Belfast Project: Criminal Charges Filed In the McConville Murder Case

Ivor Bell, allegedly a senior member of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, was arrested last week on charges of aiding and abetting the murder of Jean McConville. For those who have been following the Belfast Project case here for a while, this is interesting for a few reasons.

First, Bell’s lawyer has said that the evidence against Bell comes from the Belfast Project tapes. Because many of the government’s submissions to the US courts have been under seal, and because the Belfast Project tapes themselves are not open to inspection, we have not, until now, known just who was a potential target of the UK criminal investigation. Some have speculated that the target of the proceeding has been Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. We now have reason to think that if he was a target, he was not the only target, and only time will tell if he is a target at all.

Second, some, including Friend of Letters Blogatory Chris Bray, have taken the view that the Belfast Project subpoena was a charade from the beginning and that the UK government never intended to bring criminal charges. We now know that that view is wrong.

It will be interesting to see if the prosecution seeks to introduce the tapes at Bell’s trial, and if so if the court will find the tapes admissible in evidence. We don’t know enough about the contents of the tapes to know how this will play out. But in any event, it could be that the UK authorities have merely used the tapes to lead them to other evidence or to witnesses whose testimony they will offer at trial. Again, only time will tell.

About Ted Folkman

Ted Folkman is a shareholder with Murphy & King, a Boston law firm, where he has a complex business litigation practice. He is the author of International Judicial Assistance (MCLE 2d ed. 2016), a nuts-and-bolts guide to international judicial assistance issues, and of the chapter on service of process in the ABA's forthcoming treatise on International Aspects of US Litigation, and he is the publisher of Letters Blogatory, the Web's first blog devoted to international judicial assistance, which the ABA recognized as one of the best 100 legal blogs in 2012, 2014, and 2015.

6 thoughts on “Belfast Project: Criminal Charges Filed In the McConville Murder Case

  1. My view is still that this is a charade, and we most certainly don’t know yet if that view is wrong. Dolours Price said loudly and often that she participated in the kidnapping and killing of Jean McConville, and then she died without so much as a phone call from the police. Now we have an arrest for aiding and abetting — in other words, for helping with the crime rather than committing it. So the people who actually kidnapped and killed Jean McConville are untouched, but Ivor Bell is under arrest for helping them. That’s bizarre, at best.

    Second, the British government flew Ivor Bell to London in the 1970s to participate in cease-fire talks, precisely because they knew he was a senior IRA leader who could negotiate such a deal. Then Bell was court martialed and thrown out of the IRA in the 1980s. Now, decades later, police in the UK announce that my goodness, secret tapes have revealed that Ivor Bell was a member of the IRA! It’s like announcing that an undercover investigation has revealed the existence of the sunrise. It was not a secret that Ivor Bell was an IRA member, and it’s extremely odd to charge him with IRA membership in 2014.

    Third, newspapers in Ireland and the UK are reporting that tapes that purportedly contain Ivor Bell’s Belfast Project interviews are labeled only as interviews with subject “Z,” and the police need the interviewer to authenticate the tapes so they can be used as evidence. The interviewer was Anthony McIntyre, who is himself a former IRA member. He will not authenticate the tapes. Everyone on the planet knows this. So if the police say their case is built on anonymous tapes that they need Anthony McIntyre to authenticate, and Anthony McIntyre isn’t going to authenticate them, how solid is the case?

    This matter isn’t over, not by a long shot. Let me know when they bring in a conviction, and for the crime itself rather than abetting the crime. Let me know when the trial begins for people who are alleged to have actually taken Jean McConville from her home, and for the people who are actually alleged to have shot her and buried her.

    Until then, this is political theater.

    1. Chris, you could be right or you could be wrong. But I think you’ll agree with me that this is a little bit of goalpost-moving, no? The original view was that no charges would be brought and that when we saw that no criminal case was in the offing we would realize that the MLAT request had been made under false pretenses.

      I don’t want to speculate about how strong the case is until we know what the tapes say, if and how they can be authenticated, what other evidence exists against Bell, etc. It may be, as you say, that McIntyre will never cooperate with the authorities, but it seems clear to me that he has another long legal journey ahead of him. As my post tomorrow suggests, I think it likely that we will see an MLAT request from Belfast to Dublin, and that much of what we saw in the Boston litigation will repeat itself in the Irish courts. Time will tell.

      1. My impression is that the PSNI is putting on a show to suggest that the whole production was meant to result in a criminal case. I don’t think they’ve advanced a credible criminal case, and the charges show that they aren’t even claiming to have arrested one of Jean McConville’s kidnappers or killers.

  2. Ted,

    Regrettably, I have not the time to take up the issues raised in your post and addressed by Chris. But I will say this: it is not a case of it ‘may be’ that I will not cooperate. Let me make it clear where I stand. I will not be cooperating in any shape or form. I would need to have the ethics of a Boston College lawyer or spokesperson in order to cooperate. Fortunately, I am deprived of such dubious values. It does not matter what the sanction is nor for how long it is in effect: I will not be cooperating. It is plain, it is simple and easy to understand.

    1. Well, the good news, I suppose, is that you probably will have a good amount of time before you actually have to refuse to answer any questions, as I am guessing there will be challenges in courts in both the north and the south that will take a while to wend their way through the courts. And maybe you’ll win on some issues you lost in the US litigation. So no need to man the barricades yet!

  3. Ivor Bell has been released, and the PSNI admits that they can’t prove he is the Belfast Project’s Subject Z. From the Belfast Telegraph, describing an exchange between the judge and the prosecutor:

    “Asked how long it could take before the case gets to trial, Mr Russell accepted it was unlikely to be ‘fast-tracked’.”

    Naked farce.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/jean-mcconville-former-ira-man-ivor-bell-charged-with-aiding-and-abetting-murder-is-granted-high-court-bail-30127724.html

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