BELFAST, Northern Ireland Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams was released without charge Sunday after five days of police questioning over his alleged involvement in a decades-old Irish Republican Army killing, an event that has driven a dangerous wedge into Northern Ireland's unity government.
The 65-year-old's departure from the police's main interrogation center in Antrim, west of Belfast, was delayed by an angry protest by Protestants outside its gates. They waved Union Jack flags and held placards demanding justice for IRA victims.
A police statement confirmed that Adams has been formally released, and Sinn Fein said he would hold a press conference in a Belfast hotel within hours.
The investigation of Adams is not over, however, because police said they have sent an evidence file to Northern Ireland prosecutors for potential charges later.
Sinn Fein said detectives questioned Adams about audiotaped interviews that IRA veterans gave to a Boston College oral history project. Some interviewees accused him of being the Belfast IRA commander who ordered the abduction, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville in 1972.
Police faced a Sunday deadline to charge or release Adams or seek a judge's permission to extend his detention -- a step they had already taken once on Friday when an initial deadline was due to expire.
The IRA did not admit responsibility for killing McConville until 1999, when the underground organization defended its action by claiming she had been a British Army spy. Her remains were found accidentally in 2003 near a Republic of Ireland beach. An investigation three years later by Northern Ireland's police complaints watchdog found no evidence she had been a spy.
Sunday's outcome -- freedom but no official exoneration, with evidence bound for the Public Prosecution Service -- suggested police do believe Adams was an IRA commander, but do not have strong enough evidence to charge him with this. Police last charged Adams with IRA membership in 1978 following a firebomb attack on a hotel near Belfast that killed 12 Protestants, but those charges were dropped.
British state prosecutors in Belfast would provide a second opinion. They could tell police either that no case could succeed based on existing evidence, recommend new avenues of investigation to strengthen the chances of a successful prosecution, or determine that charges should be filed. Typically however, when such evidence files are sent by police to prosecutors for complex terror-related cases, charges do not follow.
Adams has always denied membership of the outlawed IRA. His arrest weeks ahead of elections in both parts of Ireland infuriated his Irish nationalist party, which represents most of the Irish Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and is a growing left-wing opposition force in the Irish Republic.