The PSNI & The Ivor Bell Case: Some Thoughts On Motives And Consequences

Ed Moloney with a piece from The Broken Elbow on the British Police Service of Northern Ireland pursuit of Ivor Bell. It initially featured on 2 April 2014.

As I post this article reports are coming in from Belfast that the 56-year-old man arrested by the PSNI this morning in connection, according to evident police leaks, with the disappearance of Jean McConville has been released. Hardly surprising since he was only 14 in December 1972 when the unfortunate mother & widow was abducted by the IRA.

That makes the PSNI’s cull so far a 77-year-old man, who was not with the Sinn Fein programme since the mid-1980′s and someone who was 14 when the crime took place. Meanwhile as far as I know the PSNI has yet to respond to the offer to present himself for questioning made by Gerry Adams, who has been named as the man who actually ordered her disappearance.

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There is one thing that every lawyer I have spoken to since the arrest and charging of former Belfast republican activist Ivor Bell can agree on and it is that the charge against him in relation to the disappearing of Jean McConville amounts to, as my French friends would say, une cruche de merde.

In fact the charge is so inadequately supported by other evidence that the bringing of it against Bell raises valid questions about the PSNI’s motives.
Ivor Bell - his arrest raises questions about PSNI motives
Ivor Bell – his arrest raises questions about PSNI motives

First of all some basic facts about the evidence. So far the PSNI have not even been able to establish that the Boston College interview in the name of ‘Z’ was actually given by Bell. Apparently the Crown believes it can link him via something called the jigsaw method but if the prosecutors were so confident they could do this in any sort of definitive or conclusive way, I doubt they would be leaking to the media that they would really like to get Boston College researcher Anthony McIntyre into the Antrim interview suite to confirm it (not that he ever would).

Then we get to the interview itself. It is what is called hearsay evidence and while it is technically admissible under UK rules that is only part of the story. The interview was not taken under caution – in US terms ‘Z’ was not Mirandised beforehand – and that means that the interview is arguably largely inconsequential as a piece of evidence since it does not bear resemblance to the normal form such testimony should take. Unless someone is warned that anything they say can be used as evidence against them, what they do say is, well, just hearsay. Not much better than gossip.

The caution-free interview given by ‘Z’ would however carry much more weight if it was backed up by supporting evidence, such as an admission, by witness statements or by forensics and/or ballistics evidence. But from what we have heard out of the two bail hearings none of this exists.

The chances in a normal courtroom of a conviction being secured on the basis of an alleged interview not recorded under caution, with no supporting evidence worthy of the name which deals with events that took place forty-two years ago (how is your memory about what happened in December 1972, dear reader?) should be minimal. In fact in most judicial systems this case would likely not even make it to a courtroom. I add the qualifier ‘should’ because after all this case literally reeks of politics and when politics intrude normal rules can go out the window!

The PSNI are not stupid people. They know all this as well as I do. So why are they insisting on proceeding with a charge against Ivor Bell that has next to no chance of success?

Well, one obvious reason jumps to mind. Denied the ability to confiscate entire sets of interviews by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and not able, thanks to the work of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, to allow the interviews to be used in a civil case against Gerry Adams or anyone else, there is an onus on the PSNI to show that all the sturm und drang, not to mention angst of the past three years have been worth the effort.

I would certainly go along with this. But sometimes motives can be seen in the effect that actions can have and that is where the charging of Ivor Bell becomes really interesting. Another way of putting that is to ask the question, cui bono (who benefits?)

Bell’s appearance in court has one clear consequence and that is to whet the Unionist appetite for the prosecution of other senior IRA figures, up to and including the most valuable trophy of all, Gerry Adams.

And as long as there is a chance that Adams might appear in the dock, or at the least evidence that harms him may feature in a trial or two, then the Unionists will be in no mood for a Richard Haass-type agreement on dealing with the past, especially one in which everyone will be expected to confess their sins.

And if they are in the mood, Mr Allister will quickly disabuse them of the notion (isn’t it extraordinary how little Unionist politics have changed since the days when Ian Paisley had the O’Neillites on the run?).
And who stands to gain most from that? Well for one all those security agencies, whose initials and names will be very familiar to readers of this blog, some of whom were disbanded only to re-appear wearing different clothes, others to whom those people ultimately answered. Their dark and dirty secrets will remain locked up in filing cabinets and encrypted computer files for eternity as long as there is no meaningful truth-telling process in Northern Ireland.

As motives go for charging Ivor Bell on the basis of questionable evidence, that is as good as it gets. But no-one, least of all myself, knows whether this was a real motive for charging Ivor Bell and even if it was I seriously doubt that the evidence would ever surface.

I do think, however, that the consequence of this case is clear, that the chances of securing a way forward in dealing with Northern Ireland’s ever-present, ever-destructive past have been uniquely diminished by the PSNI action. And absent that sort of deal the peace process will continue to lurch from one crisis to another. Who would have believed that two decades from the first IRA ceasefire we’d be at this stage of political intertia?

The PSNI assault on the Boston College archive is a textbook example of why, when dealing with something like a violent and disputed past such as Northern Ireland had, the police should never, ever be accorded a role.


  1. Ed asks cui bono? I reckon those who will benefit from this whole farce are those with the most to hide ie Adams and his cronies and their new found friends in the suits of Whitehall.the only thing that will come out of the destruction of this worthy project is that now all future potential participants will now remain stump, something that suits only those who dont want the real truth to ever emerge.everything else imo including the arrests are just for the optics ..

  2. Perhaps it was an error to release any of the material before all participants were dead.

  3. Error ? In the face of history, certainly not.

    In politics, perhaps.. But such things fade within time.

    Any who stand, and speak, for knowledge of what happened.. Deserve space to discuss.

    Far more are interested in a better peace than to be labeled as anti-peace-process.

  4. Strand Peanut

    I was just contemplating the notion it may have been better if it all came out at the same time. There would have been no witch-hunt by the RUC coz it would all be in the public domain already. And of course all contributors 'safely' out of the political, sectarian RUC reach.

  5. It would be interesting to read what documented facts there are on RUC file of the original investigation.
    I don’t mean to sound insensitive to the McConville family but I would assume there was little to no interest in the original investigation.

    Much like the very unfortunate woman was disappeared it would also be safe to say the investigation also disappeared until recently.
    Is it possible that recent arrests serve a dual purpose one being that it looks like the PSNI are doing their job or at least giving the appearance considering they are grasping at indirect links?

    Is there a possibility that this is a rouse to point attention away from those who ordered the death and disappearance?
    It was suspicious that Adams offered to assist the cops even though they did not summons him.

    He didn’t make the same offer after Brendan Hughes interview was released or when Dolours Price mentioned him. (Not that I am aware of)
    Now the Shite Factory are playing defend the leader attacking the Belfast Project in some reverse way of attempting to make the Project sound like it is or was by design investigating SF.

    When Morrison speaks he seems to be fixated on the non-factual illusion he and his cohorts are spreading that the Project was or is nothing else but an attempt to discredit SF.
    Why all the fuss over something they regurgitated that the project is shoddy at best.

    It sounds like they are ignoring the leader who has stated in the past that “he” has nothing to fear from the project.
    After the arrest of Ivor Bell the leader seems not as confidant than before why offer assistance in something he with hand on heart and swears blind that he had nothing to do with it.

    The more noise SF makes about the project the more interest is generated by it in their all of a sudden overkill of the project and a great reluctance to show the same about political policing.
    Morrison is a despicable mouthpiece rattling away at those involved in his usual arse about face defend the party and worse defend the leader at any cost.
    Again maybe it is my poor vision but I don’t believe I have read an ounce of sympathy for the McConville family who are being lied to by the leader and by the PSNI.

    The party in public want a truth commission as long as that truth does not interfere or contradict the SF version of truth.
    In other words they don’t mind if non-SF-republicans are hunted down and more to the point any republican who is critical of SF.

    If SF had remained silent on the issue there would be little chatter about it, it is just suspicious they are making a racket over it which raises more questions than bangers and others can answer.
    By that I mean that attacking the project is not debating its merit but sounds more like a distraction to keep the party faithful happy.

  6. Arrest Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams over Jean McConville murder, says republican

    Evelyn Gilroy, an ex-internee from west Belfast, expressed her anger that six "low-level republicans" had been arrested this month about the 1972 murder while police hadn't even questioned the Sinn Fein president.

    Ms Gilroy was a member of the republican movement along with Mr Adams in the 1970s. She was active in Divis where Jean McConville was abducted

    "Police have lifted people who were 15 and 16 at the time of the killing, yet Gerry Adams remains untouched," she said.

    "The police should stop chasing those who were never in a position in the republican movement to order Jean McConville's execution and instead arrest the only person who was in that position – Gerry Adams

  7. A must read in the Sunday Life by Suzanne Breen

    Arrest Adams now for McConville murder

    Ms Gilroy said: "His denials are on a par with his claims that he was never in the IRA. He has become a walking joke. I'm sure he will now call me a liar just like Brendan and Dolours were called liars.

    She claims that "many myths" surround her murder. The veteran republican said it was "totally untrue" that the widowed mother was killed for comforting a dying British soldier. She insisted the incident as described never took place.

    A soldier had been hurt, but not fatally, in Divis. It was Ms Gilroy's sister, Mary Kennedy, who helped him and not Jean McConville, she said.

    "My sister lived five doors from Jean McConville in Farset Walk in the flats. Weeks before Jean was killed, a soldier was hit on the head by a brick thrown by a local lad. My sister heard him crying. She was a very soft, warm woman and she brought him into the hallway and gave him a glass of water.

    "Her act of compassion didn't go down well with some. 'Touts Out' and 'Soldier Lover' was painted on her door. The incident was reported to the media. My sister gave an interview to Downtown Radio about her act of mercy and the intimidation that followed."

    Ms Gilroy, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child when Jean McConville was murdered, said she believed the mother-of-ten was killed because she was an informer, a claim the McConvilles and others deny.

    When she was Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan dismissed the informer allegations saying her office had extensively examined intelligence available at the time and found no evidence Mrs McConville had ever passed information to the security forces.

    But Ms Gilroy said: "It might not be popular to say she was an informer but I firmly believe she was. The IRA found a radio in her flat. That doesn't in any way justify what happened to her. It was a terrible thing for that family.

  8. Frankie,

    we will hold your comment until later if you don't mind as the article itself will be running from 1800

  9. No problem. I'll never cry 'foul' if the TPQ with hold or don't publish any of my comments. I'll accept TPQ has it's reasons. Simple as.

  10. Thanks Frankie. Although it is not pulled as a commment, merely being run as a full article later.