At the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration in South Boston he was hailed as an inspiration, and thanked Boston for its strong support. At fund-raisers at five-star downtown hotels and blue-collar function halls, he raised thousands of dollars for his political party in Ireland. His admirers here have included senators, congressmen, and some of the city’s business elite.
So when police in Northern Ireland announced Wednesday that they had arrested Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, many political leaders in Boston were stunned that a man they had come to respect as a force for peace had been linked to the 1972 abduction and murder of a mother of 10.
The strong reactions — many in support of Adams — underscored Boston’s close relationship with him personally and with the drive for Irish reunification he has spearheaded. The arrest also touched a nerve because it was based in part on allegations made by two former IRA members as part of an oral history project at Boston College.
“You know it’s unfortunate what’s going on,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday, adding that he had met Adams many times. “My concern is that so much progress has been made in the North with the peace process. I’m concerned about what happens now.”
Thomas P. O’Neill III, the former lieutenant governor, argued that the arrest smacked of “backroom politics” to appease the British government.
“I’m not excusing any wrong,” he said. “I’m not brushing anything under a rug. I think the notorious nature of the violent past is wrong. All I’m saying is there is plenty of blame to go around here on all sides. Let’s not bring old hatreds back.”
A law enforcement official from Belfast has said Adams was being questioned, but has not been charged, in the killing of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was abducted in west Belfast in 1972. The Irish Republican Army later took responsibility for killing McConville, whom they suspected of being an informant.
In a statement Wednesday night, Adams insisted he is innocent and said he had voluntarily agreed to be questioned by police. He has been president for three decades of Sinn Fein, which was once the political wing of the IRA, and is credited with playing a major role in the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
In heavily Irish-American Boston, Adams has long had strong support because many who trace their roots to Ireland “understand their relatives were IRA-related, and they understand Gerry was an IRA man,” said O’Neill, son of former US House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. “They get that, but they also know there’s a peace process.”
Adams made his first visit to the city in 1994, after President Clinton granted him a visa over the objections of the British government. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who helped persuade Clinton to allow the visit, greeted Adams at Logan International Airport and escorted him to a reception with Irish-American business leaders at the Park Plaza Hotel.
Hoping to encourage reunification through democratic means, Kennedy praised Adams as “a courageous leader in advancing the cause of peace in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, aides to Mitt Romney, who was waging a fierce campaign to unseat Kennedy, accused the senator of courting the Sinn Fein leader in a cynical attempt to stir up support from Irish Catholic voters.
Adams basked in Boston’s revolutionary roots, noting the city’s own history of fighting the British. He met for an hour with state Senate President William M. Bulger at his home in South Boston, where neighbors came out for photographs with him and a young boy shook his hand. He capped his visit with a speech at Harvard and a rally before 500 supporters at Faneuil Hall.
“The British government is not afraid of me,” Adams told the crowd. “They’re afraid of you.”
Since that initial visit, Adams has returned to the area many times, nurturing a relationship that is emblematic of the Irish republican movement’s evolution into the political mainstream.
Like many a political leader here, Adams has marched in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and Holyoke, and spoken at the Hibernian Hall in Lawrence, and at Florian Hall in Dorchester.
He has raised money for Sinn Fein at the Boston Harbor Hotel and at Anthony’s Pier 4, for decades a favorite fund-raising spot for Boston’s political figures.
At the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston in 2010, Adams spoke before a crowd that included Governor Deval Patrick and many other state and city political leaders.
“We would not have all of the progress we’re making back home if it were not for the encouragement, assistance, and support of people here,” Adams said then. “So thank you for that.”
Former US Representative Martin T. Meehan of Lowell said Adams always enjoyed a close relationship with political leaders here, starting with Kennedy and “Tip” O’Neill.
“He’s got a real connection to Massachusetts, which makes the fact that all of this came from the tapes at BC somewhat ironic,” he said.
US Representative Richard E. Neal of Springfield, who said he has been close to Adams for more than 30 years, called the arrest “one of those unsettling moments” and said he was suspicious of the timing, which comes just before Irish elections. “It all seems pretty murky,” he said.
US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, who represents South Boston, the heart of the city’s Irish-American community, said he was also surprised.
“In the 25 years that I have known Gerry Adams, I have known him as a man of peace,” Lynch said. “These are troubling allegations, but that’s all they are now, is allegations.”