Prosecutors in Northern Ireland have been given a final deadline to decide whether to pursue a case against a veteran republican accused of involvement in the murder of Jean McConville.
A district judge issued the ultimatum to the North's Public Prosecution Service (PPS) after one of its lawyers applied for another three week adjournment to the already long-delayed case of Ivor Bell.
Judge George Conner granted the application, despite a call from Bell’s defence lawyer to discontinue the case.
Bell, 78, from Ramoan Gardens in west Belfast, is charged with aiding and abetting the murder of the mother-of-10, who was abducted from her home in west Belfast in 1972.
He is further accused of IRA membership.
The republican’s solicitor Peter Corrigan heavily criticised the latest delay on a final PPS decision on whether the prosecution would proceed.
Mr Corrigan noted it had been over a year since his client had been charged.
“There has been quite a lot of adjournment applications by the prosecution,” he told Belfast Magistrates Court.
“It’s now 14 months since the defendant was charged with this offence, which is of a historical nature.
“So there has already been undue delay from 1972 and now we have 14 months waiting on a decision.”
Part of the Crown’s case against Bell is based on a tape police secured from an oral history archive collated by Boston College.
The college interviewed a series of former paramilitaries on the understanding their accounts would remain unpublished until their deaths.
But that undertaking was rendered meaningless when the PSNI won a court battle in the US to secure the recordings.
Detectives claim one of the interviews was given by Bell – a claim the defendant denies.
Mr Corrigan said no “voice analysis” evidence had been put to his client.
He said any evidence of that nature would also need “substantial corroboratory evidence”.
“None has been forthcoming,” he added.
“There is no evidence of a nature sufficient enough to amount to a prima facie case against the defendant – that’s why, we respectfully submit, there has been delay after delay after delay.”
The solicitor questioned why his client had been charged in the first place, insisting police and prosecutors should only have done that if they were already satisfied a prima facie case existed.
A prosecution lawyer told judge Conner that senior counsel from the PPS and police officers had met to review the case last night.
“Further time is needed to give consideration to further advice received,” he added.
But Mr Corrigan queried the need for such lengthy consultations.
“It’s a ploy to compound the already serious issues of delay in this case,” he claimed.
Noting his client was “elderly” and had “medical issues”, he argued he had a right to have his case dealt with in a “timely” way.
“This case should be discontinued, I object strongly to another three weeks,” he said.
Judge Conner noted Mr Corrigan’s comments but said he would grant the adjournment application on the basis that it would be the last one.
Listing the case for June 4, he added: “This has to be final in terms of making a decision.
“I expect one on June 4.”
Bell, who sat in the dock dressed in khaki-coloured shirt and trousers throughout today’s proceedings, was released on continuing bail.
Mrs McConville, a 37-year-old widow, was dragged from her home in the Divis flats by an IRA gang of up to 12 men and women after being accused of passing information to the British Army in Belfast – an allegation discredited by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.
She was shot in the back of the head and buried 50 miles from her home.
The IRA did not admit her murder until 1999 when information was passed to Gardaí.
She became one of the “Disappeared” and it was not until August 2003 that her remains were eventually found on Shelling Hill beach, Co Louth.
No-one has been convicted of her murder.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams was last year arrested and questioned as part of the police investigation into Mrs McConville’s death.
The Louth TD has consistently rejected allegations made to Boston College by former republican colleagues including Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price that he had a role in ordering her death.
The PPS continues to review a file on Mr Adams.