Veteran republican Ivor Bell has been charged this Friday night with IRA membership and “aiding and abetting” the execution of informer Jean McConville in 1972.
The arrest of the well-known 77-year-old on Tuesday came as a shock to the republican community. On Thursday the PSNI were granted permission to interrogate the pensioner for a fourth day, despite his advanced years and frail health. There were fears among his friends and colleagues that he was being treated vindictively.
Mr Bell is expected to appear before Belfast Magistrates’ Court tomorrow [Saturday]. A white-tine picket has been organised to call for Mr Bell’s immediate release. The picket will be held at the top of Castle Street in Belfast at 1.30pm.
The senior figure is alleged to have been a commander in the Belfast brigade of the IRA throughout the 1970s. In 1972, he was among a group of top republicans, including the current Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who were flown to London in 1972 for ceasefire talks with the British government.
Regarded as a militant, he was ousted from the IRA in 1985 for opposing the political direction advocated by Adams.
There had been speculation in the mainstream media that the arrest came in response to the PSNI securing the tapes of an interview with former IRA Volunteer Dolours Price. There have also been claims that Mr Bell’s arrest may impact on Mr Adams, who has long denied widespread allegations that he was involved in or even ordered the kidnapping of McConville.
Between 2001 and 2006 a Boston College project conducted ‘confidential’ interviews with prominent members of the Provisional IRA. While the university quickly submitted to a court challenge to hand over the files in question to the PSNI in 2011, two researchers employed by it took a Supreme Court challenge against their release in 2012, but ultimately lost.
Earlier this week, a Six-County government council candidate spole of his concern over the arrest Mr Bell, who is his election manager. Ciaran Mulholland, who is standing as an independent republican socialist candidate in west Belfast in this year’s local elections, said Mr Bell’s arrest was an example of “political policing”.
Mr Mulholland called on the Stormont administration parties to condemn the situation.
“This is an attack on all our human rights and a threat to democracy,” he said.
“Let it be known to those who support the idea of political policing, that this will not deter the hard work or voice of the working class and the will of our people will only be strengthened by such actions. We are confident and determined to succeed.”
Mr Bell’s arrest has also reopened the question of the letters issued to some of those ‘On the Run’ (OTR) from prosecution for past IRA actions which were seen to grant a form of immunity.
One such letter was cited by an Old Bailey judge in releasing Donegal man John Downey as his trial was due to get underway in London late last month.
Davy Hyland, an independent local election candidate in Newry, said he had recently been subjected to a politically motivated arrest and questioned for two days by the PSNI in connection with the 1999 death of another IRA informer, Eamon Collins.
“During the interrogations, not one iota of evidence to link me to his murder was found,” he said.
“The entire episode smacks of overt political policing and the police being influenced by the current OTR debacle. By this I mean you’re fair game if you are not in an establishment, constitutional party.”