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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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."

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.

Mark Kersten is a researcher at the London School of Economics and the author of the blog Justice in Conflict.

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