BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Northern Ireland is waiting. The country’s most famous – and infamous – politician could be charged over a decades-old slaying of a Belfast mother of 10, or walk away a free man.
The outcome from a three-day police interrogation of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is expected Friday. The children of Jean McConville want Europe’s longest-serving party leader to be charged with her murder, 42 years after the Irish Republican Army dragged the widow from her Belfast home, shot her in the head and dumped her in an unmarked grave.
Senior figures in Adams’ Irish nationalist party say he should be freed without charge because there’s no firm evidence against him. They say Wednesday’s arrest was timed chiefly to tarnish their image and damage their prospects in elections in both parts of Ireland this month.
Under British anti-terrorist law Adams, 65, must be charged or released by Friday night, unless a judge approves an extension.
Adams, who has been Sinn Fein leader since 1983, denies any role in the IRA. But former members who spoke on tape to a Boston College-commissioned research project say he was the outlawed group’s Belfast commander in 1972 and ordered the killing and secret burial of McConville, a widow whom the IRA branded a British Army spy.
The daughter who has led a two-decade campaign for the truth says she’s praying for a murder charge – and is prepared to name publicly those IRA members she believes stormed into their home on the day of her mother’s abduction. Her other siblings say they’re too afraid to take this step because it could inspire IRA attacks on themselves or their children.
“What are they going to do to me? They have done so much to me in the last 42 years. Are they going to come and put a bullet in my head? Well, they know where I live,” Helen McKendry told the BBC Newsnight program.
McKendry, alongside her husband, Seamus, launched an often-lonely protest campaign in 1995 seeking an IRA admission of responsibility and help in finding her remains. They suffered attacks on their home in Catholic west Belfast and had to resettle in a village outside the capital. McKendry, who was 15 when her mother was abducted, said she found it hard to believe Adams was finally in custody and facing police questions.
Northern Ireland has met news of Adams’ arrest with a mixture of resignation and cynicism. The consensus from fans and foes alike: Adams is too important a figure in the peace process to go to jail, and he’s never going to talk honestly about his past command positions in the Provisional IRA, the dominant faction that formally renounced violence in 2005.
The underground army killed nearly 1,800 people – including scores of Catholic civilians and IRA members branded spies and informers – before calling a 1997 cease-fire so Sinn Fein could pursue peace with Britain and Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority.
Two decades ago, Adams initially insisted in brief face-to-face meetings with the McKendrys that the IRA was not involved but pledged to look into it. Finally in 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility for the slayings of nine long-vanished civilians and IRA members, including McConville, and offered to pinpoint her unmarked grave on a beach 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Belfast in the Republic of Ireland.
That effort failed despite extensive digging. Then in 2003, a dog walker stumbled across her skeletal remains, with its bullet-shattered skull, protruding from a bluff above a different beach.
The police investigation of the McConville killing has accelerated since detectives last year received a potential treasure trove of taped interviews with IRA veterans recorded for a Boston College oral history project. Subjects agreed to spoke candidly about their IRA careers on condition that the audiotapes would remain under lock and key until their deaths. But the Northern Ireland police sued for access to all of them after one interviewee, Brendan Hughes, died and his accusations against Adams were published and broadcast in 2010.
Boston College successfully fought to limit the handover to 11 interviews from around a half-dozen IRA figures that explicitly mention the McConville killing. It isn’t known whether any others back Hughes’ central accusation that Adams ordered McConville’s body dumped in an unmarked grave rather than put on public display in Belfast, as other IRA leaders wanted.
While Sinn Fein has protested that Adams’ arrest is politically biased, Northern Ireland’s main newspaper wrote Friday that it suggested the opposite: that the police are unwilling to treat any politician as untouchable.
“The wheels of justice in his case must grind at exactly the same speed as those of anyone else questioned about a crime,” the Belfast Telegraph wrote in its lead editorial.
“We have an independent police force and an independent prosecution service and we must trust them to act justly and according to the evidence before them,” it said. “That is how a mature democracy treats its citizens, unlike the kangaroo court that sentenced Mrs. McConville to death.”
First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant who leads Northern Ireland’s government alongside Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, called Adams’ arrest overdue. He suggested McGuinness should face the same criminal scrutiny.
Robinson said the arrest “strengthens our political process in Northern Ireland for people to know that no one is above the law.”
Robinson appealed to McConville’s children to tell police the identities of the IRA members who stormed into their home in the Divis Flats welfare housing project just before Christmas 1972. He said Sinn Fein should encourage them to come forward, free from fear of IRA retaliation.
McKendry was not at home when her mother was abducted. Most of her younger siblings were. Her brother Michael, who was 11 at the time, recalled screaming children clinging to their mother’s legs as IRA members pulled her, tearful and wailing in fear, out the door.
He said unmasked IRA members calmed the children by calling them each by their first names and asked one of his older brothers to come with their mother outside. Once at the stairwell, he said, one IRA member stuck a gun to that boy’s head and told him to get lost.
To this day, Michael McConville said, he sees some of these IRA veterans walking down the street in Belfast. And to this day, he fears testifying against them.
“I do know the names of the people. I wouldn’t tell the police,” he told the AP at a victims’ support center in Belfast. “I knew the ones that hadn’t got masks on, they were neighbors from the area. … But everybody tells you the IRA’s gone away. They haven’t. They’re still our neighbors, and we’re still afraid of them.”
When asked whether he would accept a Sinn Fein guarantee that no IRA member would shoot him, his wife or his children, he said he couldn’t trust them.
“There’s different ways of killing people. You could be crossing the road and get knocked down,” he said. “They weren’t accountable when they killed my mother. They could kill me, or one of my loved ones, and never admit it all over again.”