The news conveyed in the headline above is news that, thanks to a judge, the people of Northern Ireland do not know, and are not allowed to know.
Last December, some nine months ago, former SDLP politician and barrister Adrian Colton, in his capacity as a High Court judge, ordered a veil of secrecy to be drawn over all and any aspects of the legal proceedings against former IRA Chief of Staff, Ivor Bell on charges connected to the 1972 disappearance and killing of Belfast housewife and mother-of-ten Jean McConville.
There are two theories in currency to explain Colton’s gagging order, which has not been defied by the Irish media.
The one favoured by most observers says it was done to protect Bell’s reputation following a court ruling that he was unfit to stand trial because of severe memory loss associated with a condition known as vascular dementia.
Colton ruled that the 82-year old was mentally unfit to take part in a normal criminal prosecution. Instead he ordered that he face a so-called ‘trial of the facts’, in which a jury will be asked to decide whether the facts of the case suggest guilt or innocence. He cannot face a prison sentence if found guilty.
The other explanation is that it was done to save the prosecuting authorities from the embarrassment that would follow from the disclosure that a key prosecution witness, the Boston College librarian Bob O’Neill, is himself suffering from serious memory loss and would not give crucial evidence confirming that the interviews given by participant ‘Z’ were actually given by Bell.
O’Neill lost the contract for ‘Z’, the only piece of paper which can identify by name this interviewee in the Boston project. His evidence would have enabled the court to claim that Bell was ‘Z’.
Without O’Neill’s testimony the whole case against Bell may collapse before it starts. Hence the embarrassment for the DPP’s office from a badly mishandled case which, in theory, could have been dealt with several years ago when both O’Neill and Bell were mentally fit and healthy.
There are however some suggestions in legal circles that another prosecution witness from the US is ready to take O’Neill’s place and can identify ‘Z’ as Ivor Bell. Who that could be is a mystery, not least to this writer as no-one outside of O’Neill, myself and the interviewer knew who the interviewees really were – and even then many were unknown to me.