Regardless of the outcome of the controversy surrounding the arrest, detention, and last night’s release of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams after four nights behind bars, it is absolutely vital that this row should not be allowed derail the North’s fragile peace process.
For the first time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed 16 years ago, there has been a distinct whiff of blackmail in the air following veiled warnings from Sinn Féin sources that their support for policing would be “reviewed” if Mr Adams was charged.
If the implied threat to withdraw co-operation were carried out, especially by a key architect of the accord which, for 16 years, has been a cornerstone of increasing stability, there is no doubt that the peace process would be placed in jeopardy. With so much at stake, it is hardly surprising that Peter Robinson, DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister, accused Sinn Féin of adopting “bullyboy tactics” over the PSNI detention of Gerry Adams.
In the North’s perplexing landscape of shifting sands, however, things are seldom what they appear, at least judging by the mixed messages now coming from Sinn Féin. Just when it was enjoying a strong showing in the opinion polls with barely three weeks to go to local and European elections in the Republic and in the North, it seems the party was rattled by the negative reaction to the Adams controversy.
What Sinn Féin supporters fear above all is that voters will be turned off by his detention for questioning about the IRA murder and disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972, memories of which have now come back to haunt them. Despite consistent denials of IRA membership, it remains a live issue. Public revulsion has been aroused by threats delivered to the family, especially the kidnap and torture of Jean McConville’s 15-year-old son to shut him up.
Similarly, Sinn Féin fear a voter backlash at the polls if they withdrew co-operation from the police. Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed a shadowy “cabal” was operating within the PSNI to undermine the party’s role in the peace process. He cited the Adams arrest as evidence of the “dark side” of the force at work. If these dark forces are found to be at work, they must be rooted out,
However, to allay public fears over possible withdrawal of support for policing, Mr McGuinness moved swiftly to clarify his position in an RTE interview yesterday. “When I talked about reviewing our position in relation to policing, it was in the context of how we deal with this cabal within policing,” he said. “We are absolutely and totally supportive of the police, north and south.”
Hopefully, this unambiguous policy statement will go some way towards calming a volatile situation. In a sense, Gerry Adams has himself to blame for the timing of his arrest. Had he written to the police a year ago, instead of last month, offering to speak about the so-called Boston tapes, he would probably have been summoned then to answer questions.
That the peace system has been put under strain shows the challenge of dealing with the past has yet to be resolved. The whole business of the marching season, plus the emotive issues of flags and emblems continue to haunt northern politics. Until both sides learn to trust one another, the Adams controversy should serve as a stark reminder that progress to lasting peace and stability in the North will be tortuously slow.
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