The Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's unity government launched a blistering attack Sunday on his Sinn Fein coalition colleagues, accusing them of attempting to intimidate the police into freeing Gerry Adams without charge.
The 65-year-old Sinn Fein leader remained in police custody for a fifth day, under questioning over allegations that he was Belfast commander of the outlawed Irish Republican Army in 1972 and ordered the killing of a widowed mother of 10. He could be released Sunday night when his legal detention period is set to expire. Police also could charge him or seek a judge's permission to extend his interrogation, a step previously taken Friday.
Since Adams' arrest, the senior Sinn Fein politician in the unity government, Martin McGuinness, has warned that his party's continued support for law and order – a key condition for participation in Northern Ireland's five-party government – could depend on Adams' treatment.
At a public rally Saturday, McGuinness told supporters that Adams was being victimized by Protestant hardliners within the police force "who are against the peace process and hate Gerry Adams and hate Sinn Fein." He said Sinn Fein could not support detectives "acting in a politically biased and partisan fashion."
First Minister Peter Robinson, whose Democratic Unionist Party agreed to share power with Sinn Fein in 2007 on condition that the IRA-linked party accepted police authority, accused McGuinness of "a despicable, thuggish attempt to blackmail" the police.
In his harshest verbal attack on McGuinness since agreeing to work alongside him, Robinson said Sinn Fein's "obscene politicizing of the policing process" nauseated him.
"I warn Sinn Fein that they have crossed the line and should immediately cease this destructive behavior," he said, suggesting that the future of Northern Ireland's government was at stake.
Robinson said McGuinness "seems incapable" of accepting the police's right to investigate Adams. He accused Sinn Fein of hypocrisy by demanding criminal investigations of killings committed by Protestant militants, the police and British Army but not of the IRA, which killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein aides said McGuinness would respond to Robinson's attack later Sunday. Power-sharing was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Detectives since Wednesday have been questioning Adams over abduction, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 whom the IRA branded a British Army spy.
The IRA did not admit responsibility until 1999, and McConville's remains were found only accidentally in 2003 near a Republic of Ireland beach. A 2006 investigation by Northern Ireland's police complaints watchdog found no evidence she had been a spy.