The arrest of peacemaker Gerry Adams is part of an ongoing attempt to delegitimise the armed resistance to state repression during the Troubles, argues Chris Bambery
What has the British state got against Gerry Adams? These days the Sinn Fein president appears the epitome of respectability having been a long term MP at Westminster (albeit never taking his seat in the house) and a serving member of the Dublin parliament. Above all he was a key architect of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Today he faces serious charges over the IRA’s execution in 1971 of a single mother of ten, Jean McConville, who they believed was an informer. Her execution is indefensible.
Nevertheless why is the British state pursuing Adams? No senior British officer responsible for the 1972 Bloody Sunday slaughter of 13 unarmed protesters by the Paratroop Regiment has been brought to book in this way. Nor have any British secret service personnel implicated in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan car bombings, which represented the single worst loss of life of any incident during the Troubles.
Some might question the necessity of defending Adams. Sinn Fein governs Northern Ireland today alongside the Democratic Unionists and has made its peace with London. In the North it has dropped its old radical stance (in the South, where Sinn Fein are not in force, it’s a bit different).
A project of delegitimisation
But Adams is facing prosecution not because of his latter professional career but on account of what he once represented. The charges brought against him are the latest move in an ongoing project to delegitimise the IRA’s armed struggle which followed the British army being sent onto the streets of Derry and Belfast in August 1969. One need not support the resumption of armed struggle today – and few do – to oppose this revisionist agenda.
In other words it is in the interests of British imperialism to paint armed resistance in Ireland as being about the execution of single mothers rather than being a response to its repression. London wants to paint itself free of any responsibility for the war which followed its decision to send in troops.
The latter move was not made out of concern for “keeping the peace,” following rather a request from the Unionist government in Belfast – whose own security forces could no longer contain the protests which had exploded in Catholic working class areas – to maintain law and order.
The same Unionist government had responded to the development of a civil rights movement in the previous Autumn in its usual manner. Peaceful marchers were batoned on the streets. When protesters responded with stones and eventually petrol bombs, the police were quick to use the guns with which they were permanently armed.
Back in 1968 and 1969 images of these events shocked people across the world. It looked similar to what the Russians were doing in Czechoslovakia, which had drawn the condemnation of the British and other Western governments.
People were shocked to discover that Northern Ireland was a state where the police were armed, where special laws including internment without trial had been regularly used and where the state militia was drawn solely from the Unionist population.
The gerrymandered state
Civil rights protesters marched against electoral gerrymandering which meant council seats were so arranged as to ensure the city of Derry was permanently run by pro-British Unionists, even though the majority of the population were Catholic and nationalist. Furthermore, business owners were doled out extra votes because they were overwhelmingly Unionists.
In fact the whole state was a gerrymander. Its boundaries were drawn in 1921 when Britain, unable to hold down Ireland, insisted on partition. Sometimes carelessly referred to as Ulster, Northern Ireland excluded three of the nine counties of that province because they contained too many opponents of union.
From birth Northern Ireland was a one party state marked by sectarianism, repression and poverty. The majority paid a price but it was made clear that Catholics were not welcome.
Britain has to take responsibility for this – it was after all part and parcel of the United Kingdom. Further, it has to take the responsibility for the war which followed its decision to send in troops in 1969.
State repression and the emergence of the Provos
Back then the Provisional IRA did not exist. The only armed struggle was that of the Unionist state and Loyalist gunmen who had already began killing innocent Catholics.
The Provos were formed because Catholic areas had been virtually defenceless when state forces went on the rampage. Even as British troops were deployed in Belfast a Unionist mob burnt out 500 homes in the Lower Falls, leaving 1500 inhabitants refugees.
The Provisional IRA emerged as a ruthless guerrilla force in response to British army action. Several prominent events punctuated the regime of state oppression:
- In July 1970 four residents of the Lower Falls were shot dead as the area was placed under curfew, sealed off and saturated in riot gas to enable soldiers to carry out a largely unsuccessful door-to-door trawl for guns. Two Unionist politicians were then taken on a tour of the area.
- August 1971 saw the imposition of internment without trial. Troops swept into Catholic areas to seize suspects – only Catholics were taken. Rioting and gun battles quickly developed and the IRA recruited far more than they had taken prisoner.
- On Bloody Sunday in January 1972 we were told that the Paras had “lost control.” We now know this was a war crime sanctioned at government level.
The IRA committed some heinious actions but it was a response to British state repression. Oppressed people had a right to resist and only by stating that had you a right to criticise.
A revanchist move
Gerry Adams helped found the Provos and that’s not forgotten or forgiven in elite circles in London. Any charges taken against him will be on the basis of testimony given by Republicans to a Boston University associated research programme under agreement that such information would only be made available after all involved were dead. The security forces went to court in the States to win access. That result has serious implications which go way beyond Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.
This whole affair stinks of revenge and an establishment effort to criminalise the resistance they met in Northern Ireland. The full significance of the move against Adams is only revealed however when we understand that since the British state can offer no further privileges to Orangeism, it must seek to mitigate its position by other means, including juridical action for which Westminster need take no responsibility. The pursuit of Gerry Adams allows for a further legitimation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and triangulates Sinn Fein’s position by allowing them to protest whilst tacitly recognising the jurisdiction of British rule and policing.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.