BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Police in Northern Ireland say they have released Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams without charge after five days of questioning over allegations of involvement in an IRA killing more than four decades ago.
The 65-year-old’s departure Sunday from the police’s main interrogation center in Antrim, west of Belfast, was delayed by a Protestant protest outside the gates. But a police statement said Adams had been formally released.
The case is not over, however, because the police say they have sent an evidence file to Northern Ireland prosecutors for potential charges later.
Sinn Fein said detectives questioned Adams about audiotaped interviews by Irish Republican Army veterans to a Boston College oral history project during which he was accused of being the Belfast IRA commander who ordered the abduction, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville in 1972.
Detectives will send a file of evidence against him to British prosecutors for potential charges later, a senior policeman said.
Adams, 65, has been in police custody since Wednesday for questioning over allegations that he was the Irish Republican Army’s Belfast commander in 1972 and ordered the killing of a Belfast mother of 10, Jean McConville.
The extended detention of the Irish nationalist leader was threatening to undermine power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein said detectives questioned Adams about audiotaped interviews by IRA veterans to a Boston College oral history project that made those claims against him.
The senior officer spoke to The Associated Press on condition he not be identified by name because he was not authorized to disclose the decision before its official announcement.
Police faced a Sunday deadline to charge or release Adams or seek a judge’s permission to extend his detention, a step they took Friday when an initial deadline was due to expire.
The IRA abducted, killed and secretly buried McConville. It did not admit responsibility until 1999, when the underground organization defended its action by claiming she had been a British Army spy. McConville’s remains were found accidentally in 2003 near a Republic of Ireland beach. A 2006 investigation by Northern Ireland’s police complaints watchdog found no evidence she had been a spy.
Sunday’s expected outcome – freedom but no official exoneration, with evidence bound for the Public Prosecution Service – suggested police do believe Adams was an IRA commander, but do not have strong enough evidence to charge him with this. Police last charged Adams with IRA membership in 1978 following a firebomb attack on a hotel near Belfast that killed 12 Protestants, but those charges were dropped.
British state prosecutors in Belfast would provide a second opinion. They could tell police either that no case could succeed based on existing evidence, recommend new avenues of investigation to strengthen the chances of a successful prosecution, or determine that charges should be filed. Typically however, when such evidence files are sent by police to prosecutors for complex terror-related cases, charges do not follow.
Adams has always denied membership of the outlawed IRA. His arrest weeks ahead of elections in both parts of Ireland infuriated his Irish nationalist party, which represents most of the Irish Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and is a growing left-wing opposition force in the Irish Republic.
Sinn Fein warned it could withdraw its support for law and order in Northern Ireland, a threat condemned Sunday by the Protestant leader of the province’s power-sharing government, First Minister Peter Robinson.
Speaking Sunday before news of Adams’ likely release, Robinson accused Sinn Fein of mounting “a despicable, thuggish attempt to blackmail” the police.
“I warn Sinn Fein that they have crossed the line and should immediately cease this destructive behavior,” Robinson said, suggesting that the future of Northern Ireland’s government was at stake.
Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party agreed to share power with Sinn Fein in 2007 on condition that the IRA-linked party accepted police authority. A former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, serves as deputy leader. Such cross-community cooperation following four decades of bloodshed was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Robinson accused Sinn Fein of hypocrisy by demanding criminal investigations of killings committed by Protestant militants, the police and British Army, but not of the IRA, which killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.