A veteran republican charged in connection with the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972 is not medically fit to stand trial, a court has heard.
Lawyers for Ivor Bell (80), who has been diagnosed with dementia, claimed that a trial "could be harmful to his physical and mental health". Mr Bell faces two counts of soliciting the IRA abduction and killing of Ms McConville.
At Belfast Crown Court his defence team opened a legal action to have the case against him thrown out. Defence barrister Barry MacDonald QC said it was inevitable that the court would find Bell was unfit to face a criminal trial by reason of his dementia.
He told the court that to continue legal action in the form of a trial of facts was “likely to exacerbate this condition”. A trial of facts can be held to determine the truth of the allegations against a defendant, as opposed to their guilt or innocence of a crime. “He cannot have a fair trial. It would be oppressive and unfair to seek to try him in the circumstances,” said Mr MacDonald.
He also told the court that any trial would be “complex, complicated and time consuming” and likely to result in an absolute discharge.
Ciaran Murphy QC, for the Public Prosecution Service, said a trial of facts was in the public interest.
"[The case] has been the subject of great public interest throughout Ireland. That element of the public interest cannot and should not be ignored," he said. "There is nothing that makes it impossible for Mr Bell to have a fair trial."
Judge Mr Justice Colton granted both parties one week to make further written submissions. He said he would reserve his judgment until after these were received.
Ms McConville (37) was dragged from her home in Belfast's Divis flats complex by an IRA gang of up to 12 men and women, and accused of passing information to the British Army – an allegation later discredited by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.
She was shot in the back of the head and secretly buried 80km from her home, becoming one of the "Disappeared" victims of the Troubles. Her remains were found on a beach in Co Louth in August 2003.
Nobody has been convicted of her murder.
The case against Mr Bell is based on the content of tapes police secured from an oral history archive collated by Boston College in the United States. Academics interviewed former republican and loyalist paramilitaries for their Belfast Project on the understanding that the accounts of the Troubles would remain unpublished until their deaths.
But that undertaking was rendered meaningless when Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) detectives investigating Mrs McConville's death won a court battle in the US to secure the recordings.