I first became familiar with the concept of ‘transitional justice’ back in 1995, when I went to El Salvador as a freelance to report on the post-war peace process. At the time I wasn’t much impressed by the essential premises on which this process was undertaken, which essentially established a principle of immunity as the essential precondition for which the ‘truth’ about the crimes carried out during the war could be known, but not punished.
That seemed a remarkably small outcome given the shocking crimes carried out by the Salvadoran security forces over many years, which included torture, the massacre of whole communities, the murder of nuns and Jesuit priests, and the practice of ‘disappearances.’
The Salvadoran Truth Commission found that 95 percent of human rights abuses carried out during the war were carried out by the security forces and their allies, and I felt then that the ‘international community’ had allowed too many people to get away with murder on an epic scale, and secured a peace that nothing to do with ‘justice’ as I understood the term.
I felt the same way, watching apartheid thugs, hitmen and assassins calmly relating their crimes before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, secure in the knowledge that they would not face punishment. I understood the essential principle, which was that there occasions in history in which the ordinary expectations of criminal justice had to be suspended or modified in order to allow countries to go forward, but I wasn’t convinced by it.
Since then my attitude towards transitional justice has changed somewhat. Though I still feel highly ambivalent about it, I’ve come to accept that there are some violent political conflicts that cannot be resolved through the normal channels of justice without perpetuating them, and that there may be times when even the most horrendous crimes may have to go unpunished – and that the cathartic process of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process may be the best possible outcome in particular circumstances.
These circumstances are generally determined by political rather than moral considerations, and they inevitably involve some form of marginalization of the victims of such conflicts, who may at best be only able to secure partial justice or simply the public recognition that the killings of their relatives and loved ones took place.
In conflicts in which no side can win or lose, and when many crimes have been hidden or denied, transitional justice may become a cathartic episode that can allow the broader society to move forward to a new future. All this is highly relevant to the ongoing arrest and interrogation of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), for his alleged involvement in one of the most notorious murders carried out by the IRA during the Troubles – the killing and ‘disappearance’ of widow and mother-of-ten children Jean McConville in 1972.
There is no doubt that this was a squalid and atrocious act, even by the standards of the Troubles. McConville was dragged from her home in the Divis Flats in front of her children by a 10 IRA men and women. According to journalist Ed Moloney, McConville was an informer for the British military, who was being paid to keep tabs on IRA activity, and equipped with a radio transmitter in her flat for the purpose.
In his book A Secret History of the IRA, Moloney claims that McConville was initially let off with a warning when the transmitter was discovered. McConville was inexplicably issued by her British handler with another transmitte and continued with her activities, even though she was bound to be under suspicion. When the transmitter was discovered, McConville was sentenced to death. According to Moloney, the order was given by Gerry Adams, in his capacity as leader of an IRA counterintelligence unit called ‘the unknowns’ that was modelled on Michael Collins’s legendary ‘squad.’
In testimony to the Boston College Belfast Oral History project, which was established at Moloney’s instigation, the late commander of the IRA in West Belfast, Brendan ‘the Dark’ Hughes claims that McConville was interrogated, confessed, and given the bullet in the head reserved for informers.
McConville’s interrogation may also have included torture, according to a later post-mortem. Because the IRA knew that the execution of a widowed mother of ten children would not be well-seen however, it chose not to dump her body in the street in the usual manner to discourage others from following her example.
Instead she was secretly buried in an unmarked grave near the Shellinghill Beach in County Louth, in the Republic of Ireland, and the IRA denied any knowledge of the killing. McConville’s children, most of whom were dispatched to care homes following the death of their mother, have always denied that she was an informant, and a police ombudsman’s report in 2006 also found that there was ‘no evidence’ to suggest that she was a British informer – while also calling on the British government to clarify the situation one way or another.
That does not mean that she wasn’t. Hughes’s testimony makes it clear that the IRA believed that she was, and that is why it killed her. Such things happen in ‘wars’ of this kind, and the murder might have remained just one more everyday atrocity in the history of the Troubles, had it not been for the fact that both Adams and the IRA denied any involvement in it.
The IRA often lied about the killings and bombings which it carried out that did not fit the heroic template of ‘armed struggle.’ It wasn’t until 1999 that it finally admitted responsibility and revealed where McConville’s body was buried. But Adams has continued to insist that he was not involved, just as he has always insisted that he was not a member of the IRA.
Whether Adams ordered the murder, his denial of IRA membership is ludicrous. And if he was the leader of the ‘unknowns’ there is no reason to think that he wouldn’t have ordered an execution like this to protect his organization – after all, an informer is still an informer whether or not she has children and regardless of the pressures that may have led them to inform.
Nevertheless I do think that his arrest is dubious and also dangerous. The ‘evidence’ that has put in a Belfast police station comes from tapes recorded for the Boston College History Project, that were not given on the basis that they would not be made public. The PSNI obtained the tapes through a subpoena, enabled by the US Justice Department, and it is difficult not to believe that this particular investigation has been designed to get Adams – and perhaps to damage Sinn Fein politically.
Given the fact that Hughes – like Dolours Price, who has also claimed that Adams ordered the murder – was opposed to the peace process and a political enemy of Adams before his death in 2008, it is difficult to believe that the evidence of his testimony or any of the other tapes in the Boston College archive will stand up in a court of law. Even if it did, and charges against Adams were successfully proven, the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement mean that he would not serve more than two years in jail.
There is no doubt that the McConville family deserve to know the full truth about their mother’s death, even if that truth involves Gerry Adams. But a partial and politically opportunist investigation like this is likely to produce negative results that outweigh any good that might come out of it.
Ed Moloney may have cited the McConville murder as evidence of Adams’s ‘ruthlessness’, but he also demonstrates in his book the crucial role played by Adams in steering the IRA towards negotiations. Were it not for these efforts, bombs might still be going off in Ireland and the mainland UK. If Irish republicans come to believe that their leaders are now being singled out for politically-motivated investigations, then the dissidents who have argued that the war should not have been called off will be strengthened.
Is this what the Adams-haters want? Pro-Unionist writers like Ruth Dudley Edwards may celebrate Adams’s arrest as proof that ‘no one is above the law’. But many people have been above the law on all sides in the Irish conflict. Their ranks include British army officers and intelligence agents, Loyalist politicians and paramilitary death squad leaders who murdered Catholics purely for sectarian reasons as well as republicans.
Those who have seen their relatives and loved ones killed have some grounds for believing that the trauma and loss that they suffered has been ignored for reasons of political expediency. But their concerns will not be addressed by selective and opportunist police investigations like this one.
More than ever, the Adams arrest demonstrates the need for a full process of transitional justice, in which the tragedy, filth and horror of the Troubes is aired in a public forum, and responsibility assigned and accepted, wherever it is due. Sinn Fein, among others, have called for a truth and reconciliation process to take place in Northern Ireland.
Such an inquiry will have to be carried out according to the same principle of immunity from prosecution that was applied in similar situations elsewhere. It will be bitter, painful and ugly, and some people, including Adams, may pay a price for it politically.
But it needs to happen, and the sooner the better.