrest was possible, and were delighted.

Whatever the truth, the Sinn Fein leader has been released while prosecutors decide whether to charge him. It will be an anxious wait, both for him and for the country. Either way, the decision will cause a row. If he is released, Protestant parties will allege a cover-up; if he is charged, the power-sharing government will be under threat.

None of this would have had happened had the architects of the Good Friday Agreement invested as much political capital in devising a satisfactory way of dealing with Northern Ireland’s bloody past as they did with the accord’s other elements. It a salutary lesson for peacemakers everywhere: History matters; if not addressed, it poisons the present and pollutes the future.

Ed Moloney is an award-winning Irish journalist and author now based in New York.

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