Chronicle Review: Who Killed Jean McConville?

Who Killed Jean McConville?
By Beth McMurtrie
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Chronicle Review – Chronicle of Higher Education

Among the many atrocities committed during the 30-year Northern Irish conflict known as the Troubles, the story of the McConville family is uniquely tragic.

In December 1972, gunmen dragged a widowed mother of 10 from her apartment in front of her children. She was never seen again. Shunned by neighbors, who believed Jean McConville had been an informer for the British Army, the children survived on their own for weeks, eating stolen biscuits and moldy bread. Then they were separated and sent away. Their mother’s body was discovered decades later, on a desolate beach in Ireland. She had been shot in the back of the head, the fate of those tagged as informers by the Irish Republican Army.

In 2011 a police investigation into the murder led the authorities to Boston College. They demanded confidential tape recordings that the college’s Belfast Project had collected from people with knowledge of her death.

But will those tapes, now in the hands of the police, lead to arrests? Not many close to the case think so, including members of the McConville family.

Michael McConville, who was 11 when his mother was taken away, has little faith in the investigators, who he notes had decades to pursue his mother’s killers. “They failed the McConville family in every way,” he says.

In 2006 the police were the subject of a scathing ombudsman’s report, which found a systematic failure to investigate the abduction in the 1970s and 1980s. The IRA admitted, in 1999, to her murder. The report also found no evidence that she was an informer. “She was an innocent woman,” the report concluded, “who was abducted and murdered.” (The family plans to file a civil suit against the police.)

The police renewed their investigation in 2004, says Mr. McConville. A detective told him they’d sort it out in a couple of months. After two years of silence, he got a call telling him only that another detective was taking over the case, which had been handed off to the Historical Enquiries Team, newly created to pursue unsolved murders during the Troubles.

The police contacted the McConvilles again after learning of the oral-history project at Boston College and said they were going after the tapes. The family has heard little since then. (The Police Services of Northern Ireland declined an interview request from The Chronicle.)

Mr. McConville finds the focus on the tapes strange. The police never tried to question Dolours Price, an IRA member who admitted to participating in the abduction, yet they went after her interviews. Further, he says, his mother’s abduction isn’t as much of a mystery as people outside of Belfast might think. It’s a small community; people talk. He even saw the faces of some of those involved that night. But naming names results in threats and retaliation, so people keep quiet.

“It leads nowhere,” he says of the police process.

A compact man with pale blue eyes, Mr. McConville has the deeply serious demeanor of someone who has learned to hope for little and trust even less. He has managed to build a life for himself, including a family of his own, but some of his siblings have found it hard to do so.

After the McConville children were taken into custody by a social-welfare agency, the younger ones were dispersed to different state-run homes and often subjected to harsh treatment. Released at the age of 16, Michael McConville and his siblings struggled to find their place in society.

“No one had any sympathy whatsoever,” he recalls. The McConville name made them the target of slurs and got them kicked off job sites. “We were just treated like scum.”

In Voices From the Grave, a book that came out of the Belfast Project, Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commander, said a transmitter had been found in the McConville apartment, proving that Jean McConville was an informer for the British Army. That is not true, her son says. He met with IRA members after the book was published, he says, and they said they did not know where those stories were coming from.

Michael McConville, who was 11 when his mother disappeared: “I’ve lived here all my life, and I don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

But in this secretive place, where information is guarded, sectarian mistrust thrives, and special disdain is reserved for those in authority, it may be hard to ever find out who killed Jean McConville.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I don’t know who’s telling the truth,” says her son.

The Boston College case brought attention to Jean McConville’s story. A recent BBC documentary, The Disappeared, enlarged the spotlight to include more than a dozen other people similarly abducted and killed. Mr. McConville says he has found support from a grass-roots organization, called WAVE, that helps people affected by the Troubles.

In an interview in one of the hotels that have sprung up in Belfast’s revitalized business district, Mr. McConville makes clear that he has little regard for the Boston College project that led to the subpoena. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says of those interviewed, whose tapes can be released only after their death. “You can’t question them because they’re dead.”

Now there’s talk in the highest political circles of abandoning the pursuit of old crimes and granting amnesty in cases like his mother’s, so that Northern Ireland can move beyond its past.

As for the McConvilles, he says they will continue to speak out. Not to seek arrests, but to eliminate the stigma that has dogged them for decades. “I’ll keep going,” he says, “until my mother’s name is cleared.”