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No more Mr Nice guy: Adams arrest follows British policy shift

The arrest of a major political figure such as Gerry Adams is clearly a political act. It is certainly damaging to Sinn Fein and could not have been undertaken without the knowledge of the British government. 

However those who are surprised by it havenít been paying attention. It follows a policy shift where British secretary of state Theresa Villiers, in a major speech, drew a line in the sand and indicated there was too much emphasis on state killings and collusion and not enough on the evil of the paramilitaries. As the loyalist paramilitaries operated as an auxiliary arm of the state forces and as the majority of the state atrocities involved collusion with the loyalist paramilitaries, this was in effect an announcement that all investigations of British crimes would cease and, at the same time the state would continue to press Sinn Fein on republican military actions despite the fact that they had surrendered decades before and fully supported the current Northern state.

Within weeks the first part of the policy was implemented with the announcement that there would be no further investigation of a  massacre by paratroops in Ballymurphy in 1971. The second part of the   policy was implemented with the arrest of former IRA leader Ivor Bell and then Adams on the basis of tape recordings that cannot possibly be the basis of prosecution in relation to a killing whose evidential base is buried 42 years in the past.

Why are the British doing this? Surely they are afraid that the peace process might be destabilized?

The reasons are twofold. Firstly the British are never going to admit to atrocity for the simple reason that it remains a weapon in their armory. They are not going to admit collusion with loyalists because this is a fact of life today in the North. The Saville enquiry into Bloody Sunday was a second whitewash that blamed a few soldiers (the first Widgery enquiry blamed the victims). Cameron said sorry but made it clear that the British were moving to wind up investigations of the past.

The second issue, and the reason for targeting Sinn Fein, has been the drawn out revolt of unionism against the constraints of the peace    process.

What the political groups want in relation to the past is simply stated. Sinn Fein want to bury the past with a truth and reconciliation process that will draw a line and effectively amnesty everyone. They continue to formally demand enquiries into the most blatant cases of state killing and collusion but, as was the case with Bloody Sunday, are happy with an apology.

What the unionists want is even simpler. The state did nothing wrong. Even if they did it was justified. All terrorists should be pursued to the ends of the earth. This is the explanation for the Haass debacle when the US facilitated concessions to unionism that were not enough for them and London and Dublin declined to press unionism to accept.

The consequences of the unionist position are even clearer. There was nothing wrong with the everyday sectarian intimidation and triumphalism of the old Stormont. The Sinn Fein terrorists should be expelled from the executive and we should return to unionist majority rule.   London and Dublin want to head that off, but the main aim is to keep unionism inside the tent and to placate them as much as possible.

It is in this context that we should read British policy; examination of the past should be rebalanced, there was too much emphasis on state killings and collusion. There will be no more agonizing over the  murder of human rights lawyers Rosemary Nelson, Pat Finucane and many other victims despite overwhelming evidence  of state involvement.

Sinn Fein have lost the battle. Unionism must be placated.   Concessions to the Shinners are being torn up. Villiers even went so far as to hold out the prospect of the return of an opposition in Stormont  - Sinn Fein are the obvious candidates.

And this is not a matter of symbolism. State collusion with loyalism is alive today in the form of widespread impunity for loyalist mobs,    impunity for loyalist paramilitaries operating openly on the streets, UVF representation on policing boards, police perversion of the law to give loyalism free rein.

In the aftermath of the Irish state visit to Britain local nationalist  commentators claimed a victory. By their charm and willingness to please nationalist Ireland had struck a new relationship with Britain. Unionism must see reason or face the combined wrath of London and Dublin.

This is an old illusion, stretching into Irish history. Yet again Britain have reminded the Dublin capitalists that it is unionism that provides their base in Ireland. The nationalists will live with that. It is the Irish working class who will have difficulty.

Finally, and again not for the first time, British policy in Ireland has wider implications. Villiers call for impunity for state forces marks a significant step forward towards a strong state in Britain and a more unrestrained approach by state forces, as well as the continued use of sectarian paramilitary forces in the day to day operation of the Northern statelet. 


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