Last Updated May 4, 2014 6:36 PM EDT
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 IRA killing of a Belfast mother of 10, an investigation that has driven a dangerous wedge into Northern Ireland's unity government.
Addressing reporters and supporters at a Belfast hotel, Adams said he wanted his party to provide help to the children of Jean McConville, the 37-year-old widow taken from her home by the Irish Republican Army in 1972, killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. He also rejected claims by IRA veterans in audiotaped interviews that he had ordered the killing."I am innocent of any involvement in any conspiracy to abduct, kill or bury Mrs. McConville. I have worked hard with others to have this injustice redressed," said Adams, 65, who has led Sinn Fein since 1983 and won credit for steering the IRA toward cease-fires and compromise with Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.
Yet the investigation of Adams is not over. Police said they have sent an evidence file to Northern Ireland prosecutors for potential charges later.
"For all I know I can still face charges," Adams said. He said he had been interviewed 33 times during 92 hours in custody. "One presumes they would have made a charge against me. But they offered no evidence against me whatsoever."
The episode has underscored the unrelenting hostility of some Protestants to Adams and his party's ambitions to merge Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. His departure from the police's main interrogation center in Antrim, west of Belfast, was delayed two hours by a crowd of Protestants outside the front gate. The protesters waved Union Jack flags and held placards demanding justice for IRA victims. They roared with fury as a convoy of police armored vehicles came into view, thinking Adams' car was in the middle.
Dozens of officers - many sporting full riot gear with flame-retardant boiler suits, body armor, helmets and shields - confronted the hardline Protestants, many of whom covered their faces, as they tried to block Adams' exit by sitting down in the roadway. After a 15-minute standoff, police escorted Adams out via a rear exit that the protesters could not see.
Adams said detectives chiefly questioned him about audiotaped interviews that IRA veterans gave to a Boston College oral history project. Police successfully sued in U.S. courts last year to acquire the accounts, which had been given to researchers on condition that they remain secret until the interviewees' own deaths. Some accused Adams of being the Belfast IRA commander who ordered McConville's killing. One former Adams colleague in the Belfast IRA, Brendan Hughes, specified that Adams gave the order that her body should vanish to leave her fate deliberately unclear.
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.A woman named Dolours Price told CBS News a year and a half ago that she drove the car the night Jean McConville was abducted and killed. She said Adams ordered the killing.
Price, who has since died, also accused Adams of ordering a bombing that she carried out in London.
"Who sent me to London to blow it up?" she asked. "Gerry Adams."
Price died in 2013 "as a result of the toxic effect of a mix of prescribed sedative and anti-depressant medications," the Irish Times reported. Her death was not officially labeled as suspicious.
Sunday's outcome with Adams - 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.
Most of McConville's 10 children, aged 6 to 17 at the time of her disappearance, were placed in separate foster homes and grew up as strangers to each other. On Sunday they expressed disappointment, but no surprise, at Adams' freedom.
"The McConville family is going to stay to the bitter end of this till we get justice for our mother," said Michael McConville, who was 11 when about a dozen IRA members came into the family home and dragged his mother away. "We know it is going to be a long road, but we have already been fighting for justice for 40 years and we are not going to stop now."