Our first moral intuition surely says that’s fine: no one should be above the law. Some make practical objections to such delayed prosecutions, reinforced by specific objections to the Adams case. They note that the evidence is, inevitably, unreliable because it is 42 years old. The testimony of former IRA volunteers, given in taped interviews to a Boston academic project, might not be admissible given that Adams’ accusers are now dead and cannot be cross-examined. Moreover, as political enemies of the Sinn Féin leader, those accusers had an obvious motive to attack him.
The people deploying such arguments are making excuses, avoiding the real reason they tremble at the thought of Adams in the dock. The heart of the matter is much harder to say out loud. If confronted with one of the McConville children few would dare say it to their face.
It is this. In places torn by war, there is all too often a choice to be made between justice and peace. We may want both; we may cry out for both. But the bleak truth is, we cannot have both.
Though we have been wary of admitting it, Northern Ireland has been a classic case. One price of the Good Friday agreement was the early release of men of violence who had committed heinous crimes. Justice demanded they stayed behind bars. Peace demanded they be set free. Peace won.
The McConville case poses that tension between justice and peace in even starker terms. Elemental justice suggests there has to be a reckoning for that crime, even if that reckoning goes all the way to the top. But peace makes different demands. As Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, put it to me, “Adams and [Martin McGuinness] have been indispensable in moving Northern Ireland from the evil and horror of the past to the relative tranquillity and stability of today.”
To pursue Adams now for whatever role he played in that past horror is to jeopardise the current tranquillity. Those far away have become complacent about Northern Ireland, forgetful of the bloody havoc the Troubles wrought, taking today’s peace for granted. But those close to it believe it is not irreversible. There is no guarantee that republicans will calmly accept seeing their leader in a cell, while, say, British soldiers who killed civilians in Derry or Ballymurphy walk free. Just because a war ended does not mean it cannot start again.