The police have until this evening to charge Gerry Adams over the murder of Jean McConville in 1972.  If he is released, more claims of his involvement may later be made, and he may again be arrested – and charged then.  This would have knock-on effects on the province’s political institutions, since it is impossible to believe that Sinn Fein would simply shrug its shoulders at such a development.  It could quit Northern Ireland’s executive and collapse its political institutions.  Or it could disrupt the executive’s business, as it did over policing during the late 1990s.  Or it could find other ways of protesting: there is no shortage of possibilities.  If Adams is charged today, those knock-on effects will begin tomorrow.

Either way, the arrest of the Sinn Fein President and TD for Louth raises a question familiar to politics in Northern Ireland, namely: which is to be supreme – law or politics?  Is the maintenance of justice more important than the demands of expediency?  One point can be made right at the start.  Whichever answer one prefers, the peace process would not have taken place as it did had British Governments always treated the rule of law as paramount.  Secret talks with the IRA were held when John Major was in government, as under previous administrations, despite official claims that terrorists wouldn’t be talked to.  Tony Blair released paramilitary criminals from prison early.  All concerned would argue that their actions were necessary for an end to violence.

Peace has duly come to the province – or, at least, an end to the IRA and loyalist campaigns, though sporadic terror continues and political normality is absent.  But its wounds are slow to heal.  Over 3,500 people were killed during “the Troubles”, including over 700 members of the armed forces and over 300 police.  Many of the grieving families and friends of those who lost their lives, or who have been maimed and crippled, or who have vanished, want justice – or simply the official recognition of loss and grief.  However, there is no equivalence of treatment between those who served the state and those who fought it.  Bloody Sunday, Finucane, Rosemary Nelson: official inquiries probe the actions of the security forces, not those of the terrorists.

The way we live now – with its tangled knot of human rights, legal challenge, and freedom of information – drives this asymmetric treatment of “the past”.  It is a cause of resentment among those who prize the rule of law in general and among Unionists in particular: hence the anger of many of the latter during the on-the-runs letters row, and their delight at the possibility of Adams being charged and convicted.  This returns us to the competing claims of expediency and justice.  The logical projection of the first would be an amnesty.  But this would be an affront to fairness – and victims of terror.  A means of safeguarding the second would be simply to let police and prosecutors continue their work.  However, this will not in itself correct the asymmetry.

The apparent third way of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission isn’t really one at all, since it would depend on an amnesty to make it work.  Furthermore, there is difficulty with the plan in practice as well as in principle, since there is little sign that any of the parties concerned are willing to see members of the security forces or terrorist gangs alike spared prosecution.  The recent Haas proposals, which produced a variant on the commission idea, got nowhere, as did his ideas for flags and parading.  (Theresa Villiers made a case on this site for taking them seriously.)  For the moment, the actions of prosecutors and the police are the only game in town, and the rule of law is being applied to Adams – which is as it should be.

Sinn Fein claims that his arrest is “political”.  But had Adams not been arrested, would this not have been “political” – since the police would effectively have been turning a blind eye to the evidence that they have before them?  This seems to be based on a series of tape recordings with former republican terrorists and others made as part of a history project at Boston College in America.   It took a court ruling to make it available, which is a reminder that the tensions between law and politics aren’t the only ones in the tale of Adams’s arrest: his treatment has also pitted the claims of the police, whose duty it is to uncover evidence that may lead to prosecution, against those of academics, whose work includes unearthing evidence as part of historical research.

To academics and others, what took place in 1972 is history, and many universities and schools alike indeed treat years as recent as the Blair ones as part of history.  But, as Adams is discovering, the past is not hermetically sealed from the present.  Where history begins and ends is debatable.  What is certain is that it has an uncanny way of seeping from yesterday into today.  Jean McConville was literally torn from the arms of her crying children before being abducted and killed.  But it is as though this murdered mother, dead for over 40 years and a figure of no political significance, has risen to pursue those responsible for her death – with all the implacability of Orestes’ Furies.  Adams is history, in one sense.  Could he become so in another?