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The history project behind Gerry Adams’s arrest

AFP | Gerry Adams (centre) at the funeral of a former leader of the IRA in 2007.

The high-profile arrest of Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams sheds light on the legal battle to access an academic archive of testimonies including those of former IRA militants accusing him of murder.


Gerry Adams’s decision to hand himself over to police in Northern Ireland on Wednesday to be arrested and questioned over his alleged role in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville is the latest step in a saga involving former paramilitaries, academics and judicial authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

While the leader of the Sinn Fein political party has always denied ordering the murder of the mother of 10 or any other direct involvement in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the testimony of a former republican militant recorded for a US history project clearly points the finger at him.

“There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed. That man is now the head of Sinn Fein,” IRA veteran Brendan Hughes said in an interview with researchers documenting the oral history of the Northern Ireland Troubles for the US-based Boston College between 2001 and 2006.

Boston College promised interviewees, who lay down their arms after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, that their taped confessions would remain secret until their death. After Hughes died in 2008, his testimony became public in a book and a TV documentary two years later.

“It’s quite possible that other cases may arise from the Boston College tapes,” Mary Harris, a historian at the National University of Ireland in Galway, told FRANCE 24.

UK government vs. John Kerry

Legal action by the British authorities has begun to expose the content of the archive much earlier than planned. In 2011, the UK government started to make requests to access the material under its mutual legal assistance agreement with the US. The academics behind the testimonial archive challenged the British demands all the way to the US Supreme Court.

John Kerry, who is from Boston and chaired the US Senate’s foreign relations committee at the time, wrote to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask her to resist British attempts to access the tapes. “It is possible that some former parties to the conflict may perceive the effort by the UK authorities to obtain this information as contravening the spirit of the Good Friday Accords,” Kerry wrote just months before he replaced Clinton as the US’s chief diplomat.

Despite successive appeals, a final ruling granted the British authorities access to part of the tapes last year. In March 2014, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) produced the first extracts from the academic recordings as evidence against Ivor Bell, a former republican militant on trial in Belfast for allegedly assisting in Jean McConville’s murder.

Yet Harris remarked that the Boston College tapes were not the only source driving recent efforts to prosecute crimes committed in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. The historian pointed out that a statement by the late former IRA member Dolours Price to the media also implicated Gerry Adams in Jean McConville's murder. "Anyone involved in the Troubles may come forward, it is unpredictable,” she said.

Northern Ireland’s courts and police have made breakthroughs in several high-profile cases recently. On Wednesday, police investigating a bomb attack on McGurk’s Bar in Belfast in 1971 said they had arrested a man, the second in six weeks. Only one loyalist (pro-British) militant has so far been convicted of the bombing, which killed 15 people in the Catholic-owned pub. Earlier this month, a Belfast court charged a dissident IRA militant with 29 counts of murder for the 1998 Omagh bombing.

'Politically contrived' arrest

Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary-Lou McDonald told Irish media on Thursday that she felt the timing of Adams’s arrest was “politically contrived”, just three weeks before their party is tipped to make strong gains in European and local elections.

But Harris argued that recent prosecutions may just be the result of sufficient evidence becoming available decades after the crimes. “In the context of the peace process, the Historical Enquiries Team was set up to investigate thousands of killings,” the historian said in reference to the special PSNI unit set up in 2005 to revive cases such as the McGurk’s Bar bombing.

Dealing with such cases will not be easy. In February, the prosecution against John Downey, an IRA operative accused of a bomb attack against Royal Guards in London in 1982, collapsed when it emerged that the British authorities had sent him and around 200 other paramilitaries a secret letter promising them immunity in exchange for their participation in the peace process. A judge appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to determine the validity of the letters is due to hand in his report this month.

“There was no general immunity granted at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and the letters to on-the-run paramilitaries came as news to all of us,” said Harris.

On New Year’s Eve last year, talks brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass failed to bring the former parties to Northern Ireland’s conflict to an agreement on outstanding issues including “dealing with the past”.

This followed a year of repeated, violent riots as traditional summer marches and protests over whether to fly the British flag on Belfast City Hall ended in unrest reminiscent of the Troubles.

“Underlying grievances remain,” Harris said. “The question of political parades is a very difficult one to resolve, and there is a sense of urgency now that we are entering the marching season.”

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