Police in Northern Ireland arrested Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams Wednesday in connection with an infamous 42-year-old slaying, based on allegations contained in taped interviews recorded for a Boston College history project on the conflict in Northern Ireland.
A law enforcement official from Belfast 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 portrayed his arrest as a voluntary arrangement with police. He is a member of the Irish Parliament and president for three decades of the Sinn Fein political party, and played a major role in the 1998 peace agreement.
“Last month I said that I was available to meet the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team] about the Jean McConville case,” Adams, 65, said. “While I have concerns about the timing, I am voluntarily meeting with the PSNI. As a republican leader I have never shirked my responsibility to build the peace. This includes dealing with the difficult issue of victims and their families.”
The Boston link to the McConville murder has in recent years become a touchstone in debates about academic freedom.
For BC’s Belfast Project, researchers Ed Moloney, a journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA volunteer, recorded interviews with members of militia groups that clashed during the Irish Troubles, a conflict between those who would unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and those who wanted it to remain within the United Kingdom.
Participants in the BC project have implicated Adams in the killing: Brendan Hughes, a legendary IRA volunteer who fell out with Adams over the latter’s peace strategy that included compromising on long-standing republican ideals; and Dolours Price, one of the highest-profile female members of the Provisional IRA, who said that Adams ordered her to drive McConville to her IRA executioners.
Another alleged BC project participant, Ivor Bell, a former senior IRA commander, was charged in March with aiding and abetting McConville’s killing.
Participants in the history project had agreed to interviews with the understanding that their statements would be confidential until their deaths.
But in 2011, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas for interviews with Hughes, who had died in 2008, and Price, who was then alive but died in 2013.
Boston College turned over materials concerning Hughes. It initially fought the release of the Price recordings but ultimately turned them over to British authorities.
A second subpoena was later issued for “any and all” interviews that contained information about McConville’s death. A federal appeals court ruled in 2013 that 11 interviews had to be released.
Moloney said the arrest of Adams was inevitable after Belfast authorities questioned a number of people about McConville’s death in the last couple of months.
“It was no surprise that this has happened; in fact, I was surprised that it had taken so long,” Moloney said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
As for other men and women interviewed by authorities recently about McConville’s death, Moloney said they would have been in their early teens at the time of the killing, too young for the IRA to have trusted them with significant roles.
“The PSNI seem to be plowing fairly sparse ground,” said Moloney.
Adams’s name nevertheless carries significant weight and changes the tenor of the investigation, Moloney said, though he doubts the head of Sinn Féin will face charges.
“It’s going to be very difficult to level a charge against him, because all the evidence is indirect,” Moloney said.
The greater issue for Moloney is that surrender of the oral history tapes will chill similar research in the future.
“The damage is done,” he said. “The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”
He later added: “It’s a disaster in Ireland, as well, because it means people are not now willing to sit down in front of a tape recorder and tell the truth about what happened.”
McIntyre, who lives in Ireland, could not be reached Wednesday.
BC spokesman Jack Dunn declined to comment, saying in a statement: “We are not privy to the actions of British law enforcement and have had no involvement in the matter since the US court issued the order to remand portions of the archived interviews last year. As a result, it would be inappropriate to comment on this issue.”
In Massachusetts, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz also declined to comment.
In a recorded statement, a spokesman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed the arrest, without naming Adams, and confirmed that the questioning was voluntary.
Adams, in his statement, condemned what was done to McConville.
“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,” he said. “Well publicized, malicious allegations have been made against me. I reject these.”
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, attributed the timing of Adams’s arrest — and the entire investigation into McConville’s killing — to politics.
“This latest decision by the PSNI is politically motivated and designed to damage Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein,” said McDonald.
The law enforcement official from Belfast insisted that politics played no role in the process; the source also said it was Adams who chose to make the arrest public.
The arrest comes at an especially sensitive time for Sinn Fein, just weeks before local elections and elections for the European Parliament in which Sinn Fein is expected to fare well.
The Irish Republican Army acknowledged in 1999 killing McConville; her remains were found in 2003.
McConville was accused by the IRA of feeding information about their operations to the British Army.
The IRA said it was after she ignored their warnings that they abducted her, executed her, and buried her body in a secret grave just over the border in the Irish Republic.
The police ombudsman of Northern Ireland rejected the IRA assertions in an investigation, after her body was recovered from a beach in County Louth in 2003.
McConville’s children, the youngest being 6 years old at the time of her abduction, were split up in a series of foster homes.
After Bell’s recent arrest, Helen McKendry, one of McConville’s daughters, told the Belfast Telegraph she hoped Adams would face arrest, saying, “I’ll see you in court, too, Gerry Adams.”
She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ZackSampson. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.