Wednesday morning saw the UK Supreme Court quash convictions dating back to the 1970s in the case of the former Provisional IRA Chief of Staff, Gerry Adams. The convictions in question arose out of two escape attempts Mr Adams was involved in while held in Long Kesh without trial.
Prior to his arrest in the summer of 1973 Adams was the senior element in a triumvirate of IRA figures in Belfast responsible for prosecuting the war against the British, even taking it to the heart of London. Such was the determination of the IRA to have its three key figures in the Northern Capital continue to run the war in the city that successful escapes were pulled off for the other two, although they would later be recaptured in separate British security operations in the Malone Road area of Belfast. The IRA did not lay on escapes for peaceniks.
None of that however was the purview of the Supreme Court. Restricting itself to matters of law, it ruled that because Adams had not been lawfully held, he had not therefore escaped from lawful custody. There was never a question that he tried to escape, just the lawfulness of what it was he was seeking to escape from. The custody was unlawful, and the sequitur is that the escape attempts were lawful.
Because Adams is an eternal flame to perennial unionist touch paper, that type of reasoning infuriates political unionism. Before the head had time to settle on the verdict, its dark stuff was being gulped down by an assembly of the outraged, venting their displeasure at what left a bad taste in their mouths. For them the ruling is tantamount to Sawney Bean being found not guilty of unlawfully eating people after he offered a defence that he only ever lawfully dined on them. Even some liberal unionists are up in arms about it. Chronically incapable of conceding that the state they cherished so routinely behaved with malign intent, they would rather stick to what they are comfortable with: making the case that Adams has literally got away with murder and continues to have some functionary push him around in a wheelchair. There is a grave reluctance by unionism of all hues to acknowledge the scope of systemic injustice practiced on the nationalist community by the British state.
Whatever people might think, the outcome should be roundly welcomed. The issue is much wider than Adams. Flowing from the judgement is a damning indictment of the British state for having flouted due process routinely right across the board. The unlawful flouting of that process is not some fanciful notion rooted in the mists of republican theology but has its founds in British jurisprudence.
For his part Adams might well wonder on what ethical grounds a government led by a man widely believed to have been a raging paedophile and child rapist could claim the right to unlawfully deprive him of his liberty. He is however is unlikely to be interested in the justness of the verdict, justice being something that as often as not can be an impediment to the political career aspirations of a martial politician. The Supreme Court ruling will be a convenient sanitiser with which to disinfect and deodorise the odour of decomposition that has clung to the Adams brand, in anticipation of a power grab at the 2025 Irish presidential election. The fiction will be pushed that he neither directed nor was a practitioner of the political violence of the IRA – that was carried out by people who were convicted for it, people like Bobby Sands and Joe McDonnell. He has no convictions.
Ultimately, in spite of the brouhaha, the difference between this morning and yesterday morning is that today Adams is a former IRA leader who escaped from unlawful custody. Yesterday he was a former IRA leader who escaped from lawful custody. That is a simple historical fact which nothing is ever going to change.
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