My recent detention and interrogation was a serious attempt to bring charges against me. It was conducted by the retrospective major investigation team (Remit) of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is based at Carrickfergus, County Antrim.
I had contacted the PSNI in March to tell them I was available to meet them. This followed another intense round of the media speculation that has tried to link me to the killing in 1972 of Jean McConville. It is part of a sustained malicious, untruthful and sinister campaign going back many years.
Last Monday the PSNI said it wanted to speak to me. I was concerned about the timing. Sinn Féin is currently involved in very important EU and local government elections. Notwithstanding this, I travelled to the Antrim serious crime suite where I arrived at 8.05pm.
En route I talked to the senior investigating officer. He was insisting that I meet him in the car park opposite the PSNI barracks. He told me that I must get into a squad car and that he would then arrest me and drive me into the barracks. He said he couldn’t arrest me inside the barracks under the legislation.
I told him I was going directly to the station of my own accord, voluntarily. As it turned out there is no legislative bar on me being arrested within the station. And subsequently that’s exactly what happened.
My solicitor was present. I was escorted by two detectives from Remit to the serious crime suite. A custody sergeant took me through all of the processes and protocols. My belt, tie, comb, watch, Fáinne and Easter Lily pins were removed. My solicitor made representations that I be allowed to keep my pen and notebook given that the offence that I was accused of occurred 42 years ago. After some toing and froing, I was eventually granted this request by the custody superintendent.
Shortly before the first of 33 taped interviews, I was served with a pre-interview brief. This accused me of IRA membership and conspiracy in the murder of Jean McConville. It also claimed that the PSNI had new evidential material to put to me. The interview commenced at 10.55pm. Two interrogators – a man and a woman – conducted all the interrogations. All of this was recorded and videotaped. My private consultations with my solicitor may also have been covertly recorded.
I was told that the interrogations were an evidence-gathering process, and that the police would be making the case that I was a member of the IRA; that I had a senior IRA managerial role in Belfast at the time of Jean McConville’s abduction; and that I was therefore bound to know about her killing. I challenged my interrogators to produce the new evidential material. They said that this would happen at a later interview but they wanted to take me through my childhood, family history and so on. Over the following four days it became clear that the objective of the interviews was to get to the point where they could charge me with IRA membership and thereby link me to the McConville case. The membership charge was clearly their principal goal. The interrogators made no secret of this. At one point the male detective described their plan as “a stage-managed approach”. It later transpired that it was a phased strategy, with nine different phases.
The first phases dealt with my family history of republican activism. My own early involvement in Sinn Féin as a teenager – when it was a banned organization. My time in the 1960s in the civil rights movement and various housing action groups in west Belfast, the pogroms of 1969 and the start of the Troubles.
It was asserted that I was guilty of IRA membership through association because of my family background – my friends. They referred to countless pieces of “open source” material that, they said, linked me to the IRA. These were anonymous newspaper articles from 1971 and 1972, photographs of Martin McGuinness and me at republican funerals, and books about the period.
If any of these claimed I was in the IRA, then that was, according to my interrogators, evidence. They consistently cast up my habit of referring to friends as “comrades”. This, they said, was evidence of IRA membership. They claimed I was turned by special branch during interrogations in Belfast’s Palace Barracks in 1972 and that I became an MI5 agent! They also spoke about the peace talks in 1972, and my periods of internment and imprisonment in Long Kesh. This was presented as “bad-character evidence”.
Much of the interrogations concerned Boston College’s so-called Belfast Project conceived by Paul Bew – a university lecturer and a former adviser to the former unionist leader David Trimble – and run by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre.
Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership and our strategy, and have interviewed former republicans who are also hostile. These former republicans have accused us of betrayal and have said we should be shot because of our support for the Good Friday agreement and policing.
The allegation of conspiracy in the killing of Mrs McConville is based almost exclusively on hearsay from unnamed alleged Boston College interviewees but mainly from the late Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes. Other alleged interviewees were identified only by a letter of the alphabet, eg interviewee R or Y. It has been claimed by prosecutors in court that one of these is Ivor Bell, although the interrogators told me he has denied the allegations.
I rejected all allegations made about me in the Boston tapes, which have now been totally discredited. Historians from the college have made it clear that this “never was a Boston College History Department project”. A spokesman for the college has confirmed that it would be prepared to hand back interviews to those involved.
I am innocent of any involvement in the abduction, killing or burial of Mrs McConville, or of IRA membership. I have never disassociated myself from the IRA and I never will, but I am not uncritical of IRA actions and particularly the terrible injustice inflicted on Mrs McConville and her family. I very much regret what happened to them and their mother and understand the antipathy they feel towards republicans.
This case raises in a stark way the need for the legacy issues of the past to be addressed in a victim-centered way. Sinn Féin is committed to dealing with the past, including the issue of victims and their families. We have put forward our own proposals for an independent international truth recovery process, which both governments have rejected. We have also signed up for the compromise proposals presented by US envoys Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan. The two unionist parties and the British government have not.
Sinn Féin is for policing. There is no doubt about this. Civic, accountable, public service policing. It has not been achieved yet.
During my interrogation, no new evidential material, indeed no evidence of any kind, was produced. When I was being released I made a formal complaint about aspects of my interrogation. My arrest and the very serious attempt to charge me with IRA membership is damaging to the peace process and the political institutions.
There is only one way for our society to go, and that is forward. I am a united Irelander. I want to live in a citizen-centered, rights-based society. There is now a peaceful and democratic way to achieve this. The two governments are guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. They have failed in this responsibility. The future belongs to everyone. So, as well as the British and Irish governments, civic society, church leaders, trade unions, the media, academia and private citizens must find a way to provide positive leadership.
The Good Friday agreement is the people’s agreement. It does not belong to the elites. It must be defended, implemented and promoted.
Yes, deal with the past. Yes, deal with victims. But the focus needs to be on the future. There will be bumps on that road. There will be diversions. There are powerful vested interests who have not bought into the peace process. Obstacles will be erected, but we must build the peace and see off sinister forces against equality and justice for everyone.