MY recent detention and interrogation was a serious attempt to bring charges against me. It was conducted by the Retrospective Major Investigation Team of the PSNI, or REMIT, which is based at Seapark, Carrickfergus, County Antrim. I had contacted the PSNI through my solicitor, Seamus Collins, in March to tell them I was available to meet them. This followed another intense round of media speculation which has tried to link me to the killing in 1972 of Mrs Jean McConville. It is part of a sustained malicious, untruthful and sinister campaign going back many years.
Last Monday the PSNI responded to my solicitor. They said they 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 left Leinster House and Leaders Questions with the Taoiseach on the Wednesday afternoon and travelled to the Antrim Serious Crime Suite where I arrived at 8.05pm. En route I talked to the senior investigating officer a number of times to inform him of my estimated time of arrival. He was insisting that I meet him 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. I said I would not do this and that he could arrest me inside the barracks. He said he couldn’t do this under the legislation and that I had to be arrested outside of the precincts of the station.
Because I thought that this was merely a ruse to allow the media to be told that I had been arrested and brought to the Serious Crime Suite 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 precincts of the station. And subsequently that’s exactly what happened shortly after 8pm. My solicitor was present. I was escorted by two detectives from REMIT to the Serious Crime Suite which is a separate complex within the barracks. I was seen by a doctor at 10.40pm and a Custody Sergeant then 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 thirty three 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. There were two interrogators – a man and a woman who were monitored and directed by more senior officers in another room. They conducted all of the interrogations. All of this was recorded and videotaped. My private consultations with my solicitor may also have been covertly recorded. The male detective cautioned me. He told me that I had the right to remain silent but if I did remain silent a court could draw an inference from this. I was told that the interrogations were an evidence-gathering process and that they would be making the case that I was a member of the IRA, that I had a senior managerial role in Belfast at the time of Mrs McConville’s abduction, and that I was therefore bound to know about her killing.
The interview began with my being asked where I was born. 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. I told them that I had no desire to do this but they persisted. This went on until 11.39pm when they turned off the tapes to go and ‘consult’. 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 membership of the IRA 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 organisation. 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’.
They asserted that I was guilty of IRA membership through association because of my family background – my friends. They referred to a lot of so-called ‘open-source’ material which they said linked me to the IRA. These were anonymous newspaper articles from 1971 and ’72, photographs of Martin McGuinness and I at republican funerals, and books written about the period. If any of these claimed I was in the IRA then that was, according to my interrogators, evidence which they wanted to put to me for response. 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 Palace Barracks in 1972 and that I became an MI5 agent. They also spoke about the peace talks in 1972, my periods of internment and imprisonment in Long Kesh. This was presented as ‘bad character evidence’.
Much of the interrogations concerned the so-called Belfast Project conceived by Paul Bew, university lecturer and a former advisor to former UUP leader David Trimble, and run by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, who were paid handsomely. Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership and our peace strategy and have interviewed former republicans who are also hostile to me and other Sinn Féin leaders. These former republicans have accused us of betrayal and sell-out 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 anonymous alleged Belfast Project interviewees were identified only by a letter of the alphabet, e.g. interviewee ‘R’ or ‘Y’. One of these is claimed by the PSNI to be Ivor Bell, although the interrogators told me he has denied the allegations. In the course of my interrogations they played what they alleged was a recording by Ivor Bell. They asked me to confirm that this was indeed his voice. I told them I could not do that. I rejected all the allegations made about me in the Boston Tapes. These tapes have now been totally discredited. Historians from the History Department of Boston College have made it clear that this is not and never was a Boston College History Department project. A spokesman for the college has also castigated Moloney and McIntyre and confirmed that the college would be prepared to hand back interviews to those involved.
For the record, let me state once again that 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. The family has the right to seek redress in whatever way they chose or through whatever avenue is open to them. This case raises in a very stark way the need for the legacy issues of the past to be addressed in a victim-centred way. Of course, this is very challenging. Not all victims have the same demands.
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 that were 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. That is what we will continue to focus on. 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 which will in due course be dealt with by the Police Ombudsman. My arrest and the very serious attempt to charge me with IRA membership during the 1970s is damaging to the peace process and the political institutions.
Finally, let me be clear 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-centred, 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, civic society, church leaders, trade unions, the media, academia and private citizens must find a way to provide positive leadership. The British and Irish governments are obliged to do likewise. People in Britain, the USA and internationally also have a role. The people of the island of Ireland endorsed the Good Friday Agreement. It 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. That is the road we are on. There will be bumps on that road. There will be diversions. There are powerful vested interests who have not bought into the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
Obstacles will be erected, but we must build the peace and see off the sinister forces who are against equality and justice for everyone.