Gerry Adams arrest: Is it possible to have justice and peace?

The ethical dilemma raised by the arrest of Gerry Adams for a crime that took place in 1972

I was once invited by a cabinet minister, along with perhaps 20 other specialists of various sorts, to take part in a round-table conference in the splendour of a castle near Belfast.

The purpose was to examine the issue of dealing with the past and helping victims of the Troubles. Plenty of ideas were aired but complications also arose so that the occasion produced no breakthroughs.

That was more than a decade ago: it didn’t work, and since then the issue has continued to bedevil Belfast.

The arrest of Gerry Adams illustrates one possible way of reaching back into the past, using the long arm of the law. It illustrates how tangled the issue of the past can become. For example, loyalist paramilitaries who cheer his detention have in recent years rioted when they themselves have faced sectarian murder charges.

Another complication is the question of members of the security forces, some of whom have been criticised and indicted, in court or in official reports, of offences including killings.

As these examples indicate, this is highly controversial territory politically, legally and emotionally. It is clear that many people differentiate between different types of perpetrators and different types of victims.

Thus some favour a vigorous pursuit of previously violent republicans but strongly oppose the prosecutions of soldiers and police.

At the other end of the spectrum are voices proposing that a line should be drawn under historical cases from past decades. The best thing, this argument goes, is to abandon the idea of prosecutions and concentrate on the future.

While there is much support for this approach there is also resistance to it from victims’ groups and others who say that this would amount to a denial of justice. It is galling to be told to forget the past, one victim said bitterly, when a bomb has put you in a wheelchair for life.

Between the two poles of aggressive prosecution and amnesiac amnesty many other ideas have been tried out with, for example, the notion of a truth commission sometimes floated. But it has yet to be explained how one-time combatants such as republican and loyalist gunmen, as well as soldiers, police and MI5, could be persuaded to admit personal involvement in killings and other wrong-doing.

Some families seek apologies from their killers though, as has been said, “saying sorry is necessary but not sufficient”. Others are grateful just to learn the authorities are looking into their cases.

Some, perhaps surprisingly, find real consolation simply from receiving information. In the words of a recent report: “For many of the families the need to know more about the circumstances of their case is profoundly important.”

The problem of the past has been approached on an ad hoc basis, with investigations carried out by agencies such as the police, Police Ombudsman, and coroners’ courts. Some of these have given some comfort, but none has come close to providing a comprehensive path.

Some victims have displayed almost saintly attitudes in overcoming bitterness while others remain, after many years, seething with anger. Some of them are organised into groups who not only seek personal closure but are also immersed in political blame games.

Much more needs to be done to offer counselling to relieve anxiety and deal with mental and sometimes physical pain.

There are people in today’s more peaceful Northern Ireland who, decades after some violent incident, still live in homes festooned with strong locks and bolts, and still sleep with shotguns by their beds.

But although this is a bleak picture it is not without hope. Months of talks around Christmas, led by the former US diplomat Richard Haass, failed to reach agreement among the Belfast political parties on this and other issues.

Yet Mr Haass made greater strides than any other initiative in this field in recent years when he produced seven different drafts of a way ahead. Although his proposals were turned down by the unionist groupings they were accepted by nationalist parties.

His ideas included more investigations, a search for an agreed narrative of the Troubles and a form of limited immunity. It is a complex structure but then this is a complex problem, and it is obvious enough that resolving it will be a complex matter.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor