Sunday, 4 May 2014

Warnings and Encouragements: Reflecting on Gerry Adams, Jean McConville, and the past that haunts us all…

As I write, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has just been released without charge after spending four days in police custody in Antrim in Northern Ireland, being questioned about the Provisional IRA’s abduction, murder, and secret burial of widowed mother-of-ten Jean McConville in 1972. Over the years, Adams has consistently denied any participation in- or any knowledge of- the events, as well as maintaining he was never a member of the Provisional IRA. Both of Adams’ assertions have been flatly denied by other members of the PIRA, such as the late Brendan Hughes, OC of the Belfast Brigade of the PIRA at the time, who went to his grave insisting that Adams ordered McConville murdered and buried. Adams- who carried Hughes’ coffin in 2008- has bluntly insisted that Hughes is ‘telling lies’.

The arrest has infuriated Adams’ Sinn Féin colleagues. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has accused the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) variously of orchestrating the arrest in the run-up to elections to damage Sinn Féin’s chances at the polls, or intimated there is a secret cabal of ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers within the PSNI vengefully working against Adams. In either case, Sinn Féin is accusing the PSNI of ‘political policing’.

McGuinness’s colleague, First Minister Peter Robinson, has accused Sinn Féin of ‘Republican bully boy tactics’ and condemned Sinn Féin’s rallies and rhetoric in support of Adams as attempts to ‘blackmail’ the police and undermine an open investigation.

What can we take away from these events, and what do they mean for post-conflict Northern Ireland? I can think of two things, and neither of them is particularly positive:

To begin with, beyond the specific issues surrounding the McConville case and Adams’s arrest, I think we can put to rest once and for all the notion that the Northern Ireland Executive is in any way a healthy or even cordially-functioning ‘partnership’. The public statements of Robinson and McGuinness further confirm their contempt for each other and have further poisoned a barely-concealed loathing that Sinn Féin and the DUP have for one another. It seems that only wealthy corporate CEOs in the US and Europe that OFMDFM seek to court for local business investment will ever see the smiling, jocular pair working in unison; the people of Northern Ireland will get the sniping, bitter, and hostile pair, barely ever seen together. That’s not good.

Secondly, I think it is becoming obvious that we have finally reached the end of all that the Good Friday Agreement could possibly deliver. This might be controversial, but I think it’s time to say it out loud- the ‘peace process’ is over. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think the conflict is going to begin again, nor do I think that the Good Friday Agreement was in any way a failure or a mistake. The Agreement represented real progress out of the hell of the 70s and 80s, and what it delivered- a power-sharing Executive, policing reform, and decommissioning (which, to put a darker spin on it, was also the destruction of literally tons of forensic evidence, but more on that later…) changed the political landscape immeasurably- and for the better.
But the Good Friday Agreement had its limits, and choosing that particular type of peacemaking model- it’s called ‘consociationalism’ if you’re at all interested- had its consequences. This, to be fair, was never explained to the long-suffering people of Ireland and Northern Ireland, who simply- and quite understandably- were willing to opt for anything presented to them that promised an end to the conflict. But many of the less-positive aspects of the intervening years- increased segregation; a solidifying and entrenchment of diametrically-opposed identity groups; renewed territorial marking and the proliferation of more and more flags and separation barriers; ongoing, localized disorder surrounding culture and identity symbolism; an almost-total lack of a shared narrative of what ‘happened’ during the conflict; no shared understanding of the past; no frameworks to deliver justice to the bereaved- can be laid at the door of those who opted for 'consociationalism'- decisions made and alternate roads not taken.

So, to clarify, I don’t think the ‘peace’ is over, but I do believe the ‘process’ is over. Any semblance of a coordinated series of events that builds on previous events, as well as a context of debate and discussion across all levels of society about what should come next… well, that’s finished. Lots of good, positive things continue to be done by incredibly dedicated people working on the ground, but they don't cumulatively lead to a stronger social peace. This, in a sense, is ‘us’; this is ‘peace’; what post-conflict Northern Ireland is now is what we have spent 16 years and billions of pounds building. All we can do now is assess.

The Adams arrest is the direct consequence of the failure of the governments of Ireland, the UK, and Northern Ireland to agree to mechanisms on how to deal with the past. It’s not at all surprising, as the conflict was big, dark, and difficult, and most of the planning of it, from all sides- police, government, military, and paramilitaries- was done in secret. 

As a result of no one being particularly willing to go on public record about what they did, No one can be held publicly accountable for anything in particular, which means all sides can believe anything they choose about the past and their role in it, as well as about the other side, and their role in it. It was genius; everyone can see themselves as heroes and victims, and everyone gets to view the other side as criminals and perpetrators.

And it ‘worked’- at least for a while. Everyone built monuments to whoever they wanted- in their own areas. Everyone planned commemorations for their ‘honoured dead’- and the other side didn’t have to come, and indeed weren’t invited. The few times a year that one group’s commemorations and celebrations couldn’t be hidden from the other side led to street clashes that put dozens of police officers in the hospital and cost local businesses millions, but it wasn’t that often and it was in areas where tourists and investors could be kept away from. Any important social and development issues that needed to be sorted out by politicians from all sides could be postponed indefinitely- and, if need be, eventually quietly shelved.

It was all so easy. But it has left us with very weak social and political institutions at all levels; the top snipe and count votes and relations at the grassroots stay as poisoned as ever.

Where it has failed utterly is for Jean McConville and for her family, as well as the other victims of paramilitary and state forces, who now are left with fewer and fewer options to locate the truth and find closure regarding what happened to their loved ones or to themselves. These people are the true victims of, to use McGuinness’s loaded terminology, ‘political policing’.

Jean McConville was dragged from her home, interrogated, tortured, shot and ‘disappeared’ by paramilitary forces who, for political and ideological reasons, felt this type of ‘policing’ of 'their' area of Belfast was their right to do. She was a victim of ‘political policing’;

In January 1971, 13 civilians were shot dead by the British army in Derry, an event known ever since as ‘Bloody Sunday’. For decades, the military and the government stuck to the story that the dead were armed gunmen. Decades later, an independent inquiry found that none of the dead were armed and that they had been gunned down for no reason. The government apologized, but as yet has declared no plans to bring charges against any of the soldiers and officers who did the killing and the lying. Could the government do more to pursue the matter, regardless of security or embarrassment? Of course they could. Those 13 civilians and their families are victims of ‘political policing’;

Last week, NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers informed the families of 11 civilians massacred by the British military in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast in 1971 that there would be no official inquiry into the events. It was the same regiment that, months before, had killed the 13 civilians in Derry. Does the British government know the individual identities of the soldiers in Ballymurphy that day? Of course they do. Could the government do more to pursue the matter, regardless of security or embarrassment? Of course they could. Those 11 civilians and their families are victims of ‘political policing’;

Also last week, the British government announced that there would be no official inquiry into the burning to death by the IRA of 12 civilians at the La Mon hotel in 1978. Does the British government have any information? They don’t seem to want to say. Does anyone in Sinn Féin or former IRA volunteers- who perpetrated the deed and felt themselves legally justified to do so- know anything? Probably, but they won’t say. Those 12 civilians and their families are victims of ‘political policing’;

All during the conflict- and up to the present day- hundreds of young people have had their hands or knees blown off with Loyalist and Republican gunshots, or merely been ‘exiled’ from Northern Ireland for any number of offenses. These forces feel they are ‘policing’ their areas. The PSNI insist there is very little they can do to stop it. All of these young people are victims of ‘political policing’;

Every PSNI officer sent to the hospital or put on administrative leave for stress and trauma during the marching season who is told by Unionist politicians that his or her injuries are the fault of the Parades Commission is a victim of ‘political policing’;

How can we theologically reflect on this state of affairs? The place I go is the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 12. When I looked it up in my Bible, I noticed that the chapter heading read ‘Warnings and Encouragements’, which I found very apt. In the text, Jesus says to his disciples:

Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not be made known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.
In a post-conflict zone such as Northern Ireland, the ‘yeast’ of spectacular hypocrisy is everywhere. There are so many victims and bereaved who doggedly demand real justice and the full truth of what was done to them or to their loved ones, by whom, and for what reason. Against them, variously, are the governments, the police, the military, and the paramilitaries who all have their secrets that they dare not reveal. The words of Jesus are indeed a warning to the latter and an encouragement to the former. They expose the hypocrisy and bureaucracy for what it is and give strength to those weighed down by it. They expose the futility of secrets, for Jesus- who counselled his followers, ‘all you need to say is “yes” and “no”; everything else comes from the evil one' (Matt. 5:37)- revealed that God is on the side of the honest, the forthcoming, and the seekers after the truth; he opposes the liars, the duplicitous, and the hypocritical.

The truly powerful and the truly righteous have nothing to fear from the truth. It is their salvation.

It is also Northern Ireland’s salvation- socially, politically, and spiritually.  

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