A 1972 IRA murder of a Belfast woman has come back to haunt Gerry Adams

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. There may be relative peace in Northern Ireland now, but the troubles are far from forgotten. Witness the fact that Gerry Adams, one of the top Northern Irish politicians, is in police custody today. The Sinn Féin leader is being questioned about his alleged role in the murder of Jean McConville. The mother of ten was beaten, abducted and killed by the Irish Republican Army in 1972. The IRA believed McConville was an informant. Adams denies any involvement in the murder. We'll focus on Adam's questioning in a moment, but first listen to this. It's part of a BBC interview with McConville's son, Michael, where he describes the night his mother was taken from their home in Belfast. [Clip plays] Michael McConville: I was eleven years of age when the IRA gang came in and trailed our mother out of our arms. A rap came to the door, they barged their way in. Me and all my brothers and sisters were holding on to my mother, crying and squealing. My mother was in an awful state because the IRA had took her out of a bingo hall the night before and they had for a few hours and they beat her up. The army had found her wandering about the streets, disoriented, didn't know where she was, and we knew that they were going to do it again on her when they took her, so me and all my brother and sisters were afraid and distressed at the fact that these people had came again to do this to our mother [??]seeing the state, the cuts and bruises that my mother had already on her face from the night before. Reporter: Did you know that your mother had been killed? McConville: I knew my mother was dead about two weeks later when an IRA man came and left my mother's purse and wedding rings at the house [Clip ends] Werman: That was Michael McConville whose mother was abducted and murdered in 1972. Kevin Cullen is with the Boston Globe. He's a former UK and Ireland Bureau Chief for the paper. He explains what led to today's questioning of Gerry Adams. Kevin Cullen: What's happening today goes back to a number of his former associates in the IRA, specifically Brendan Hughes and Dolores Price who gave interviews to an oral history project overseen by Boston College. In those interviews, both Mr. Hughes and Ms. Price alleged that Gerry Adams was the IRA commander, who in 1972 gave the orders to abduct, interrogate, murder, and secretly bury Jean McConville. I mean from a legal perspective, both Mr. Hughes and Ms. Price have since died. That's the nub of this. I mean that case has been kicking around obviously. It was one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles, a widowed mother of ten dragged from her home, murdered and secretly buried. I don't think it gets worse than that. Werman: So what are the political ramifications of all of this? Cullen: Well, right now the political ramifications are, I guess I would raise the question are other prosecutions going to flow from what was in this or is it just going to be all and end all with Mr. Adams? If in fact Mr. Adams is the only one who is brought to book on this, I think many people would draw a conclusion that the prosecution of Mr. Adams was both political and selective. In my opinion, it will not help on the ground in Northern Ireland. I think that plays into the hands of the people who actually broke with Mr. Adams many years ago over his strategy of compromising and ending what we know as The Troubles. Young people are being asked to basically renew the armed struggle and they're being told that, "Hey, you can't trust the Brits. Gerry Adams trusted the Brits. He made peace with the Brits and look what the Brits just did to him." That's a currency that could be used to ferment more dissent, violence, whatever you want to call it. Werman: Since some pretty compelling evidence if you will comes from Boston College in this case, the academic archives of the school, what are they saying? Do they have a position in this? Cullen: My understanding is that Boston College went in this not believing in a minute that anything that went into an oral history project that was not supposed to be unsealed until its participants died, I think there was a certain naivety on the part of the officials who entered into these agreements and had the researchers do this research. The reality is under American law you couldn't protect that stuff. There is no right to confidentiality in an academic account. I think this will have a chilling effect on any kind of oral history in which participants in extrajudicial killings or crimes would be asked to sit down and recount what they did. I was surprised frankly that some of the people did it, but it also the showed the sort of heavy days. You can't compare today to the feeling of a decade ago when it finally seemed, as Seamus Heaney put it, that hope and history would rhyme, that the troubles were over. The reality is politically, culturally, socially, the people in Northern Ireland can't agree on what to do about their dirty war and so it's playing out in cases like this. From where I see it, and from having spent a lot of time on the ground and having met a lot of the families that were aggrieved, is if you have justice for one and not for all it just creates that sense of the grievance that sort of fed the conflict all those years in the first place. Werman: Bottom line then, what does all this mean for the peace process? Cullen: Mr. Adams has not been charged yet. He's being questioned. And under the Terrorism Act he can be held up to twenty-four hours. The police can expand it if they believe that their investigation, their questioning, is leading somewhere. So we don't know when he will actually be released from questioning and we don't know if he will be charged. If in fact he is charged, if in fact he is prosecuted, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the most time he would actually serve would be two years in prison. That's not going to satisfy the people who believe he was involved in Jean McConville's murder. The other question is if he is the only one who is brought to justice as it were I think there are going to be serious political ramifications. Werman: Kevin Cullen with the Boston Globe. Thank you very much. Cullen: Thank you.