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Five key questions – and answers – about the arrest of Gerry Adams

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams arrives at the funeral of veteran British Labor politician Tony Benn at St. Margaret’s Church at Westminster Abbey in London on March 27. (Neil Hall/ Reuters)

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein and one of the key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process, has been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder some 40 years ago of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10. It’s too early to say how, or indeed whether, he’ll be charged, or how strong the evidence is against him. But this will certainly have important political repercussions. As an ersatz expert in Irish politics, (I’m from Ireland; I have a masters’ degree in Irish politics) here’s my take:

How important is Gerry Adams for Irish politics?

Not as important as he used to be. There have been widespread allegations that Adams played a leadership role in the IRA, and Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, has challenged Adams to come clean on his past involvement in the organization. Sinn Fein, his political party, hasn’t sought to bury its past relationship with the Irish Republican Army’s terrorist campaign, but it hasn’t heavily emphasized that association either. It’s not a vote winner. Adams represents an older generation in Sinn Fein, which is plausibly an electoral liability in much of the Republic of Ireland. He has also been seriously damaged by the revelation last year that his brother, Liam Adams, sexually abused his 5-year-old daughter, and that he (Gerry Adams) knew about the abuse in 2000 and didn’t report it until 2009.

What are the consequences for peace in Northern Ireland?

Very hard to say. A lot will depend on how Sinn Fein and the IRA (which is intimately associated with Sinn Fein) react. Under the peace agreement, large numbers of IRA prisoners were released. The status of those who had not been charged with crimes (and hence weren’t prisoners at the time) was left ambiguous. However, Sinn Fein clearly believed that it had secured an effective commitment that the people who were responsible for these crimes would be left unprosecuted. If Sinn Fein pulls out of the government of Northern Ireland, it will immediately precipitate a political crisis. If the party just makes loud angry noises, the current power sharing arrangement will survive. For now, Sinn Fein is just making loud angry noises.

Adams isn’t the first person with IRA ties to be arrested in connection with this murder: Ivor Bell, a former chief of staff on the IRA’s army council, was charged last month with aiding and abetting the killing. And while Sinn Fein complained vociferously, it did not threatened to abandon its role in government over Bell’s arrest. Adams is, of course, a much more visible figure, even if he is politically damaged. Outside observers used to allege that Sinn Fein’s decisions were dictated by the IRA’s army council. It will be interesting to observe what role the relicts of the IRA play in Sinn Fein’s decision-making this time.

How will the Irish government react?

The Irish government will be concerned about maintaining political stability in Northern Ireland. It will not have any particular desire to help Gerry Adams, except insofar as it’s necessary toward that end. First of all, Sinn Fein is a potent political threat to government parties in the Republic of Ireland, and was forecast to do well in the forthcoming local and European Parliament elections. Second, there has long been a hostile relationship between Fine Gael, the majority party in the Irish government, and Sinn Fein. The two parties have their origins in different sides on the Irish civil war; Fine Gael has always seen itself as the party of the Irish state and of law and order, while Sinn Fein until very recently saw itself as the sole true heir of an Irish republicanism that had been abandoned by southern Ireland. While the two parties have had to work together, because of Sinn Fein’s role in power sharing in the Northern Ireland government, they do not like each other. Sinn Fein’s presence as a political force on both sides of the border is usually a strength. This time around, it may be a liability.

How will this affect Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects?

It will likely damage them in the Republic of Ireland. The McConville murder was one of the more sordid and brutal events of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” Although the IRA alleged that Jean McConville was an informer, others have suggested that her crime was merely to offer water to a wounded British soldier. Adams himself has described the murder as a “grievous injustice.” Sinn Fein has worked quite successfully to reposition itself as an anti-economic austerity party, soft-pedaling its past connections to terrorism. This will remind voters that the past is not buried very deep. It is likely to have far less impact on likely Sinn Fein voters in Northern Ireland, who are effectively inured to past terrorist incidents.

What are the long term consequences for Irish politics?

If a broader crisis is averted, its most important consequence may be to rapidly accelerate a generational change in Sinn Fein. Younger politicians like Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Irish Parliament, are better positioned to sell the party to Irish voters. Over the longer term, they may change Sinn Fein from a party dominated by its lingering association with terrorism to one with a broader left-wing agenda.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.

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