My reading of Gerry Adams’ statement on his release with his anger only just held in check, is that he wants to limit the damage while capitalising on the circumstances. Snap reactions are notoriously unreliable. But the events of the last four days have allowed the rest of us to speculate on what might have happened if he had been charged. Most people’s thoughts I suspect were not comfortable. Many would insist that they agreed with Ruth Dudley Edwards:” Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” and some of them might even have meant it.
Whatever the wisdom of the PSNI’s handling of Adam’s interviews they were in a fiendishly difficult position. When information is put under their noses that suggests direct involvement in crime they feel obliged to act. This applies as much to evidence of the Bloody Sunday inquiry as it does to the Boston tapes and similar interviews. The police are forced to occupy a vacuum far too big for their operational independence. It should properly be filled by political decision.
The episode shows the wisdom of the outgoing chief Constable’s desire to hand over the Past to a new investigative body, thus sparing the PSNI the pressure of spurious allegations of “dark forces” The weakness of Sinn Fein’s conspiracy case against the police is deftly pointed out by David McKittrick but it resonates all the same. As identified by Stephen McCaffery in The Detail we are unlikely to be spared a new frenzy of whataboutery which will do nothing to ease the tensions of the next few months.
The Adams episode should be treated as a minor catharsis to shock the bickering politicians into action. Adams is significant precisely because he and others like him planned and ordered killings and then stopped. That is why many and not only diehard Sinn Fein supporters, believe a move against him is an attack on the peace process itself. This is a conjunction which some will deny and others accept. It is part of the legacy which requires open and frank examination rather than the debilitating polemic of the decades. And it is legacy remember: in all of this we are dealing with the past’s residue in the present. How we deal with the residue is as much part of the legacy as the residue itself. To that extent we are all responsible, even if we are not all to blame.
There is, as it happens, an approach to hand. This is contained in the Haass proposals on the past for a historical investigations unit to review all past cases, information retrieval from the results to inform victim families and society as a whole, and a historical review. This has not been comprehensively rejected. It is high time for the two governments to help the local parties pick it up.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London