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Is the conflict in the North of Ireland over?

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: May 06, 2014 08:44
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams holds a news conference after he was released from police detention, in Belfast, May 4, 2014 (Reuters / Paul Hackett)

The question in the headline is relevant given the arrest last week of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams – the man who played the key role in steering the republican movement onto the path of peace and away from violence.

After arrest he spent four days in police custody being questioned in connection with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in 1972 at the height of the Troubles.

If the premise at the heart of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was not to ensure that there would be no more killing, no more grieving children and families, such as Jean McConville's, what was the point of it? And if the trajectory of the peace process – which prior to the arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was already in a fragile state – is going to be determined by the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the conflict, what hope can there possibly be of it ever succeeding?

The most basic and brutal truth at the heart of any political solution to a civil conflict, especially one leaving the kind of deep scars as the one that raged in the Six Counties for 30 years, is that hard compromises have to be made for the sake of peace.

The Irish republican movement did and still does not believe that the armed struggle they waged in the cause of ending British rule in the North of Ireland, and with it the partition of the island of Ireland, was illegitimate. On the contrary, they believed and still believe that they were engaged in a national liberation struggle that was morally justified in response to the aforementioned, based on the truism that when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. This injustice was enshrined in a gerrymandered loyalist statelet wherein the minority Catholic/nationalist population suffered discrimination when it came to housing, employment, services and political representation.

Yes, there is no doubt that, within those parameters, acts of violence were carried out that could never be justified, with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville by the IRA indisputably one of them.

But such unjustifiable acts of violence were by no means confined to republicans. British crown forces, whether the British Army or the RUC (now PSNI), were also responsible for heinous acts of violence and murder during the Troubles – as were, of course, loyalist paramilitaries.

In light of the arrest and detention of Gerry Adams, it is pertinent to ask why we have yet to see the arrest of any former members of the British Parachute Regiment in connection with Bloody Sunday; anyone in connection with the murders of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and Irish human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson; and anyone with regard to collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries – a factor attributed to the Finucane and Nelson murders? Of particular anger to republicans will be the decision by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, just a few days prior to the arrest of Gerry Adams, to deny the families of the victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre, in 1971, when 11 people were shot dead during an operation by, as with Bloody Sunday in Derry, the Paras in west Belfast, to set up an independent panel to re-examine the evidence.

The one-sided nature of the hunger for retroactive justice we are now seeing take place in the Six Counties feels more like vengeance. Even if not intended to be so, it's certainly the growing perception within the republican and nationalist community. The peace process was already in a fragile state prior to the arrest of Gerry Adams. The absence of conflict and peace are not always the same thing, and reconciliation has taken place a decade and a half on from the signing of the GFA in 1998. In this context, who knows the lasting damage that this event will result in going forward?

The courage and vision of Gerry Adams in leading the republican movement away from violence into a political process cannot be overstated. Many on his own side turned against him in protest at what they saw as his leadership's unacceptable compromising of the aims of the armed struggle – i.e. forcing the British out of the North and ending partition. He sacrificed many close friendships and alliances along the way, not least of which his friendship with Brendan Hughes, a man who enjoys iconic status within republicanism and whose taped testimony to Boston College academics before his death in 2008 as part of an oral history project led to Adams' arrest this past week.

A line has to be drawn somewhere if the peace process can move forward. As hard as it may be, the grieving families of the victims of the conflict, on both sides, cannot determine the future in the Six Counties. Otherwise, the deep scars already left will only succeed in producing more scars, as the process remains stuck in the past instead of leaving it behind.

The glaring omission with regard to the Troubles and the end of the conflict has been the absence of a mechanism to bring some sort of closure to the pain left behind, such as a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. Arresting and potentially charging a key figure responsible for ending the conflict over 15 years after it ended is, however, not the way to bring this closure.

The main beneficiaries of this episode has not been justice but dissident republicans, who will now be able to boast, "We told you so."

Gerry Adams leads the largest nationalist party in Ireland. He and they have a mandate not only in the North of Ireland but also increasingly in the South. It is ludicrous to imagine that the thousands who cast their vote for Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams do so unaware of the Troubles that gave rise to both.

In this context the arrest of Adams will be viewed by many within republican and nationalist communities as an attempt by the PSNI to delegitimize their votes and, worse, their right to the parity of esteem so long denied them prior to the start of the Troubles in 1968.

The Northern Ireland peace process is in crisis.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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