BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The senior Sinn Fein politician in Northern Ireland's unity government demanded the immediate release of his party leader, Gerry Adams, Friday, saying police are seeking to extend his interrogation over the IRA's 1972 killing of a Belfast mother of 10.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the police's continued questioning of Adams. The 48-hour detention period was set to expire Friday night but McGuinness said he expected police to receive a judge's permission to extend it.
McGuinness accused "a cabal" of officers within the Police Service of Northern Ireland of pursuing "a negative and destructive agenda to both the peace process and to Sinn Fein."
Police arrested Adams on Wednesday night as a suspect in the IRA abduction, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville. Under British anti-terror law, suspects must be charged or released within 48 hours, unless police receive a judicial extension.
Britain's 2006 terrorism law permits such extensions up to a maximum 28 days. Typically in Northern Ireland, terror suspects' detentions are extended by one to five days.
Northern Ireland police do not announce in advance when they seek such extensions, but do confirm them once they have been approved. McGuinness declined to explain how he knew that the police were seeking the extension, although Adams has lawyers on hand who would be informed of such a move.
McGuinness said Wednesday's arrest and unexpectedly long detention of Adams were designed to tarnish Sinn Fein's image and damage its prospects in council and European Parliament elections taking place in both parts of Ireland this month.
"This is a very, very serious situation," said McGuinness, a former IRA commander who has jointly led Northern Ireland's power-sharing government alongside British Protestants since 2007. "I believe that Gerry Adams will be totally and absolutely exonerated, and Gerry Adams will continue to lead this party."
Adams, who as Sinn Fein chief since 1983 is Europe's longest-serving party leader, denies any role in the IRA. But former members who spoke on tape to a Boston College-commissioned research project say he was the outlawed group's Belfast commander in 1972 and ordered the killing and secret burial of McConville, a widow whom the IRA branded a British Army spy.
McConville's eldest daughter, who has led a two-decade campaign for the truth, says she's praying for a murder charge -- and is prepared to name publicly those IRA members she believes stormed into their home on the day of her mother's abduction. Her other siblings say they're too afraid to take this step because it could inspire IRA attacks on themselves or their children.
"What are they going to do to me? They have done so much to me in the last 42 years. Are they going to come and put a bullet in my head? Well, they know where I live," Helen McKendry told the BBC Newsnight program.
McKendry, alongside her husband, Seamus, launched an often-lonely protest campaign in 1995 seeking an IRA admission of responsibility and help in finding her mother's remains. They suffered attacks on their home in Catholic west Belfast and had to resettle in a village outside the capital. McKendry, who was 15 when her mother was abducted, said she found it hard to believe Adams was finally in custody and facing police questions.
Northern Ireland has met news of Adams' arrest with a mixture of resignation and cynicism. The consensus from fans and foes alike: Adams is too important a figure in the peace process to go to jail, and he's never going to talk honestly about his past command positions in the Provisional IRA, the dominant faction that formally renounced violence in 2005.
The underground army killed nearly 1,800 people -- including scores of Catholic civilians and IRA members branded spies and informers -- before calling a 1997 cease-fire so Sinn Fein could pursue peace with Britain and Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.
Two decades ago, Adams initially insisted in brief face-to-face meetings with the McKendrys that the IRA was not involved, but pledged to look into it. Finally in 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility for the slayings of nine long-vanished civilians and IRA members, including McConville, and offered to pinpoint her unmarked grave on a beach 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Belfast in the Republic of Ireland.
That effort failed despite extensive digging. Then in 2003, a dog walker stumbled across her skeletal remains, with its bullet-shattered skull, protruding from a bluff above a different beach.
The police investigation of the McConville killing has accelerated since detectives last year received a potential treasure trove of taped interviews with IRA veterans recorded for a Boston College oral history project. Subjects agreed to spoke candidly about their IRA careers on condition that the audiotapes would remain under lock and key until their deaths. But the Northern Ireland police sued for access to all of them after one interviewee, Brendan Hughes, died and his accusations against Adams were published and broadcast in 2010.
Boston College successfully fought to limit the handover to 11 interviews from around a half-dozen IRA figures that explicitly mention the McConville killing. It isn't known whether any others back Hughes' central accusation that Adams ordered McConville's body dumped in an unmarked grave rather than put on public display in Belfast, as other IRA leaders wanted.
While Sinn Fein has protested that Adams' arrest is politically biased, Northern Ireland's main newspaper wrote Friday that it suggested the opposite: that the police are unwilling to treat any politician as untouchable.
"The wheels of justice in his case must grind at exactly the same speed as those of anyone else questioned about a crime," the Belfast Telegraph wrote in its lead editorial.
"We have an independent police force and an independent prosecution service and we must trust them to act justly and according to the evidence before them," it said. "That is how a mature democracy treats its citizens, unlike the kangaroo court that sentenced Mrs. McConville to death."