Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams was released without charge Sunday after five days of interrogation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland over his alleged involvement in a decades-old Irish Republican Army (IRA) killing. His arrest, weeks ahead of local elections, has driven a dangerous wedge into Northern Ireland’s unity government and put into focus the fragility of peace in the region.
Angry Protestants waving Union Jack flags and holding placards demanding justice for IRA victims delayed the 65-year-old’s departure from the police’s main interrogation center in Antrim, west of Belfast.
A police statement confirmed that Adams had been formally released, and Sinn Fein said he would hold a press conference at a Belfast hotel within hours.
Police faced a Sunday deadline to charge or release Adams, or seek a judge's permission to extend his detention — a step they had already taken once Friday when an initial deadline was due to expire.
Still, the investigation into Adams’ alleged role in the slaying is not over. Police said they sent an evidence file to prosecutors in Northern Ireland for potential charges to be filed at a later date.
Sinn Fein said detectives questioned Adams about audiotaped interviews that IRA veterans gave, as part of a Boston College oral history project. Some interviewees accused him of being the Belfast IRA commander who ordered the abduction, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville in 1972. The Boston College project has been at the center of a protracted legal battle since 2011, when British authorities initiated a subpoena to obtain information from the interviews, which were conducted under strict confidentiality agreements.
The IRA did not admit responsibility for killing McConville until 1999, when the underground resistance 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 authorities found no evidence she had been a spy.
Sunday's outcome — freedom but no official exoneration, with evidence bound for the Public Prosecution Service — suggested police do believe Adams was an IRA commander at the time of McConville’s murder, but do not have strong enough evidence to charge him as such. 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.
Adams has always denied membership in the outlawed IRA.
Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, who is tasked with reviewing the police file, is Barra McGrory, who was formerly a lawyer for Adams.
British state prosecutors in Belfast would provide a second opinion. They could tell police 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 police send such evidence files to prosecutors for complex terror-related cases, charges do not follow.
Adams’ 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, where Adams is a member of parliament.
Under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which drew a line under 30 years of sectarian strife in the British province, those convicted of paramilitary murders during the conflict would have life sentences reduced to two years.
Al Jazeera and wire services