You’ve heard of show trials. This was a show investigation, an attempt to embarrass Adams and his party, not hold him responsible for a brutal murder committed 43 years ago – Kevin Cullen, The Boston Globe
It had been predicted in print for months as imminent. Yet it was only on Tuesday of this week, a year and a half after Gerry Adams was detained for four days by British police as a murder suspect, that the British Public Prosecution Service in the North announced it would not pursue him as a result of his alleged role in the fate of Jean McConville.
When Allison Morris of the Irish News tweeted on Monday evening that the PPS would be announcing its decision the following day there was, on my part, the customary anticipation and apprehension: the old Bobby Storeys, so to speak, in the stomach. The outworking of the Boston College project had been anything but stress-free. News was more often bad than good.
Although the Irish News had delivered some wide off the mark reports on the Boston College case, specifically in relation to the late Paddy Joe Rice and also, according to Ed Moloney, Winston Rea, there was no reason to think Morris had called this one wrong. Even when she quickly withdrew her tweets, the general view from the Twitterati was that a source in the PPS might have been displeased that an embargo had not been observed.
In any event the cat was out of the bag and the commentariat began preparing itself for a feast of debate, banter, charge, counter-charge, not all of it lacking in sizeable dollops of the bragging rights that invariably accompany these things. On the back of the Morris tweets, messages began to arrive in my various inboxes predicting a front page splash in the Irish News the following day. Whatever the reason it was not to be. We had to wait until the PPS press conference before the details were disclosed in full. In terms of prosecution they amounted to zilch.
The arrest of Gerry Adams was never about justice for Jean McConville or getting to the truth. The twinned concept of justice and truth is not something the PSNI has been remotely interested in, consistently seeking to thwart both the constituent elements as it systematically stalled and stymied in its cover up of state terrorism.
Kevin Cullen put it bluntly in the Boston Globe: ‘there was never any realistic prospect of Adams being charged.’ The case against him was never evidentially driven and with Tuesday's announcement we now know it was based on nothing more substantial than hearsay.
Hearsay being the criterion on which the decision to arrest Adams was made begs the question of why now and not before? The British police, whether called the PSNI or RUC, could have hauled him in on any amount of it over the years. It was not that they lacked a high ranking plant or two close to Adams feeding them copious quantities of what constitutes hearsay about illegalities.
Moreover, numerous books and countless media articles, hearsay no less, have been written about Adams for decades. No attempt was made to prosecute him, not even on the strength of what appeared in Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA which traced in considerable detail his role in the Provisional IRA from its inception and also dealt with the matter of Jean McConville. The PSNI followed hearsay only when it suited its agenda, not in pursuit of justice or truth.
A slight digression might help contextualise what that agenda was.
In 1983 the British police had a substantially stronger case against the then Sinn Fein vice president than it could ever hope to obtain from the Boston College archive. It came courtesy of information provided by a super grass but the RUC opted to arrest people against whom there was lesser evidence. The reasoning then was rooted in a much wider game plan than due process. The police, driven by political considerations rather than evidential ones, were cultivating an asset (radically different from an agent) and clearing the field so that their strategic seeds alone would take root and sprout: someone who would deliver what the Provisionals then regarded as a catastrophic systemic failure of their armed campaign.
One person who closely scrutinised the era and had also spoken to people in the British security services told myself and Ed Moloney in London in 2006 that the decision to keep Adams out of jail in 1983 and put others into it was considered by British security services the defining moment in the British state securing victory over the Provisional IRA. The balance of power at IRA leadership level had shifted crucially. Adams had the initiative and was never to cede it despite some future wobbles along the way.
Adams was not working for the British but his work and their work had the same objective, the same British state outcome: bringing the IRA to acquiesce in the "no change in the constitutional position without the support of a majority of people in the north."
If seemingly keeping Adams out of jail rather than putting him in it had driven British strategy for so long what then was the point of raiding the Boston College archive so shortly after British Secretary of State Owen Paterson had recommended that type of archive as a template for truth recovery?
Kevin Cullen in a piece that was scathing of the PSNI raid on the Boston College archive described it as:
a cynical, transparent attempt at payback ... going after Adams was always going to be what it seemed from the outset: politically motivated.
This is certainly a thread but is unlikely to have formed the main strand in a tapestry of motives. There is noting new in the desire for payback; the PSNI has always been a politically driven police force. Something else had to have changed, a new ingredient had found its way into the mix.
From the outset of the Boston College subpoena case the thought had struck me that the primary reason for going after both the archive and Adams was rooted in the problems increasingly posed in respect of the past. What Eamonn McCann observed two days ago, "the reason the past cannot be dealt with is that it isn’t over", was becoming self evident when the British Labour Party was still in office and had its roots in proposals around OTRs.
Sinn Fein was quite prepared through its endorsement of the OTR legislation to put the past to rest. The BBC reported that the party:
initially welcomed it, but now realise it will not only give an amnesty to IRA members but also to any soldiers or police officers who committed murder during 30 years of violence.
Sinn Fein always realised that, hence the view expressed by Martin McGuinness to Jonathan Powell that for Bloody Sunday an apology would have been quite sufficient. It was when everybody else realised just what Sinn Fein had agreed to that the party balked.
An apology would now no longer suffice. With increased vigour Sinn Fein began pressing for prosecution of state forces, thinking that the only way prosecution could now happen was solely on the basis of state files that would damn the Brits alone. And of course the Brits sought to play the party at its own game and bring into the open through sabotage and seizure records that might prove damaging to Sinn Fein if it did not let up in its new found prosecutorial zeal. Previously, police cells were something to house people like Gerry McGeough not Gerry Adams. In their search for leverage in the battle over the past the British attitude would change.
The outcome was as Cullen argued:
a needless misadventure that damaged the reputation of a great American university, put the whole notion of oral history at risk, destabilized the peace and political process, and perhaps worst of all, gave Jean McConville’s children the false hope that the man they believe ordered their mother’s murder would finally be held accountable.
Pursuing Adams was about managing the past, a trade off in which each side would shut up about the other. It was about burying truth not recovering it.