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Gerry Adams’s detention reveals cracks in Northern Ireland's peace

Gerry Adams gets a warm welcome after his release from five days of police interrogation.

Peter Morrison/AP

The arrest of Gerry Adams – perhaps the best-known figure in the story of Northern Ireland peace-making – was always going to make headlines. He was questioned about one of the most chilling IRA killings during the 30-year Troubles, that of Jean McConville. But when Mr. Adams was released without charge, after being held for five days, it stirred barely cooled hatreds. As the world's media went home, it was also clear that Stormont, the power-sharing administration in Belfast between traditional enemies, is not about to fall.

Peace has barely dampened mistrust and hatred, but the Adams furor was hyped by both republicans and Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader, is now a senior figure in Sinn Fein, the only political party that operates in both Northern Island and the Republic of Ireland. He condemned the Adams arrest as timed to damage Sinn Fein electoral chances by a "cabal" of anti-reform forces. (Mr. Adams, 65, is now a member of the Irish parliament.)

Mr. McGuinness, 64, shares the top job at Stormont with the leader of the largest unionist party, Peter Robinson, who promptly accused him of blackmailing the police to secure the release of Mr. Adams.

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Mr. Robinson and Mr. McGuinness hardly represent a partnership, but this managed to sound an alarmist bell because the Northern Ireland peace was structured around republican backing for a reformed police service, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The Adams/McGuinness leadership took years to convince the bulk of their supporters the PSNI was worth supporting: "Dissidents" launch murderous attacks on them. In parallel, Unionists enjoy sitting in Stormont but loathe sharing power with the party some still call "Sinn Fein/IRA." Their own support for law and order, though, has always been conditional. The old Royal Ulster Constabulary was overwhelmingly Protestant, and unionist.

The timing of the Adams arrest, three weeks away from elections north and south to the European parliament and local government, was blatantly political, Mr. McGuinness said. Unionists would love to see Mr. Adams convicted of Ms. McConville's killing; others would be happy to see anyone stand trial.

In December, 1972, the 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 in the Divis flats at the bottom of Belfast's Falls Road, was dragged from her screaming six-year-old twins with another half dozen children around her, by a gang accusing her of being a spy for the British army and police. Neighbours kept their distance, the police failed to investigate. Her remains were not discovered until 2003. She had been shot in the head.

She was the 469th to die in 1972, the year with the highest death toll from the Troubles.

Decades later, as the "peace process" began to take hold with an IRA ceasefire, Ms. McConville's eldest daughter made a heart-rending public plea for information. The plea launched a campaign to find "the Disappeared," victims of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, killed and hidden. The IRA promised help to find bodies, seven of which remain missing. Mr. Adams visited the McConville family to pledge assistance. The Disappeared remain the most haunting reminder that much bloodshed preceded today's peace.

Few believe Mr. Adams's decades-long denial of IRA membership; most are convinced he was a leading figure from the early 1970s. The McConville murder is only the most unshakeable of the accusations aimed at him. Interviews with former IRA-members, the "Boston College tapes" handed over to the PSNI by U.S. court order, are said to include other allegations against him, though "anonymized" and so of dubious evidential value.

But when one of those allegedly taped, one-time close Adams associate Ivor Malachy Bell was arrested and charged in March in connection with the McConville murder, police action against Mr. Adams became inevitable. He said pointedly on his release that police told him Mr. Bell said he would make no statement against him.

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At a press conference after his release, Mr. Adams played down his questioning as ineffectual, largely based on published material including his own autobiographical books. Material relating to former IRA members he denigrated as anti-peace process, "pseudo- republican." He was proud to have helped create a peaceful way forward. The IRA, from which he had never "dissociated himself" was "over, it's finished." He also forcefully insisted that he was "innocent of any involvement in any conspiracy to abduct, kill or bury Mrs. McConville."

But whether or not it is the last attempt to link him with a specific murder, the furor over his detention highlighted the fault lines in the peace. Many unionists, and certainly the leading unionist politicians, think too high a price was paid for the institutions that ushered Sinn Fein into power-sharing. The republicans now styled "dissident," some of them ex-IRA members, think the Adams leadership "sold out the struggle" to share government inside the U.K. instead of fighting on to unite Ireland. Many Catholics who loathed the IRA resent Sinn Fein's prominence.

Mr. Adams will most probably remain the favourite target for the various sectors who hate the way the Troubles ended. In his somewhat ponderous gravitas, perhaps even more because he presents a statesmanlike figure to the outside world, for many he personifies the force responsible for the greatest number of deaths: almost 2,000 of the total 3,700 plus.

The McGuinness "dark force/cabal" claims were the latest Sinn Fein attempt to exorcise that stain.

Their share of the Republic's vote makes it possible for them to realistically aim at becoming the main opposition party. Mr. Adams is not on the ballot-paper for the May 23 elections but repeatedly tops polls as most popular party leader, apparently a hero to the growing band of Sinn Fein voters. It galls the major political parties in the Republic, and sections of the media, that younger voters in particular never knew him as a man of war, only as a peace-maker.

His arrest is more likely to help Sinn Fein in the North, where they topped the last Euro poll, and are on course to come a tight second to Mr. Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party in local government. As long, that is, as the Public Prosecution Service weigh the report they receive from the PSNI as potential evidence for prosecution, and decide against bringing Mr. Adams to court.

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Any charge would once more inflame passions. The decision to release him angered unionists quick to claim it was a result of republican pressure. What the episode did to the McConville family is painful to even contemplate.

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