Sinn Féin 'haunted by ghosts of past'

By Martina Purdy
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

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Image caption,
The media have gathered at Antrim police station

Gerry Adams' arrest and detention in Antrim police station has caused a sensation at home and abroad.

That is not surprising, given his current position as an elected member of Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, and the leader of Sinn Féin.

His influence and role in the peace process led some to conclude he was almost untouchable. Indeed, the last time he was arrested was more than 35 years ago.

It was 1978 and 12 people, including children, had been incinerated in a no-warning IRA fire bombing of La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast.

It was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.

Mr Adams was then an executive member of Sinn Féin, a party with no elected representatives.

He was charged with IRA membership but was soon cleared due to insufficient evidence.

The police description of his demeanour was recorded in the book, Gerry Adams: Man of Peace, Man of War by authors, Mark Devenport and David Sharrock.

Mr Devenport was told by one of the detectives who interviewed him that Mr Adams wanted to portray himself as the statesman.

He was then allowed to smoke his pipe and amid the puffs, the policeman observed: "He adopted a very cool stance."

The policeman said: "He was very careful about any answers he gave. He was quite happy to discuss any issues other than those under consideration."

It was not Mr Adams' first taste of police questioning.

He was "lifted", in northern Irish parlance, by soldiers in March 1972 from his west Belfast home in the middle of the night.

He gave his name, according to the Devenport/Sharrock biography as Joe McGuigan.

According to Mr Adams' account, he was kicked and punched and threatened, with a gun, inside Palace Barracks in Holywood, County Down. He was apparently identified by an RUC detective.

The authors record this line from the detectives who interrogated him: "This man is a very good liar, who will need a long continuous interrogation, an intelligent gentleman, well instructed in the methods of interrogation."

It was claimed that, in the middle of a night of interrogation, he did admit to having joined the IRA seven years previously.

But Mr Adams' subsequent denial of any admission and the circumstances of the alleged admission meant, according to the authors, that it would not have stood up in court.

But it was sufficient in 1972 to intern him without trial.

He was interned from March to June that year when he was released to take part in secret, but abortive, talks in London about an IRA truce.

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Gerry Adams, pictured in February 2010, is currently being questioned by the PSNI

Since his 1978 arrest, Mr Adams has had no experience of police questioning but plenty of experience answering reporters' questions.

His style has been to deny, deny, deny ever being in the IRA, despite some dogged attempts by reporters - among them, the BBC's legendary inquisitor Jeremy Paxman - to challenge this assertion.

Fast forward to 2014 and Mr Adams, the man who says he never volunteered for the IRA, volunteered to talk to police about the murder of Jean McConville.

The mother of 10, accused by the IRA of being an informer, was tortured, murdered and buried in secret for decades.

And with his arrest came, what some commentators describe as, a subtle shift in language.

Speaking to a reporter en route to his rendezvous with the police, Mr Adams said he had "never dissociated" himself from the IRA, prompting the reporter to ask whether this adjustment in terminology would eventually lead to Mr Adams admitting his role in the organisation.

Mr Adams insisted he was not in the IRA but the emphasis seemed to be less on denial and more on his association. Just what that association was, he did not say.

While one republican source insisted this was not a shift, others say it is, including historian and author Brian Feeney: "For me it's a shift. I mean, he has played around with those things before but this was quite clear in that interview.

"He said he had never dissociated himself and never will and that was a much more definite position that he had ever adopted before."

Mr Adams arrest comes as his dream of building a political party across the island of Ireland flourishes.

As a member of the Irish parliament (TD) for Louth, he leads Sinn Féin, a party with 14 TDs in Dáil Éireann and the dominant nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, Sinn Féin is poised to top the polls once again in this month's European election and is being tipped to pick up seats in the Republic of Ireland.

But that hope of a brighter future continues to be haunted by a dark past and the ghost of a mother of 10 whose brutal death stood out among the thousands of other brutal deaths.

Mr Adams has protested his innocence. He has presented himself as the victim of a lengthy malicious campaign by those opposed to the peace process.

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Image caption,
Gerry Adams, pictured in 1981, now leads the dominant nationalist party in Northern Ireland

He seemed to have little choice, however, as allegations against him mounted.

Another republican contemporary of Mr Adams, Ivor Bell, who left the IRA decades ago, has been arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Jean McConville.

This follows revelations made in recordings to Boston College by a number of republicans who had co-operated on the proviso the tapes remained secret until their deaths.

After a court battle, those tapes ended up in the hands of the police and have left Mr Adams and others with questions to answer.

Before entering the police station, Mr Adams expressed concerns about the timing of the encounter with police - giving Sinn Féin some verbal ammunition and some control of the narrative.

But the story has since moved beyond Sinn Féin's control. It has gone viral.

The media has been camped outside Antrim police station and their numbers are growing.

It's perhaps too early to say what the political implications are.

Sinn Féin can thrive on rejection, if you like, and sometimes adversity draws more support. But there is a softer vote that might respond more negatively to this publicity.

Whatever happens, this is certainly one of the more memorable episodes in the rather complex, often controversial life of Gerry Adams.

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