Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams is facing a fourth night in jail at a notorious British Crown force interrogation centre in Antrim as a crisis over the failure to deal with the past conflict in the north of Ireland begins to threaten delicate policing agreements.
The PSNI police received a further 48 hours on Friday to question the Sinn Fein leader, who was arrested after he presented himself at the Antrim station voluntarily on Wednesday evening. The former West Belfast MP has been held in relation to the 1972 disappearance and death of Jean McConville, a west Belfast woman who is alleged to have served as a British informer at the height of the conflict. The 37-year-old mother-of-ten was killed and secretly buried, becoming one of the “Disappeared” victims of the conflict, until her body was eventually located in 2003 across the border in County Louth.
Mr Adams has always strenuously denied allegations that he had any involvement in the death of Mrs McConville. In March, the Sinn Fein leader said he would be willing to meet with the PSNI for their investigation.
Jean McConville’s death and disappearance was among the subject of interviews carried out almost ten years ago by journalists working for Boston College in the USA. A number of senior republicans took part on the basis of academic confidentiality, including one alleged to have been directly involved in the action, Dolours Price, who died last year. Transcripts of those interviews were later obtained by the PSNI and are understood to form the basis of the current investigations into Mr Adams’s alleged past membership of the IRA.
The PSNI are also said to have wanted to question the Sinn Fein leader on his own writings, particularly work penned under the jail pseudonym ‘Brownie’, which appeared in An Phoblacht/Republican News and were reprinted in Mr Adams’s autobiography ‘Before The Dawn’.
But after agreeing to attend for interview, Mr Adams’s continued detention in the notorious confines of Antrim Interrogation Centre, with its long history of beatings, torture and psychological abuse of republican prisoners, has shocked and angered Sinn Fein supporters.
CUSP OF ELECTIONS
The timing of the arrest in a case which dates from 42 years ago has been the chief point of controversy and debate. Last week, opinion polls showed that Sinn Fein was within reach of becoming the largest party in the 26 Counties in elections to be held in just three weeks time. The news appeared to come as a shock to the mainstream media and political establishment in the south of Ireland. Most significantly, the polls showed Sinn Fein set to make huge gains on local councils, a development which could have permanently altered a system of local power and control which has changed little since the foundation of the 26 County state.
Elections are also due to take place north of the border. Sinn Fein activists there have clearly been energised by the development, prompting some claims by opponents that events have actually been choreographed to help boost Sinn Fein’s republican credentials in the Six Counties.
The party’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness adopted a far more hardline position than usual on Friday as a judge gave the PSNI an additional 48 hours to question Adams. He said Sinn Fein would “reflect” and “review” its support for policing if Mr Adams is actually charged.
He said there was “a small cabal” within the PSNI with a “negative and destructive agenda” which was competing with “progressive and open-minded elements”.
“Yesterday, I said that the timing of the arrest of Gerry Adams was politically motivated. Today’s decision by the PSNI to seek an extension confirms my view.”
The sudden rise in political tensions comes despite Mr McGuinness’s attendance at a royal state banquet at Windsor Castle last month. McGuinness toasted the English queen and stood for the British national anthem in gestures seen by many as a humiliation for the former IRA commander, but described by the Deputy First Minister himself at the time as evidence of “change” and “progress” in the North.
British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers insisted the PSNI was not taking account of the electoral calendar. “If they were doing that, that probably would be a political decision,” she said.
“This is a matter for the police and prosecution authorities. There has been, and there will be, no political interference in prosecutions in this case,” she added.
Protests have already taken place against Mr Adams’s detention both in Ireland and internationally, and two US congressmen have intervened to question developments. Peter King, a Republican from New York and a major supporter of Sinn Fein in the 90s, queried the motives of the PSNI and the British government. “It certainly raises questions: the fact that it is coming so soon before the elections, the fact that these allegations have been out there for years. I really don’t know what purpose it would serve,” he said.
He said the Obama administration should have put in a greater diplomatic effort with the British government to stop the release of the Boston College interviews. “They should have fought harder with the British,” he said. “More diplomatic negotiations should have been used, saying that this really goes against our national interests.”
Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that Mr Adams’s arrest was “one of those unsettling moments”, and he was suspicious of the timing ahead of an election. “It all seems pretty murky,” he added.
US secretary of state John Kerry, on a visit to Africa, declined to comment on Mr Adams’s arrest other than noting that he was aware of it. “We need to let the process in Northern Ireland work its way,” he said.
Back in Belfast, nationalists pointed out that Villiers just this week appeared to confirm the impunity of the Parachute Regiment in the death of 11 civilians in the Ballymurphy massacre.
The Republican Network for Unity said a “two-tier justice system” was at play when dealing with historical cases. But they also condemned Sinn Fein for their previous failure to speak out against political policing -- and suggested they were part of the problem, not victims of it.
“Republican activists who oppose the status quo are subject to political policing on a daily basis. The RUC/PSNI stop, search, raid homes, arrest, assault and intern activists, yet there is a deafening silence from Sinn Fein,” they said in a statement.
“They are part of the problem, they have unashamedly acted as cheerleaders for the British Militia when they were assaulting, harassing and interning republicans. Why would any right thinking person want to be part of this corrupt system?”