The Jean McConville case shows the urgent need for a truth and reconciliation commission for Northern Ireland.

Like many people I was stunned by the interview on Thursday’s Today programme with the son of Jean McConville – the widowed mother of 10, abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972.

Abducted, threatened and badly injured by the IRA, split from his siblings, denied ‘justice’, and still afraid to name his mother’s abductors, he combined dignity with terror.

His account was very different from the public narrative of peace and progress to which we’ve become accustomed.

In fact, far from being an establishment plot, as claimed by Sinn Fein, within that public narrative the arrest of Gerry Adams is deeply inconvenient. The arrest threatens the painstakingly positioned scenario whereby Sinn Fein can be described as mostly inside the peace process tent, mostly pissing out.

The position is a deeply troubling one because ‘justice’ was an absent consideration in the peace process – it was a price that’s not admitted. There was a lack of honesty about the ‘price’ of a peace that, while it has helped a lot of people, lacked any sort of remedy for people like the McConville family.

Political amnesty has a habit of entrenching a new status quo. It is a deal done above the heads, or behind the backs, of civil society. It’s not done in the courts; there’s no judicial oversight; there are no counsel for interested parties.

The Northern Ireland peace process has been a series of deals. Important and delicate deals, but deals nonetheless – transactions later endorsed by plebiscite. Often such deals – by which people who, at the very least, supported illegal acts (arguably on all sides) – see the positions of the deal-doers entrenched by turning the volume down on demands for ‘justice’.

The events of the last few days excepted, for people like the McConvilles, any peace dividend has remained utterly elusive.

Could the deals done for peace have succeeded if considerations of justice had been there in the mix? Maybe not, and maybe those deals should still have been done.

But the assumption that peace and justice are on the same narrative arc seems glib in this context. Likewise, the cessation of hostilities can’t be automatically conflated with reconciliation.

Calls for a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland have been resisted to date, though it is a view the Labour party now holds in opposition. I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that without it what has been achieved in Northern Ireland has a problematic side that we are right to feel deeply uncomfortable with.  

Not least, the Boston College tape represents something of a fluke win for prosecutors – and as such gives this piece of justice the sort of asymmetric feel that could destabilise Northern Ireland’s still-delicate peace.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor