DUBLIN -- A trans-Atlantic legal showdown could determine whether Gerry Adams, the Irish republican chieftain long at the center of Belfast war and peace, faces trial over his IRA past.
Police probing the Irish Republican Army's 1972 killing of a Belfast mother of 10 want to seize taped interviews with IRA members that Boston College hoped to keep locked up for posterity. Researchers fighting the handover in court next week warn that disclosure could trigger attacks against IRA veterans involved in the secrecy-shrouded project and undermine Northern Ireland's peace.
The case of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow, commands special attention among Northern Ireland's nearly 3,300 unsolved killings because of allegations that Adams, the conflict's leading guerrilla turned peacemaker, commanded the IRA unit responsible for ordering her execution and secret burial.
Adams denies this.
But the researchers who collected the interviews say they include multiple IRA colleagues of Adams from 1972 – testimony that, if made public, could fuel a victims' civil lawsuit against the Sinn Fein party leader.
"Imagine if these interviews are delivered to the police and their contents come out in court. There'll be a hue and cry for Gerry Adams' political scalp," said Ed Moloney, a former Belfast journalist who directed Boston College's oral history project on Northern Ireland.
Moloney and the former IRA member who collected the interviews, Anthony McIntyre, go to court next Tuesday in Boston seeking to persuade Judge William Young to let Boston College keep the audiotapes out of the hands of Belfast police.
Moloney said the material was explosive enough to damage Northern Ireland's unity government, in which Sinn Fein represents the Irish Catholic minority. Their surprisingly stable coalition with the British Protestant majority is the central achievement of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord.
McIntyre won the IRA veterans' confidence by promising their confessions would remain confidential, beyond the reach of British law and order, as long as they lived. IRA members normally never talk openly about the underground group – partly because the IRA reserves the right to kill such people as traitors.
But posthumous testimony isn't admissible as evidence.
Young last month ruled that the interviews of one living IRA veteran, convicted car bomber Dolours Price, should be surrendered because she discusses her role in the McConville killing. The judge also ruled he would personally review interviews involving 24 other Irish republicans, and more than 100 transcripts, to determine if others should be sent to Belfast police for the same reason.
To the fury of Moloney and McIntyre, Boston College accepted Young's judgment. They say university officials should have appealed or risked a contempt order by destroying the whole archive.
"If they weren't prepared to fight to the bitter end like us, then why did Boston College get involved in this kind of project at all?" Moloney said.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn insisted Young's judgment was the best they could expect, given that some tapes include confessions of involvement in crimes.
"We would never want anyone to think that Boston College was obstructing a murder investigation," he said.
A Boston appeals court has blocked any handover of IRA material to British authorities pending the resolution of two Moloney-McIntyre lawsuits.
McIntyre said his family home could be bombed, or he could be run over in the street, if his work ends up inspiring criminal prosecutions against those he interviewed or a civil lawsuit against Adams.
"I'm already being labeled a tout, an informer. That's a death sentence in Irish republican circles," said McIntyre, a Belfast native who spent 17 years in prison for killing a Protestant militant in a 1976 drive-by shooting. Today he lives in Ireland with his American wife, 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
"Of course I'm concerned what might happen to me," said McIntyre, who is barred from traveling to the United States because of his murder conviction. "But I'm much more concerned about the safety of my wife, my children, and the people I interviewed."
He, Moloney and Boston College officials all say they felt ambushed when the U.S. attorney's office, acting on behalf of the British government and Northern Ireland police, last year filed subpoenas seeking all audiotapes in which IRA members discuss McConville's disappearance.
Dunn said the researchers and key university staff a decade ago naively presumed that the risk of any British legal action was low, given that the Good Friday accord emphasized the need to draw a line under a conflict that had left 3,700 dead in the previous three decades.
That did little to mute cries for justice for Northern Ireland's victims. The police there in 2005 formed a special "cold cases" unit, called the Historical Enquiries Team, that promised to re-examine all unsolved political killings since 1969. The Boston College archive represents a potential gold mine for its work.
Boston College has already handed over the tapes and transcripts of IRA member Brendan Hughes, a one-time Adams confidante who died in 2008. Moloney made Hughes' posthumous testimony the foundation for his 2010 book "Voices From the Grave."
Hughes told McIntyre he oversaw McConville's "arrest" for allegedly being a British Army spy. He said Adams commanded a unit called "The Unknowns" responsible for making McConville and several other West Belfast civilians disappear.
"There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed," Hughes said. "That man is now the head of Sinn Fein. I did not give the order to execute that woman. He did."
The U.S. attorney's office in Boston so far has received 13 interviews involving Price, who reportedly drove McConville from Belfast to the Irish border for her execution, but has yet to hand them to the British.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil said American authorities must provide relevant IRA testimony to British authorities as part of Anglo-American treaty commitments to aid each other's criminal investigations.
"The UK is investigating serious crimes: murder, kidnapping. The court has already found that it's a bona fide investigation and that there's no other source for this material," McNeil said.
Adams' spokesman, Richard McAuley, said Adams has nothing to hide.
"As to the specific allegations against Gerry, he's consistently denied them," McAuley said. "The truth is nobody knows what's on the tapes. We only know the innuendo and insinuation."
McConville's eldest daughter Helen McKendry, who since 1994 has campaigned for the IRA to admit the truth of her mother's execution, said she has no doubt Adams is responsible.
"Gerry Adams has come to my home and claimed he's got nothing to do with my mother's murder. But he couldn't look me in the eye and he couldn't say her name. He's a liar," she said.
McKendry was 15 in 1972 when several IRA members came to their Catholic west Belfast home to abduct her mother. The 10 children never saw her again, were told she'd abandoned them and were scattered into different foster homes.
The IRA didn't admit it killed McConville until 1998. Five years later, a dog walker on a Republic of Ireland beach 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Belfast spotted McConville's skeletal remains protruding from a sandy bluff. Forensics officers found she'd been shot once in the back of the head, with the .22-caliber bullet still lodged in an eye socket.
"I really hope people in Boston back us up on this," McKendry said. "Murder is murder. Release the tapes."
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Adds Web links. Corrects grammar to "each other's" in 27th paragraph.)