BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams was released without charge Sunday after five days of police questioning over his alleged involvement in a decades-old IRA killing of a Belfast mother of 10, an investigation that has driven a dangerous wedge into Northern Ireland's unity government.
Addressing reporters and supporters at a Belfast hotel, Adams said he wanted his party to provide help to the children of Jean McConville, the 37-year-old widow taken from her home by the Irish Republican Army in 1972, killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. He also rejected claims by IRA veterans in audiotaped interviews that he had ordered the killing.
"I am innocent of any involvement in any conspiracy to abduct, kill or bury Mrs. McConville. I have worked hard with others to have this injustice redressed," said Adams, 65, who has led Sinn Fein since 1983 and won credit for steering the IRA toward cease-fires and compromise with Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.
Yet the investigation of Adams is not over. Police said they have sent an evidence file to Northern Ireland prosecutors for potential charges later.
"For all I know I can still face charges," Adams said. He said he had been interviewed 33 times during 92 hours in custody. "One presumes they would have made a charge against me. But they offered no evidence against me whatsoever."
The episode has underscored the unrelenting hostility of some Protestants to Adams and his party's ambitions to merge Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. His departure from the police's main interrogation center in Antrim, west of Belfast, was delayed two hours by a crowd of Protestants outside the front gate. The protesters waved Union Jack flags and held placards demanding justice for IRA victims. They roared with fury as a convoy of police armored vehicles came into view, thinking Adams' car was in the middle.
Dozens of officers — many sporting full riot gear with flame-retardant boiler suits, body armor, helmets and shields — confronted the hardline Protestants, many of whom covered their faces, as they tried to block Adams' exit by sitting down in the roadway. After a 15-minute standoff, police escorted Adams out via a rear exit that the protesters could not see.
Adams said detectives chiefly questioned him about audiotaped interviews that IRA veterans gave to a Boston College oral history project. Police successfully sued in U.S. courts last year to acquire the accounts, which had been given to researchers on condition that they remain secret until the interviewees' own deaths. Some accused Adams of being the Belfast IRA commander who ordered McConville's killing. One former Adams colleague in the Belfast IRA, Brendan Hughes, specified that Adams gave the order that her body should vanish to leave her fate deliberately unclear.
The IRA did not admit responsibility for killing McConville until 1999, when the underground organization defended its action by claiming she had been a British Army spy. Her remains were found accidentally in 2003 near a Republic of Ireland beach. An investigation three years later by Northern Ireland's police complaints watchdog found no evidence she had been a spy.
Most of McConville's 10 children, aged 6 to 17 at the time of her disappearance, were placed in separate foster homes and grew up as strangers to each other. On Sunday they expressed disappointment, but no surprise, at Adams' freedom.
"The McConville family is going to stay to the bitter end of this till we get justice for our mother," said Michael McConville, who was 11 when about a dozen IRA members came into the family home and dragged his mother away. "We know it is going to be a long road, but we have already been fighting for justice for 40 years and we are not going to stop now."
McConville said he was pleased that Adams' arrest had achieved "a worldwide focus on our mother's cruel and inhuman treatment by the IRA." He said seven other families in Northern Ireland still were waiting for the IRA to identify the unmarked graves of their own long-lost loved ones.
Sunday's outcome for Adams — 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 are expected to give a second opinion. They can tell police whether the existing evidence is sufficient to file charges, or recommend new avenues of investigation to strengthen the chances of a successful prosecution. Typically however, when such evidence files are sent by police to prosecutors for complex terror-related cases, charges do not follow.
Trying to prove membership in the IRA, a crime punishable by five years in prison, is notoriously difficult, particularly against commanders who did not handle weapons or take direct part in attacks. The IRA traditionally tries to kill any witnesses against them, a threat that Michael McConville believes continues today. He says as a boy, he recognized some of the IRA abductors as his 1972 neighbors, but still would never tell police for fear of reprisals against him or his children.
While all credible histories of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement identify Adams as an IRA member since 1966 and a commander since the early 1970s, Adams has always denied this. 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.
During Adams' detention, other Sinn Fein leaders warned they could withdraw support for law and order in Northern Ireland if Adams was charged. The Protestant leader of the province's power-sharing government, First Minister Peter Robinson, condemned that threat.
Speaking hours before Adams' release, Robinson accused Sinn Fein of mounting "a despicable, thuggish attempt to blackmail" the police into dropping charges.
"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 the government's 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 rejecting any such investigations into the IRA, which killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
Adams stressed at his press conference that Sinn Fein would continue to support the police — but he did make one formal complaint while in custody.
"The food is un-eatable," he said. "I just wasn't able to digest it."