The arrest of Gerry Adams by detectives investigating the murder of a Belfast mother of ten was “entirely appropriate”, Stormont’s justice minister David Ford has said.
Last night a judge allowed the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) a further 48 hours to hold the Sinn Fein president at Antrim police station. The republican party has warned it will review its support for the police if the veteran leader is charged.
Mr Adams, 65, vehemently denies allegations levelled by former republican colleagues that he ordered Jean McConville’s murder and secret burial in 1972 after she was wrongly accused of passing information to the security forces.
David Ford told the BBC’s Today programme: “I t is normal practice if somebody is likely to be arrested in the course of an inquiry that they are arrested at the start of discussions.”
The justice minister added: “I don’t know whether Gerry Adams thought he was going to turn up at Antrim’s serious crime suite, have a wee chat for half an hour and then go off again, but clearly on the scale of the concerns expressed, of the information - which I entirely accept is not yet evidence - it was entirely appropriate that should be followed up in the normal way.
“Those decisions are for the police, supported yesterday by an independent judge in extending the time for that investigation to continue.”
He added: “If politicians are taking their decisions on how they react to the police service based on who the police service are investigating, then that is a very dangerous position for politicians to be in.”
Mr Adams’ party colleague and Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness has claimed a “cabal” within the PSNI was behind the arrest, with the intention of damaging the peace process and inflicting political scars on Sinn Fein in the month of an election.
Mr McGuinness indicated that Sinn Fein would review its support for policing in Northern Ireland if the party leader is charged by detectives investigating the murder of Mrs McConville.
The deputy first minister said he and colleagues would not be making a “knee-jerk” decision, but suggested they would “reflect” on their endorsement of the PSNI if such a situation came to pass.
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 after being wrongly accused of informing to the security forces during the height of the conflict.
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.
Mr Adams, a former MP for West Belfast and now an elected representative for Co Louth in the Irish Dail, voluntarily presented himself for interview at Antrim PSNI station by prior arrangement with detectives.
Sinn Fein’s decision to sign up to support the police in 2007 was viewed as a major milestone in the peace process and prompted the return to devolved rule at Stormont, with the republican party and the Democratic Unionists entering government together.
The Prime Minister has urged the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government to co-operate after the arrest prompted sharp divisions between them.
David Cameron spoke to first minister Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness, who head the devolved administration at Stormont, amid heightened republican anger at the timing of Mr Adams’ detention just before an election.
Mr McGuinness has 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.
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 last 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.
Sinn Fein assembly member Alex Maskey insisted that the party would not withdraw support for policing but would “continue to monitor and review our relationship with the PSNI”.
He told Today : “Martin McGuinness actually didn’t say that we will withdraw support for policing, we will not withdraw support for policing of course, because we do support policing.
“What we will continue to monitor and review is our relationship with the PSNI if indeed we have a situation which we believe is continuing at the moment, where we have a small element of people involved in policing who are politically motivated, who have a hostile attitude to our party, who have been taking very retrograde steps in relation to how they deal with policing.”