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Is Northern Ireland’s past still hindering its future?

Oral history project fuels arrest of politician Gerry Adams, bringing up questions on how to balance peace with the past

One night in 1972, Jean McConville, a widow and mother of 10 children, was taken from her home and never seen again. She was presumed dead, and her killer or killers were never punished. 

It happened at the height of “the Troubles”: a period in Northern Ireland's history when sectarian violence between a nationalist Catholic minority and a pro-British Protestant majority was so prevalent, people needed to go through metal detectors to visit downtown Belfast after dark. It was not uncommon to be walking along the aisles of a grocery store and suddenly have to run from a bomb threat. Even trash cans were removed from public spaces because they were frequently used as places to plant explosives.

The Irish Republican Army saw McConville, who was Catholic, as an informant to the British Army, which had Belfast under siege to control the violence. Her body was found on a beach in Ireland 30 years later, believed dumped there by the IRA.

Peter Morrison/AP

Family justice

“I will do anything to get whoever killed my mother behind bars ... I have to believe that one day I will see justice for my mother. Not just for my sake, but for my children’s sake and my grandchildren’s sake.”

—Helen McKendry, daughter of Jean McConville

More than 40 years later, the dark mystery surrounding McConville's unsolved murder has shaken Northern Ireland. Deep inside an oral history project under the administration of Boston College were extensive interviews with IRA veterans and loyalist paramilitaries. From the project's audio recordings came a shocking accusation: that Gerry Adams, today's leader of the Sinn Fein political party, had ordered the killing.  

Participants in the history project were assured their identities and stories would be protected, but British prosecutors saw the material as evidence in a crime. So after years of international legal battling, the recordings were pried out of the academics' hands. 

Adams was arrested last week and brought in for questioning, but released four days later. At a press conference following his release, Adams — who has long denied any membership in the paramilitary IRA — said he had nothing to do with the murder. He also said his arrest was politically charged. "Those that authorized this [arrest] didn't make the right strategic decision ... This [sends an] entirely wrong signal," he said.

It comes amid a changing realm of politics in Northern Ireland, with a relatively experimental power-sharing government still working toward long-lasting peace.

It's been 16 years since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement established a framwork for peace, and aside from occasional rioting during parade season, the former militants of the Troubles are almost entirely inactive.

Brian Lawless/Press Association/AP

Peace versus the past

“My resolve remains as strong as ever — that is to build the peace and not to let this put us off. It’s our future. The past is the past.”

—Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader

The arrest has sparked some of the hardest questions Northern Ireland and other power-sharing governments have had to grapple with yet:

What place do former fighters have among neighbors trying to find peace?

Does justice get put on hold when the larger society tries to heal?

Can an academic history project — created with a guarantee of secrecy — be used to prosecute crimes?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

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