The peace process sceptics need addressing as the governments prepare to intervene

People who had to catch their breath over Gerry Adams’ arrest are now be having second wind. The former Labour secretary of state Shaun Woodward has called  for  a referendum over the heads of the local parties  on what sort of mechanism they want to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. This may be commended as an initiative for jolting what remains the sovereign government and its Dublin partner into exercising their responsibilities in a low intensity existential crisis. But hooray! The Irish Times reports that the two governments are bestirring themselves at last in what looks like a Dublin move.

The Government is making preparations with British and American support to bring Northern parties back to the table this summer for a new attempt to settle questions about the past, flags and parades.

Dublin will await the outcome of European and local elections this month before pressing ahead with the new initiative. However, it is being cast as a fresh attempt to revive proposals developed by retired American diplomat Richard Haass on which the parties failed to strike an agreement in the last round of talks on New Year’s Eve

Woodward’s idea plays to the hunch that the silent majority of the people may be ahead of the parties and need some device for breaking out of deadlock. Yet it’s fraught with obvious difficulties  An appeal to popular majoritarianism above devolved parliamentary power sharing would be a high risk operation and would need  the parties’ acquiescence at least and it is far from clear that it would appeal to them.

The challenges of wording any such referendum are daunting and Woodward offers no clues. Do you want an amnesty to aid truth telling or not? Would the people be asked to vote for sanctions against former paramilitaries and police officers who refuse to cooperate? Referendums aren’t viable unless the proposition can be reduced to a single yes or no question. Nor do they work unless the result can be made stick.

I’ve been having my own second wind about the Adams arrest. The people who are ignored are not mainly victims but those who believe the peace process is founded on a monstrous lie. Unappealing in their bitterness as they often are, they will have got some satisfaction over Adams’s detention and Sinn Fein’s palpable discomfiture. By holding Adams under arrest and questioning him for so long about his background, the police were demonstrating their scepticism for his mantra of denial of IRA membership and responsibility of the IRA campaign and acts such as Mrs McConville’s murder. They were failing to live up to a fundamental politesse of the peace process and this got Sinn Fein’s goat.  The police must have known they stood little chance of wearing him down, but the episode remains an important public demonstration of their scepticism.

At his news conference, affronted by how he was handled, the leader was torn between Adams the old lag and Adams the statesman. He mocked and patronised the police, for the” uneatable” food, the behaviour of the officers who told him his detention was being extended twice .“like John Cleese” and patronised the handling conditions as “ not up to 21st century standards for a modern police force”. About this his observations may well be accurate but his self regard under some stress was revealing. Adams the statesman affirmed his support for the police and the peace process – why would he not, when Sinn Fein are prospering? But Adams the old lag was signalling to the comrades; hold your nerve, admit nothing. Without an amnesty, denial is a strategy against arrest for membership and subsequent interrogation about activity. The challenge remains: prove it. This understandably gets the goat of the peace process sceptics.

What do the massed ranks of Sinn Fein supporters think about this behaviour? Do they believe the armed struggle was justified or are just grateful that it’s over? Are they voting so to speak for Adams the old lag or Adams the statesman? Or both, life often being binary? I just don’t know.  Do the questions belong to the past already or are they still very much part of the present and lie at the basis of community distrust? Similar questions can be asked of unionists but less focussed on a leader. It is hard to see how Shaun Woodward’s referendum could help us with the answers.

The basic paradox is that the Troubles would not have happened without the likes of Gerry Adams nor would they have ended as they did. But sixteen years on, his passing from the scene along with his generation of old warriors  on both sides would make the peace that bit easier to live with. In this respect perhaps, Sinn Fein could take a leaf out of the DUP’s book.

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