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Ex-IRA chief charged over killing of Belfast widow

March 21, 2014

DUBLIN (AP) — A former Irish Republican Army commander was charged Friday in connection with the 1972 abduction, killing and secret burial of a Belfast woman, a politically explosive crime because of its disputed links to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Ivor Bell, 77, was scheduled to be arraigned Saturday on charges of IRA membership and aiding the killers of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 who vanished from her Catholic west Belfast home in December 1972. At the time, Bell was Adams’ superior officer in the Belfast IRA.

For decades, the IRA denied involvement. McConville’s children were told that their mother had abandoned them as they were scattered into several foster homes. But in 1999, as part of Northern Ireland’s unfolding peace process, the outlawed group admitted it killed McConville and more than a dozen other unarmed Catholic civilians billed as “The Disappeared.” They all had been executed secretly in the 1970s and early 1980s and buried in unmarked graves after being accused by the IRA of spying for the British.

Some of McConville’s children long have accused Adams of directly ordering their mother’s killing. Two veteran Belfast IRA members, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, corroborated the children’s claims, saying they attended IRA meetings with Adams in 1972 when the decision to kill McConville was taken.

Hughes accused Adams of commanding an IRA unit called “The Unknowns” that was responsible for making suspected informers disappear. Price said she drove McConville across the border to the Republic of Ireland, where another IRA member shot McConville in the back of the head. Both Hughes and Price since have died.

Adams, whose Irish nationalist party represents most of the Irish Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, denies any role in the McConville abduction and killing. He also denies any involvement in the IRA, a claim dismissed by all historians of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement as implausible, given Adams’ documented involvement in shaping IRA policy many years before Sinn Fein became a viable political force.

Bell and Adams were part of the IRA’s first negotiating team in 1972 talks with the British government in London. Bell in 1982 became the IRA chief of staff, the most senior operational position, while Adams became leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s legal political front. Bell in 1984 opposed Adams’ decision to funnel IRA money into Sinn Fein election efforts and was dismissed from the organization.

Analysts say Adams denies IRA involvement to protect his political career and shield himself from potential criminal charges and civil lawsuits by IRA victims.

Today, Adams represents Louth, a Republic of Ireland border county, in the Irish parliament in Dublin; coincidentally, McConville’s skeletal remains were discovered near a Louth beach in 2003.

If convicted of IRA offenses, Bell would be expected to serve little prison time. As part of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord, anyone convicted of IRA crimes committed before that landmark 1998 pact become eligible for accelerated parole within two years.

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