Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was accused at the weekend of ordering two murders carried out by the IRA, including a notorious incident in which a mother of ten was shot dead and secretly buried.
The accusations are contained in a new book, Voices from the Grave, by veteran journalist Ed Moloney, which is to be published this week. They are based on the posthumous testimony of a former Belfast IRA commander, Brendan Hughes.
In 1972 Jean McConville was abducted from a Falls Road flat in Belfast. Hughes is said to have confirmed the IRA allegation that she was passing information to the British Army via a hidden radio transmitter. For years the IRA denied all knowledge of her abduction, so that she became known as one of "the disappeared", a group of IRA victims who were buried in secret graves. Mrs McConville's remains were eventually recovered, following a long campaign by her family, more than 30 years later. According to Hughes, Gerry Adams ordered her killing as well as that of a republican inmate of the Maze prison near Belfast, Paul Crawford, who died in 1973 in an apparent suicide.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said: "The allegations are not new. Gerry Adams has consistently denied these. In the last years of his life Brendan Hughes was very ill and he publicly disagreed with the strategy being pursued by republicans."
The general belief is that Hughes and the Sinn Fein president were particularly close comrades in the early 1970s. But a breach occurred between them which led to Hughes breaking acrimoniously with Sinn Fein and with Mr Adams in particular.
Hughes's testimony was given in a series of interviews in 2001 and 2002 for a project conducted by Boston College. The college carried out interviews with many republicans and loyalist who were active during the troubles, on condition that the contents would only be made public after their deaths.
According to Hughes: "I never carried out a major operation without the okay or the order from Gerry. And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever and deny it, I mean it's like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust."
In the McConville case he said: "She was an informer. I sent a squad over to the house to check it out and there was a transmitter. We retrieved it, arrested her, took her away, interrogated her, and she told us what she was doing."
Hughes claimed that one IRA leader wanted "her body left on the street" but was overruled by Mr Adams, who is now MP for West Belfast. "There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed," Hughes said. "That man is now the head of Sinn Fein. I did not give the order to execute that woman – he did."