When past and future collide

As the pre-eminent public face of the republican movement, as a strategist and apologist, Gerry Adams is the most divisive figure in Irish politics. Thousands of voters in Louth are content to be represented by him in the Dáil. Yet despite rising support, others in that constituency and beyond have taken the principled decision that, by virtue of its history, they will never support a Sinn Féin candidate in any election. For many, Adams's denial that he was a member of the IRA is risible. But it is somehow more sinister when it is parroted faithfully by a new generation of Sinn Féin members and supporters who have been attracted to the party as an alternative to so-called establishment politics.

By accident, circumstance, design or conspiracy – and political outlook will tend to determine which you choose – the implications of Adams’s arrest in relation to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville are manifold. At a simple level, it has restored to the public consciousness a period when, in the name of Irish republicanism, an IRA gang could abduct a widow from her 10 children and, in the perversely euphemistic language of the Troubles, ensure that she “disappeared” (after being tortured).

Her fate is part of the grim history of the Troubles which consumed thousands of lives in bombings, bullets, beatings, massacres and atrocities on both sides of the sectarian divide (including some perpetrated by representatives of the British state). Gerry Adams was part of the problem and has been part of the solution. The latter would not be possible without the former. His arrest has commanded the attention of an international audience, jaded by the intransigence of so many in the North. More importantly, it has highlighted the fragility of the peace process. Much of what has been achieved has effectively normalised the abnormal rather than resolved issues which continue to fester. Amid claim and counter-claim about "political" policing following Adams's detention, what is most striking is the ease with which all sides, when wrong-footed by unfolding events, reverted to type. Nor should it be overlooked, in the context of politics in the North, that tactical positioning in advance of the European and local elections played a part in the failure over the new year of the talks process led by Richard Haass.

The Tánaiste was correct when he argued on Sunday that Haass continues to offer the best means of addressing the outstanding issues of parades, flags and dealing with the legacy of the past. With so much unfinished business, that awful past retains the potential to unravel the progress which many wrongly now take for granted. On foot of a new post election mandate later this month, the North’s political leaders and the two governments must not allow this to happen. The past will always be present but a better future remains to be built.