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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 ...

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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