The trial of Ivor Bell who was charged with soliciting Gerry Adams and the late Pat McClure to murder Jean McConville concluded on Thursday with the jury, on the direction of the judge, returning a verdict of not guilty.
Reporting restrictions placed on the eight-day trial which began last Monday week were lifted by Mr Justice John O'Hara on Thursday at its conclusion.
On Thursday morning the judge told the jury “there was no evidence that the prosecution can put before you supports the case” against 82-year-old Mr Bell.
“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,” said the judge.
Prosecution lawyer Ciaran Murphy QC said there would be no appeal of this decision.
The judge issued his instruction to the jury after a Wednesday ruling that evidence from the Boston tapes featuring Mr Bell was inadmissible.
The prosecution case that Mr Bell "encouraged" or "endeavoured to persuade" Mr Adams and McClure to murder the 38-year-old widowed mother of 10 children in late 1972 largely rested on interviews Mr Bell gave to the Belfast Project, also known as the Boston tapes.
The project was an oral history of the Troubles run by Boston College in the United States under the directorship of journalist and writer Ed Moloney. Former republican and loyalist paramilitaries were interviewed about their role in the conflict with the commitment that the material could not be published until after their deaths.
Normally such criminal cases as Bell’s are held in non-jury Diplock courts but because this was a “trial of the facts” - because Mr Bell is suffering from vascular dementia - the case was held before a jury of eight men and four women.
Mr Bell, alleged to be a former IRA chief of staff, gave interviews to the lead researcher in the project – former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre – a history PhD graduate.
During the trial two tapes of the interview with Mr Bell were played in court where he alleged that Mr Adams said Ms McConville should be shot as an informer – an allegation the former Sinn Féin leader, who also gave evidence, strongly denied.
In the tape when asked what was Mr Adams’s attitude to burying McConville, Mr Bell replied: “Just that she was a tout, she should be shot.”
Mr Bell told Mr McIntyre he (Mr Bell) had no objection to shooting “touts” but that he disagreed with burying or disappearing them because it “defeats the entire purpose” of killing them.
He said he made that point clear to Mr Adams and McClure who, it is alleged, was involved directly in shooting McConville at Shellinghill Beach, Co Louth, but that Mr Adams and McClure said she should be buried.
When Mr McIntyre asked Mr Bell did he recall Mr Adams or McClure saying that she “should be disappeared”, he replied “yeah. They said they couldn’t take the heat from throwing her on the street.”
This happened, said Mr Bell, at a night meeting on the Falls Road late in 1972 attended by him, Mr Adams, McClure and a “girl” who stayed in the background.
During Mr Adams’s evidence the prosecuting counsel asked him would he have had a problem “shooting touts”.
“I would have a problem shooting anyone. That’s a very loaded question. I am not on trial here,” replied Mr Adams. He denied the allegations, insisting he attended no such meeting on the Falls Road with Mr Bell and McClure in late 1972.
With five of McConville’s children looking on from the public gallery on several occasions Mr Adams denied involvement in their mother’s murder.
“I categorically deny any involvement in the abduction, killing and burial of Jean McConville or indeed any others,” he said.
Mr Adams said McConville should not have been killed. It was “totally wrong to have shot and secretly buried these folk”. He said there should have been “compassion shown to Mrs McConville, a lone woman with 10 children. That should have begged compassion”.
Mr Adams – under cross-examination from Mr Murphy – said that during the Troubles if people were agents or informers they were liable to be shot.
“It is a regrettable fact that when armies are engaged in war they do kill those that would have been perceived as having assisted the enemy by giving information or in any way jeopardising [the organisation],” he said.
The former Sinn Féin chief also was highly critical of Mr Moloney, McIntyre and the Belfast Project which he said was "most suspect" with no "real scholarly, historical process of evaluating and bringing forward facts about Irish history".
On Wednesday the judge, following an application by defence lawyer Barry MacDonald QC, ruled that the Boston tapes used by the prosecution should be inadmissible.
Mr MacDonald over the course of the trial had argued that the Belfast Project had been discredited by academics. One of the witnesses, history professor Kevin O’Neill from Boston College, said the project was “now held up as a model of how not to do oral history”.
Mr MacDonald contended that Mr McIntyre “was a man on a mission and had an agenda to discredit Gerry Adams and other architects of the peace process”.
The judge said Mr McIntyre was not a “neutral interviewer”. He said he (McIntyre) and Mr Bell had a “clear bias and were out to get Gerry Adams”.
The judge added that “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”.
Bell family statement
After the case a statement was issued on behalf of Mr Bell and his family. They acknowledged that the “entire process has been a difficult and at times frustrating process for the family of Jean McConville, who have been seeking truth and justice for over 50 years”.
They added: “From the outset of this process Ivor has vehemently denied the allegations levelled against him relating to the murder of Jean McConville. He put forward an alibi at the earliest opportunity at the police station.
“In the course of this trial process the court heard evidence which corroborated Ivor’s alibi and that he was not in the jurisdiction at the time of the murder.”
Mr Bell and his family added that the “court has rightly held that the Boston College tapes are inherently unreliable. We now look forward to putting this case and its ill-founded allegations behind us.”
Peter Corrigan, Mr Bell’s lawyer, said: “The Boston tapes were of no benefit from a historical perspective, never mind meeting the threshold of evidence in a criminal trial. The process from start to finish was fatally flawed, which lacked the relevant safeguards and as described by one expert during the course of the trial ‘is exactly how not to conduct an oral history project’.”