The Truth of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams

Political leaders around the world typically seek to hide unpleasant truths, often with the rationalization that some greater good is served by shielding themselves from accountability, a dilemma made more difficult when telling the truth might unravel peace, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The recent brief jailing and interrogation of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with the murder of a Northern Ireland woman 42 years ago was a flashback to the Troubles in Ulster, which are now far enough in the past that they are beyond the living memory of many younger observers and analysts who ordinarily pay close attention to communal conflict and strife.

This case also illustrates a more general problem not limited to Northern Ireland: how to deal with those who have participated in such strife by committing grave offenses (including, but not limited to, terrorism) against the lives and rights of others but have since moved on, along with their movements and their countries, to more peaceful and less offensive ways of doing business.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

The dilemma is that simply to move beyond what is bygone leaves unsatisfied a felt need for justice to be served, but to serve it through punishment of people who have committed past offenses may undermine the very progress that has made more peaceful times possible.  It may undermine the progress by taking out of action leaders who are among the few who can commit entire communities, or by perpetuating indefinitely a cycle of reprisal and retaliation in which each side in a conflict wants to get in the last lick.

Having justice be done is important, but isn’t it at least as important for those who might be punished, and the communities to which they belong, to transition to more peaceful, just and harmonious ways of pursuing their interests?

There is no good solution to the dilemma. Any formula will be a compromise that will only partially achieve each objective, and only partially satisfy almost anyone involved in a conflict.  One criterion that nearly always ought to take precedence, however, is honesty.

Regardless of how else offenses of the past are to be dealt with today, it is almost always best to uncover and acknowledge the truth about those offenses.  In the case of Adams, there has not been honesty.

He strongly denies involvement in the killing of Jean McConville; the police released him after questioning him about the case, and the rest of us do not have enough to go on to pass judgment about this murder.  But Adams’ longstanding contention that he is only a political leader who never was part of the IRA and any of its violent activities has never been plausible.

Sweeping truth about past activities under a rug is not a lasting solution.  Lies are ultimately a flimsy foundation on which to build the trust necessary for a stable and peaceful political order.  Moreover, a suppressed past is apt to bubble up unexpectedly in improbable ways and places. Resurrection of the McConville case and the possible involvement of Adams came about through an oral history compiled several years ago by researchers at Boston College.

A process exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission remains probably the best way to deal with the underlying dilemma.  It is a process of bearing witness to all that happened in the past, and to overcome the legacy of past offenses through acknowledgment and amnesty, not by lifting a rug and sweeping dirt there.

The South African process certainly had its critics and the shortcomings were apparent, but that is inevitable in a situation in which a less-than-perfect compromise is the very best one can hope for.  Adams has expressed support for some sort of truth and reconciliation process, which is good, but he seems to have in mind an international body with little or no involvement by the Northern Ireland parties themselves, which would be insufficient.

Insofar as the South African process was successful, an important reason was that it did not exhibit any asymmetries in its purpose or its charter. Offenses committed by all the parties were subject to examination. Symmetry in this respect is important so that all parties involved in a conflict can have confidence that their pain will be uncovered and their narratives will be told.

It is also important to dispel any erroneous asymmetries that the rest of us have accumulated over the years in our perceptions of the conflict, such as that only one side has terrorized the other, due to one side being better able than the other to propagandize us or to tug at our heartstrings.

These principles can be applied to several conflicts around the world in which different peoples have contested a piece of land. One that readily comes to mind of particular importance to the United States is the contest between Israelis and Palestinians.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “The Truth of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams

  1. Greg Schofield
    May 17, 2014 at 19:38

    Please a major and chronic misunderstanding about Sinn Fein and the IRA, one is entirely political and the other was active militarily. They are two sides of the same movement and the former was kept clean of actual direct IRA crossover, but contact was frequent and necessary. The fact is Jerry Adams is very unlikely to have had any active part in military actions (it would have disbarred him from Sinn Fein), the recent evidence was from a witness who was a child at the time of the killing and has no-doubt been constantly told that the public figure Jerry Adams killed her mum — that is so obvious just as it is ridiculous that a child could even at the time give a convincing identification let alone decades after the events. She is no doubt a honest woman, but the evidence is hopelessly contaminated and unreliable — Adams should not have even been interviewed, let alone arrested, it was a political stunt.

    It is rule in underground fighting to separate the political and military wings — it would be an remarkable exception if this had not been done with Jerry Adams. Please don’t slide into the hopeless imprecise mire of official ideology on such historical events.

  2. Mark
    May 11, 2014 at 19:09

    Not a bad article with one very big error; Gerry Adams has always admitted to being a member of the IRA; indeed he recently said that “he has never denied being a member of the IRA and never would (deny). “

    • James Patrick
      May 14, 2014 at 08:16

      Really? You might want to check out his recent essay in The Guardian:

      “I am innocent of any involvement in the abduction, killing or burial of Mrs McConville, or of IRA membership. I have never disassociated myself from the IRA and I never will, but I am not uncritical of IRA actions and particularly the terrible injustice inflicted on Mrs McConville and her family.”

      Adams has been pretty stubborn through the years in denying membership in the IRA. This is understandable, of course, for legal reasons. IRA membership itself is against the law.

  3. May 11, 2014 at 11:01

    You are right, truth and reconciliation commissions are probably the only way to keep the bygone violence from erupting again. Murder was the choice at the time, and all parties, Protestants, Catholics and the British forces each contributed their share. Whoever read the autobiography of Seán Mac Stíofáin knows that Sinn Fein as a party and Sinn Fein as the Provisional IRA cannot be separated. But equally the terrorists that started the 1916 Easter Rising were murderers and criminals by the then prevailing standards of the British “lawful” government. And yet one of them later was the president of the Irish Republic (actually only a dominion and “free state” at the time) – Eamon de Valera. The only thing that saved him from being executed like the other “rabble-rousers” was his US passport at the time. And what about Seagram’s breaking the US alcohol prohibition? Wouldn’t the executives have to be tried as consorts of Al Capone (well, their Canadian nationality saved from that). Gerry Adams actually was involved in more retaliatory actions and the have even been televised. I fail to understand why he and the other participants did not negotiate for outright amnesty in the Good Friday agreement. Anything else is hypocrisy.

  4. ben madigan
    May 11, 2014 at 09:32

    A very interesting analysis which I agree with. One point however is dissonant with the otherwise incisive view
    “he seems to have in mind an international body with little or no involvement by the Northern Ireland parties themselves, which would be insufficient”-
    As far as I know Sinn Fein want some international body as supervisor and co-ordinator of a truth and reconciliation proceess. NI political parties, paramilitary groups, UK and Irish governments would be expected to participate along with individual citizens . According to SF, the 2 governments should be excluded as supervisors/co.ordinators as they were players in the troubles and would not be considered impartial chairpersons of such a commission.

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