Second prosecution based on Boston College tapes in doubt after Ivor Bell found not guilty
A second prosecution for offences committed during the Troubles based on admissions made to a Boston College oral history project could now collapse.
Veteran republican Ivor Bell was yesterday found not guilty of two charges of soliciting the murder of Jean McConville in 1972 following a trial of the facts at Belfast Crown Court.
The widowed mother-of-10 was taken from her west Belfast home by an IRA gang, murdered and secretly buried.
Interviews given to Boston College as part of the Belfast Project played a key role in the trial, but were later dismissed as inadmissible by Mr Justice O'Hara.
It is understood the ruling in the Ivor Bell case related to the specific tapes relied upon for the purpose of that prosecution.
There is one other ongoing case involving the Boston Tapes, the prosecution of Winston Rea. He is charged with the murders of John Devine in 1989 and John O'Hara in 1991, which he denies.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is considering whether the ruling has any impact on that case.
Five of Mrs McConville's surviving children were in court yesterday as a jury found Mr Bell not guilty of encouraging her murder.
Mr Bell (82), of Ramoan Gardens in Belfast, was not present for the trial of the facts which came after he was found medically unfit to stand trial last December. The trial, which saw former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called as a witness, commenced last week but could not be reported on due to a restriction which was only lifted yesterday - after a challenege from the Northern Ireland Editors' Liaison Group, representing the major newspapers, broadcasters and news websites.
After hearing evidence from a number of witnesses, the jury was addressed by Mr Justice O'Hara, who said: "As a result of some legal rulings to legal arguments made over the last two days, there is now no evidence which the prosecution can put before you in order to support the case it was making against Mr Bell. My ruling now is to direct you to return a verdict of not guilty because you simply cannot find him to have done the acts alleged."
Mrs McConville's family said the verdict may be the closest they ever get to justice.
Five of Mrs McConville's seven surviving children - Archie, Michael, Thomas (Tucker), Susan and Jim - attended every day of the eight-day trial.
Speaking outside court, Michael said: "We want to see a public inquiry, we are going to chase that.
"We would also like to see the Secretary of State. We have been neglected by everyone since this has happened. We have had many doors closed on us, we have walked many a road. Today is the closest I think we are ever going to get to justice."
In a hearing which spanned seven days, the jury was played extracts of audio tapes from Boston College's controversial Belfast Project.
The project was designed to become an oral historical account of the Troubles, and included interviews with former senior paramilitaries about their roles.
The director of the project was journalist Ed Moloney, while the interviewer was former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, and it was the latter's role that formed part of the defence application to entirely exclude the Boston Tapes as evidence.
Extracts of two interviews, which were conducted with 'interviewee Z' and who trial judge Mr Justice O'Hara ruled was Mr Bell, were played twice to the jury.
In the tapes, Mr Bell claimed that in late 1972 he and two men he named as Gerry Adams and the now-deceased Pat McClure held a meeting where Mrs McConville's fate was discussed. Mr Bell claimed Mrs McConville was suspected of being an informer, and that he had no problem shooting touts. He also said that when he was told at that meeting that the plan was to bury her, he disagreed as it "defeated the purpose".
All the allegations made against Mr Adams were denied when he was called to give evidence earlier this week. From the witness box, he denied being a member of the IRA and of any involvement in the abduction, murder and secret burial of Mrs McConville.
In his ruling, Mr Justice O'Hara noted that Mr McIntyre - who refused to co-operate with the court proceedings - "had an agenda" against Gerry Adams, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. He also felt that after listening to the interview with Mr Bell, the tapes "clearly show Mr McIntyre leading Mr Bell to speak against Gerry Adams".
Mr Justice O'Hara also raised the issue of a guarantee the interviewees - including Ivor Bell - were given at the time, namely that their tapes would not be released until after their deaths.
The judge said this guarantee may have led to a situation where while Mr Bell felt "liberated to tell the truth... the difficulty is he may also have felt free to lie, distortion, exaggerate, blame and mislead".
Branding the evidence on the tapes as "tainted", Mr Justice O'Hara said there was "clear bias" on the part of Mr McIntyre who was "out to get Mr Adams", and the information given orally by Mr Bell was "unreliable as a direct result of the way it was induced by Mr McIntyre".