The Prime Minister has urged the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government to cooperate after the arrest of Gerry Adams prompted sharp divisions between them.
David Cameron spoke to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who head the devolved administration at Stormont, last night amid heightened republican anger at the timing of the Sinn Fein president’s detention just before an election.
Mr Adams was held on Wednesday night as part of a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation into the IRA abduction and murder of West Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “The Prime Minister does appreciate the sensitivity of a case of this nature. He, like me, is anxious to ensure that the devolved institutions continue to work well and that the Northern Ireland political leaders continue to work with each other on the big challenges that we face.”
Mr McGuinness has blamed the “dark side” of policing conspiring with enemies of the peace process for the arrest of his friend and party leader.
He acknowledged that Mrs McConville was the victim of a terrible wrong done by the IRA but said Wednesday’s action was a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of European elections due in three weeks’ time.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Mr Robinson said it would have been political policing if the PSNI had decided not to investigate Mr Adams because of the pending poll.
It is the latest dispute which has bedevilled the Stormont regime.
While uniting to condemn violence by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process, many key decisions remain in limbo because of differences between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
At the end of the year, the five main Stormont parties failed to agree on dealing with the legacy of 30 years of violence which has left thousands of victims, controversial Orange Order and republican parades and the display of the British flag on public buildings.
The Northern Ireland Secretary recognised the difficulties created by the arrest for relations between the parties.
She said: “That is why I am urging everyone to respond in a measured way.
“Whatever the outcome, there are still problems to be fixed.”
Mr Adams has always vehemently denied allegations levelled by former republican colleagues that he ordered the murder of Mrs McConville, who was wrongly suspected of being an informer to the British Army.
He was arrested at Antrim police station after voluntarily presenting himself for interview.
The former West Belfast MP and current representative for Co Louth in the Irish Dail can initially be held for up to 48 hours without charge - a time period that ends at around 8pm today.
But detectives have the option to apply to a judge today for his detention to be extended for further questioning.
Mrs McConville was dragged screaming from her children in the Divis flats in west Belfast by a gang of up to 12 men and women.
She was interrogated, shot in the back of the head and then secretly buried - becoming one of the “Disappeared” victims of the Troubles. Her body was not found until 2003 on a beach in Co Louth, 50 miles from her home.
Ms Villiers defended the police decision to arrest Mr Adams now, saying detectives should not be asked to take on board the electoral calendar as well as their other duties.
She said: “The Prime Minister is clear that this is not a political decision. This is a matter for the police and prosecution authorities.
“There has been, and there will be, no political interference in prosecutions in this case.
“I don’t think we can expect the police in their decisions to take account of the electoral calendar. If they were doing that, that probably would be a political decision.
“They have to take steps to follow the evidence and take steps based on their timetable.”
She said the force was doing a good job for Northern Ireland.
“I believe that the PSNI take their duties in terms of impartiality, balance and respect for human rights extremely seriously.
“They are not a politicised police force, they are properly and highly scrutinised by the Policing Board and Police Ombudsman.”
Irish Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) Eamon Gilmore said politicians should not receive special treatment when it comes to police investigations.
“I don’t think anybody, Sinn Fein or anybody else, should seek to have a different rule applied to somebody because they are a politician,” said the Labour Party leader.
“If the police service want to interview somebody in connection with a murder investigation, they are perfectly entitled to do that.
“If that person happens to be a politician or the leader of a political party, so be it. There isn’t a separate rule.”