DUBLIN — Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams, the warlord-turned-peacemaker of the Northern Ireland conflict, was being interrogated about the grisly slaying of a Belfast widow that has haunted his political career for decades.
Adams was arrested Wednesday night on suspicion of ordering the killing of Jean McConville, 38, a mother of 10, in his Roman Catholic West Belfast power base in 1972. That was the deadliest year in four decades of bloodshed, when the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) was committing killings daily — and Adams was already a commanding figure.
The IRA branded McConville a British spy but killed her secretly and told her children, who ranged in age from infants to teens, that she had abandoned them.
If Adams, 65, is charged with the killing of McConville — who disappeared without trace until her bullet-shattered skull was found near a Republic of Ireland beach in 2003 — it would be a surprise and deal a damaging shock to Northern Ireland’s precariously balanced peace.
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Adams’ track record suggests he won’t be charged.
He was arrested and interrogated repeatedly after IRA bombings and shootings in the 1970s and 1980s, and even met British government leaders face to face as an IRA representative for failed cease-fire talks in 1972, followed by the IRA’s biggest car-bomb offensive on Belfast. Yet he insists he’s never held any position in the underground army and has been convicted of only one IRA offense, a failed escape when imprisoned without trial.
Adams gave every impression he intended to walk free again, giving TV interviews shortly before delivering himself to a Belfast police station Wednesday to begin an interrogation he has anticipated for months, if not years.
“I believe that the killing of Jean McConville and the secret burial of her body was wrong and a grievous injustice to her and her family,” Adams said. “Well publicized, malicious allegations have been made against me. I reject these. While I have never disassociated myself from the IRA and I never will, I am innocent of any part in the abduction, killing or burial of Mrs. McConville.”
The difference, this time, is that key potential witnesses have been speaking, on tape, from their graves.
Police investigating the killing of McConville have been making arrests based on tapes of interviews with IRA veterans that they obtained, after a two-year U.S. legal fight, from Boston College. Its Belfast Project involved the collection of audio interviews with 26 IRA veterans detailing their own and colleagues’ careers. They spoke on condition their words be kept secret until their deaths.
Detectives sought access to the tapes after one of the interviewees, Adams’ one-time IRA confidante Brendan Hughes, died in 2008. His Boston College interview became the subject of a 2010 book, “Voices From the Grave,” by project coordinator Ed Moloney.
Hughes said he led the IRA team that “arrested” McConville, but her fate was sealed after an argument between Adams and the man who succeeded him as the IRA’s Belfast commander, Ivor Bell.
Hughes said Bell wanted McConville’s body to be put on public display to intimidate others who might consider helping the British, but Adams wanted her killing kept a mystery, and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
“There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed,” Hughes said in the recording, which was broadcast on British and Irish television in 2010. “That man is now the head of Sinn Fein. I did not give the order to execute that woman. He did.”
After a protracted legal wrangle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Northern Ireland police last year received many more of the IRA tapes from Boston College. Last month, they used the taped interviews of Bell to arrest the now 77-year-old and charge him with aiding McConville’s killing.
Adams, sensing his own arrest was imminent, said he would be happy to answer police questions and his lawyers negotiated Wednesday’s arrest at police headquarters.
Adams has led Sinn Fein since 1983. Since 2011, he has led Sinn Fein’s lawmakers in the Republic of Ireland’s Parliament.
Moloney, author of the definitive “A Secret History of the IRA,” said in a phone interview that he doubted the taped accounts could be used effectively to prove any criminal charge, but the political damage to Adams would still be done when, as is expected, McConville’s children sue him for civil damages.
Even if Adams were convicted of murder, he would win speedy parole under terms of the Good Friday peace accord. It offered quick freedom for all those convicted of pre-1998 IRA crimes.