Northern Ireland has for too long brushed the past under the carpet for the sake of peace
The sons of Jean McConville carry her remains from St Pauls church on the Falls Road in October 2003 in West Belfast Photo: Getty Images
You may not have heard of Pamela Atchison, but she has just become the most important woman in Northern Ireland. As Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, it will be her job to decide whether to charge Gerry Adams with involvement in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972.
Even though the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) released the Sinn Fein leader yesterday afternoon, its decision to arrest and question him – after fresh evidence was uncovered in tapes released from the archives of Boston College in America – has plunged the province into turmoil.
Sinn Fein claimed the arrest was “politically contrived” and “malicious”; Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke of a “dark side” to the police, implicitly threatening that if Adams wasn’t released, Sinn Fein might withdraw its support for their work.
First Minister Peter Robinson, of the DUP, had little option but to rock the boat further, countering that this was “a despicable, thuggish attempt to blackmail the PSNI” and claiming that “ordinary, decent citizens will conclude” that police and prosecutors “have succumbed to a crude and overt political threat if Adams is not charged”.
Hanging over all of this is a single question: is it worth bringing the past to light if it means causing chaos in the present? Should the need for justice for Jean McConville outweigh the need for all sides to put the Troubles behind them?
In recent days, many have said no. “In places torn by war, there is all too often a choice to be made between justice and peace,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. “We may want both; we may cry out for both. But the bleak truth is, we cannot have both.”
To which I would say: if you cannot have justice, then you cannot have a peace worthy of the name. Indeed, it is the reluctance to dig into the past that has enabled both sides to continue their habit of what in Northern Ireland is called “whataboutery” – in which any allegation by a member of one tribe is answered by a counter -allegation from the other.
A Unionist says: “The IRA murdered Jean McConville and it’s right that the police should pursue suspects.” To which a Republican responds: “What about Bloody Sunday? How come they haven’t gone after the Paras?”
During the three awful decades of the Troubles, more than 3,000 people were killed, the majority of them civilians. Yet while both sides empathise with their own victims, they often seem to care little for any others. Republicans wanted to believe that Mrs McConville, a widow with 10 children, was a paid informant for the security forces. Unionists wanted to believe – until Lord Saville proved otherwise – that innocent protesters in Derry on Bloody Sunday had been carrying weapons.
These two dreadful events happened in 1972, by far the worst year of the fighting. It also saw Bloody Friday, when the Belfast branch of the IRA detonated 20 bombs in a day, killing 10 people and injuring 130; Claudy, when an IRA bomb killed eight in a little village; and the shooting to death of five Catholics by Loyalist gunmen in a Londonderry bar.
The problem, for those seeking justice for these and other atrocities, was that – as the peace process gathered pace – there was encouragement from London, Dublin and Washington alike to put the interests of harmony above those of justice.
As Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness became internationally praised as peacemakers and statesmen, it would have taken a brave – and foolhardly – policeman to invite either man to help with their inquiries.
Peter Hain, as Northern Ireland Secretary, was typical of those who wanted everyone to think of the big picture, to get over private traumas and move forward – an approach enthusiastically adopted by bien pensants in both islands. To claim that political leaders were guilty of crimes was to be an enemy of peace.
And yet many victims, like some of Mrs McConville’s children, stubbornly refused to forget about their dead. As Michael McConville, who was 11 when his mother was abducted, said on the BBC the other day, those claiming we should bury the past are rarely those who have suffered.
There is a broader point here, however. Northern Ireland chose to stay in the United Kingdom, and that means that its inhabitants are required to accept the rule of British law. It is one of the virtues of this country that from time to time, politicians and other important people go to jail. While there was disbelief everywhere when the news broke that Mr Adams had been arrested, the PSNI had no option: had the police not begun a thorough investigation once old allegations were given new traction by the Boston tapes, it would have been a perversion of justice.
Sinn Fein may be howling about betrayal. But in the Good Friday Agreement, approved in 1998 in referenda north and south of the border, there was no amnesty – only a concession to the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes that if found guilty, they would serve only two years in jail.
Mostly, it has suited the DUP and Sinn Fein – who split, rather than share, power between them – to fudge and evade difficult issues. But this has relied on the police confining themselves to arresting small fry over historic crimes, rather than big beasts.
Mr Adams’s arrest has revealed a major fracture in Northern Ireland’s political settlement – but it won’t be resolved by outsiders racing in with bundles of sticking-plasters, or leaning on the police and judiciary.
Indeed, if anyone needs a lesson in why investigators must be free to pursue past crimes, independent of political interference, they have only to consider another grim precedent from Northern Ireland’s past. In 1980, Lord Denning disallowed an appeal from the Birmingham Six (whose convictions were quashed 11 years later) on the grounds that if they won their case, it would mean that the police had lied. This, he said, was such an “appalling vista” that every sensible person would say: “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.”
This verdict was, of course, intensely damaging. Today, the “appalling vista” that confronts Lord Denning’s heirs is that, if they pursue their investigation, the Northern Ireland Executive may fail, and that the power-sharing agreement may collapse.
But if Stormont falls, it won’t be because the police have been doing their duty, but because Northern Ireland’s politicians haven’t been doing theirs. In a normal country, the idea that an investigation might topple a government would be no business of police or prosecutors, whose duty would be to pursue those they believe to be guilty of criminal acts, whether they be terrorists or teachers, soldiers or statesmen.
There is an old Latin mantra the authorities should bear in mind: “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” For the sake of the Troubles’ victims, and for the health of Northern Ireland itself, it’s time to face the truth.