Veteran republican cleared of soliciting murder of mother of 10 in 1972
Judge Mr Justice O’Hara directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty on Ivor Bell.
A veteran republican has been cleared of soliciting the murder of a mother of 10 in 1972, after a trial which heard a claim that Gerry Adams recommended her secret burial.
The former Sinn Fein president rejected the allegation as he appeared as a witness at a trial of the facts into two charges against Ivor Bell.
Five of Jean McConville’s surviving children were at Belfast Crown Court on Thursday as a jury of four women and eight men 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 in December last year. He was excused from attending due to his health.
Judge Mr Justice O’Hara directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty having earlier ruled that taped interviews, which were the central plank of the prosecution case, were inadmissible.
“As a result of some legal rulings which have been made over the last two days there is now no evidence that the prosecution can put before you to support the case it was putting against Mr Bell,” he said.
“My role now is to direct you to return a verdict of not guilty because you simply cannot find him to have done the acts alleged.”
The judge also lifted restrictions that had prevented reporting of the two-week trial of the facts.
Mrs McConville, 38, became a Disappeared victim of the Troubles when she was abducted, murdered and secretly buried in 1972. Her body was not found until 2003.
The prosecution rested on taped interviews given by a person referred to as Z, to Boston College’s Belfast Project, which Crown lawyer Ciaran Murphy QC argued was Mr Bell.
Defence QC Barry MacDonald said it could not be proved that Z in the oral history project was Mr Bell, and pointed out his client was living in Co Louth in December 1972 when Mrs McConville, from west Belfast, was murdered.
In a dramatic development on the seventh day of the trial on Wednesday, Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that the Boston tapes were inadmissible as evidence.
In the tapes, what we are saying is that Ivor Bell outlines he encouraged or endeavoured to persuade Gerry Adams and Pat McClure to murder Jean McConville Ciaran Murphy
The judge described interviewer Anthony McIntyre as “not neutral”, with an agenda against the peace process and Mr Adams.
Mr Justice O’Hara told the court the evidence that Z was Mr Bell was “overwhelming”.
“While Mr Bell may have felt he was free to tell his version of the truth … the difficulty is he also may have felt free to lie, distort, exaggerate, blame and mislead,” he said.
The judge added that the public “will form their own view” about the content of the tapes.
The McConville family left the public gallery, some in tears, as the judge finished delivering the ruling on Wednesday.
Speaking outside court on Thursday following the conclusion of the trial, Michael McConville said the family believe this may be the closest they ever get to justice.
Northern Ireland’s Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Michael Agnew, said there is no mechanism for an appeal.
He said the office “remain satisfied the proceedings were properly brought”.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland also stood firm over the bringing of the case.
Detective Chief Superintendent Bobby Singleton said: “We will take some time to consider the judgment and its implications on similar cases. It was always our firm belief that we had assembled a strong case and that it was in the public interest for the details to be heard.”
A number of former republican and loyalist participants from the 2000s were interviewed on tape on condition the contents would not be released until after their death.
However after a transatlantic court battle, the Police Service of Northern Ireland seized a number of the tapes.
Mr Murphy set out to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Z was Mr Bell and that what he said on the tapes amounted to encouraging and endeavouring to encourage others to murder Mrs McConville.
In a clip of the tapes played in court, Z describes a meeting between himself, Mr Adams – who he described as the officer commanding of the IRA in Belfast in December 1972 – and Pat McClure at a house in west Belfast where there was a discussion that Mrs McConville was a police informer and should be murdered.
Z said he “didn’t have a problem with shooting touts”, but was against secretly burying her.
Mr Murphy told the court: “In the tapes, what we are saying is that Ivor Bell outlines he encouraged or endeavoured to persuade Gerry Adams and Pat McClure to murder Jean McConville.”
To support the prosecution’s argument, phonetics expert Allen Hirson said that after comparing the voice with a clip of Mr Bell from police interviews it was “likely” to be the same person.
Detective Inspector Peter Montgomery gave evidence that he had collected the tapes from Boston College and said: “when I became aware of potential evidence in relation to the murder of Jean McConville I was obliged to seek the material.”
Mr Adams, called by the defence, disputed the contents of the clips from Z’s interview, criticised the Belfast Project as “suspect”, and said he did not recognise the voice as that of Mr Bell.
The defence also called a PSNI detective constable who interviewed Mr Bell’s former wife Marion, and told the court she had said that she, her then husband and their children had spent the latter half of December 1972 and January 1973 at a cottage in Omeath, Co Louth.
Another defence witness, Professor Kevin O’Neill of Boston College, expressed reservations about the Belfast Project, claiming Mr McIntyre was “biased” against the Northern Ireland peace process.
Asked how the Belfast Project is viewed among academics, Prof O’Neill replied: “It’s highly controversial. It’s now held up as a model of how not to do oral history.”
Two clips from the interviews with Z were played to court during the eight-day trial of the facts.
Z said he gave the interviews for “historical accuracy” and in response to Mr Adams “lying” about having been in the IRA.
Mr Adams has consistently denied being a member of the IRA.
Z said Mr Adams recommended that Mrs McConville be secretly buried.
Mr McIntyre put to Z that he had been “wrongly accused” of the murder of Mrs McConville to give “political cover” to Mr Adams.
Z said: “The fact is I was brigade staff and there is a collective responsibility, you can’t walk away from that, full stop.”
The interviews included a claim that Mr Adams asked a priest from St Peter’s Cathedral, close to where the McConville family lived in the Divis flats complex, to get Mrs McConville out of the area, but he refused.
Mr McIntyre repeated the question of whether Mr Adams or Mr McClure said she should be disappeared several times.
Z said: “They said they couldn’t take the heat from throwing her on the street. They were recommending her disappearance.
“At the end of the day you could have had a situation where someone in GHQ could have said no,” Mr McIntyre said. “Someone was promoting it?”
“Yeah, I was arguing with Gerry and Pat … I wasn’t arguing with myself.”
I want to deny, as I did when I was questioned in Antrim barracks, categorically, any involvement in the abduction, the killing and the burial of Jean McConville Gerry Adams
Mr Adams, who was questioned by police about Mrs McConville’s murder in 2014 following the seizure of the tapes, denied being in the meeting Z described.
He was never charged with any offence in connection with the murder, and told the court he had no involvement.
“I never had any discussion with Ivor Bell about Mrs McConville and I never attended any meeting and I want to deny, as I did when I was questioned in Antrim barracks, categorically, any involvement in the abduction, the killing and the burial of Jean McConville,” he said.
Asked about the claim he was a senior figure in the IRA in Belfast, Mr Adams responded: “I have never hidden my associations with the IRA, I have never sought to distance myself from the IRA. I have denied IRA membership.”
He said he regarded the IRA as a “legitimate response” to what was happening in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, but opposed the secret burial of victims.
The IRA is believed to have disappeared 15 people, while the INLA disappeared one.
The remains of three – Robert Nairac, Joe Lynskey and Columba McVeigh – have not been found despite search efforts.
Mr Adams told the court: “I think that the IRA were totally wrong to have shot and secretly buried these folks, and particularly that there should have been compassion shown to Mrs McConville, leaving aside the rights and wrongs or anything else, the fact was she was a widowed woman with 10 children and that should have begged compassion.”
She was abducted from her family home at St Jude’s Walk by masked men and women on an unknown date in November or December 1972. She was never seen alive again.
In 1999 the IRA admitted Mrs McConville’s murder but her remains were not discovered until a member of the public found them on a beach in Co Louth in 2003. No-one has ever been convicted of her murder.