WASHINGTON -- As I walk up to Bobby Van’s Steakhouse to meet Gerry Adams, I’m surprised to see him sitting alone outside. Wearing a dark three-piece tweed suit with a green ribbon on the lapel, the alleged terrorist on the terrace is calmly reading some papers.
As is his practice, he has his back to the wall so he can see what’s coming. Still, given the new death threats sparked by his detention in connection with a gruesome 1972 case — the IRA’s torture and execution of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 suspected of being a British informer — it seems pretty blase.
“I need some fresh air,” he explains, his Belfast burr turning “air” to “ire,” an inadvertent pun. Mr. Adams believes that he was arrested because his enemies in Britain and within the Northern Ireland police force were trying to stir enough ire against him to hurt the party he leads, Sinn Fein, in the elections just held in Ireland. Some believe there is a secret cadre within the British security apparatus known as “the 12 Apostles” who have pledged to bring down Mr. Adams and the peace process — with improved forensics.
Conspiracy or no, the case dramatized Ireland’s struggle to choose between peace and justice. In a nation where the past drags at the future and where neighborhoods and schools are still religiously segregated, bygones are impossible.
McConville’s children, who were scattered to foster homes and orphanages, want vengeance. Mr. Adams’ friends, like Niall O’Dowd, an Irish publisher in New York, fear that a politically motivated prosecution would collapse the peace process. “The IRA did terrible things, and so did the other side,” Mr. O’Dowd said. “Choosing a hierarchy of hate elevating one crime above all others is not the solution. Adams is not above the law, but he’s equal in the law.”
Despite — or because of — the arrest, Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) did remarkably well, making unprecedented inroads in the middle-class and leafy suburbs of Dublin, where Sinn Fein sightings used to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Mr. Adams has done something that Michael Collins was murdered trying to do. He has made the “terrible beauty” transition from armed resistance to political power. “He is as close to a Mandela as Ireland has produced — from alleged terrorist to freedom fighter to politician to potentially someday leader of his country,” Mr. O’Dowd said.
Some Americans involved with the peace process think that if Mr. Adams admitted, at least in general terms, that he was an IRA commander in the “Bloody Sunday” era, as his deputy Martin McGuinness has, that it would gain him more trust with the Protestant side.
Mr. Adams came to D.C. to give “a wake-up call,” criticizing the Irish and British prime ministers for a lack of diligence in implementing the peace agreement. He says he was let out of jail after four days because “there’s no evidence,” but there was also a lot of American pressure because of fears that peace would rupture.
He said he wasn’t scared, though two of his “wee” granddaughters were sick over it. The man who survived a gangland-style shooting in 1984 admitted he had been frightened before. “Anybody who’s not scared,” he said with a grim smile, “don’t ever be in their company.”
He slept in a cell on a rubber mattress. “The food was so disgusting, you would have fed it to a dog,” said Mr. Adams, who tweeted Friday that he was looking forward to his first post-prison “big, warm soapy suds with yellow ducks & Epsom Salts bath time! Yeeeehaaa!”
Dolours Price was a beautiful IRA guerrilla, once married to the Oscar-nominated Irish actor Stephen Rea. She told Boston College interviewers that Mr. Adams was her “Officer Commanding” in the Belfast Brigade called the “Unknowns,” charged with weeding out informers, who became known as the “Disappeared.” She said he ordered her to drive informants from the north to the south. Mr. Adams, who thinks the tainted oral history project was a British trap, again denied any involvement in the execution when he talked to me.
Price, who had feuded with Mr. Adams over disarming the IRA, told The Telegraph she was spurred in part by revenge because she objected to Mr. Adams’ peacemaking.
“They said I should be shot,” Mr. Adams recalled, “that we were traitors.”
During Price’s eight-year prison term for the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey — which she claimed Mr. Adams also ordered up — she was force-fed for 200 days. Mr. Adams said that afterward she suffered a “trauma” with drugs and alcohol that led to her 2013 death, implying this colored her recollections.
He said the McConvilles had suffered “a grave injustice” and had the right to know the truth.
Does he know who is responsible?
“No, I don’t, “ he said, adding: “There were dreadful things done. Anyone that thinks the war was glorious or glamorous. …” Trailing off, he shook his head. “It’s about killing people and inflicting horror on people,” he said, adding: “It’s always the poor who suffer most. When you have a nation that is ruptured by partition, that isn’t allowed to govern itself, that can’t shape its own society or aspirations, you’re always going to have this cycle. And we have to break the cycle, so we’re not handcuffed to the past.
“The old thing in Irish Republican resistance was, ‘Well, we did our best and the other generation will carry it on.’ But we don’t want another generation to carry it on. We want this done and dusted. No other kid should have to go to prison, have to kill anyone, be put in an early grave.”
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.