Jean McConville case continues to haunt Gerry Adams

The last thing Sinn Féin needs as Irish elections approach is for voters to be reminded of where its leaders have come from

Outside Belfast city hall in 1995 following an upsurge in loyalist street violence, a Sinn Féin supporter interrupted a speech by Gerry Adams. "Bring back the IRA," the grassroots republican called out, which prompted an unscripted reply from Adams on the platform: "They haven't gone away, you know."

Almost two decades on, the IRA has left the stage, in Adams's words, having declared their war long over. Most of its arms, though not all, have been decommissioned. However, those words he uttered to placate republicans frustrated at the lack of political movement following the IRA ceasefire on 31 August 1994 have a haunting resonance. Because, as members of her family predicted, the memory of Jean McConville hasn't gone away in the years since that first IRA cessation of violence.

The murdered Protestant woman has become, like Banquo's ghost stalking Macbeth, a spectre from the past looming over Adams's career as a politician north and south of the Irish border. The case continues to cast shadows over a man who helped guide the republican movement out of the "armed struggle" cul-de-sac and into a string of historic compromises that he and his old comrades once vowed would never happen.

At the time of McConville's disappearance in 1972, the Provisional IRA was struggling to contain leaks of information to the security forces, especially from Belfast via a range of informers the police and British Army had recruited in the city. To counter this, the IRA leadership in Belfast established a secret unit called the Unknowns, whose task was to smoke out agents of the state both within its organisation and also in the wider nationalist-republican community.

According to Adams's friend, the Belfast IRA commander Brendan Hughes, Adams was instrumental in setting up this covert squad. Moreover, Hughes alleged in tapes made for Boston College that it was Adams who gave the order that McConville be "disappeared" rather than publicly executed, out of concern over the adverse publicity that the murder of a widowed mother of 10 would attract.

Adams has consistently denied (and continues to do so) that he had anything to do with McConville's kidnapping and killing, or indeed that he had any knowledge about it. He has also insisted he was never in the Provisional IRA even while he exerted major influence on its policy decisions, most crucially in pushing it towards the peace process.

Like the late Hughes, there are many former comrades of the Sinn Féin chief who have begged to differ and who have said that, to continue the Shakespearean theme, the IRA without Adams would be like Hamlet without its prince. Even those commentators who would look benignly at Adams's progress through republicanism over the last four decades have admitted that without his influence, the IRA would never have been able to transform itself to the point where it ceased to exist as a fighting force.

The timing of the arrest or questioning, depending on whether you take the PSNI or Sinn Féin interpretation of Adams's appearance in a police custody suite overnight, is curious. The party is in the middle of an election campaign on both sides of the border and, according to opinion polls prior to this latest development, seems set to make massive gains in the Irish Republic.

It has a new, squeaky-clean image in Ireland, with a slew of candidates, many of them young women, with no background in the IRA or past association with violence. The decision by Adams's key partner in Sinn Féin, Martin McGuiness, to attend the Queen's banquet in honour of the Irish president, Michael Higgins, last month was engineered to appeal to middle-class voters in middle Ireland, to detoxify the Sinn Féin brand and flush out any remnant whiff of cordite from the party.

So the last thing it needs is for voters to be reminded of where its high command has come from and what they may or may not have been doing during 35 years of conflict. Although Sinn Féin's rank and file thus far have demonstrated undying loyalty to their leader, the re-emergence of the controversy may yet convince some to wonder whether the time is coming for a new Dublin-/southern-born leadership, one that is not weighed down by the past.

Even if nothing results from Adams's overnight stay in Antrim police station, the spectre of Jean McConville will still haunt him. The McConville family have stated that in the absence of any criminal prosecution they would seek a civil action against Adams – a case that would be modelled on that of the Omagh bomb victims' families against the Real IRA.

A tragedy that began with a widowed mother being taken at gunpoint away from 10 screaming children in a flat during the bloodiest year of the Northern Ireland Troubles has yet to reach its final act.


Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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