Jean McConville: one of Belfast’s stubborn ghosts

Jean McConville: one of Belfast’s stubborn ghosts
A mother of 10, she was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in 1972. But she will not go away.
By Jenny McCartney
The Daily Telegraph
14 Jan 2012

The Troubles in Northern Ireland created many ghosts, but some of them stubbornly refuse to drift away. I am thinking specifically of Jean McConville, the widowed mother of 10 abducted from her West Belfast home by a large IRA gang in 1972. She was interrogated, tortured and shot before being buried in an unmarked grave, and she comes back, sporadically, to haunt the political career of Gerry Adams.

Her disappearance left her children orphaned, and the smaller ones were taken into local authority care: the youngest were six-year-old twin boys. Three weeks after her abduction, a young man called at the motherless household and, without explanation, handed the children a purse containing 52 pence and three rings.

Where was the justice for Jean McConville? There were only sketchy police records of her vanishing, a Belfast Telegraph front page, and an unsubstantiated rumour that she had left of her own free will. Belfast was in chaos, and she was a leaf swallowed by a hurricane. In 1999, the IRA finally admitted that it had killed her, allegedly for being an “informer”, a charge strongly denied by the family and dismissed by a subsequent official investigation. Her children recalled her going to the aid of a wounded British soldier, which might have awakened local antagonism. In 2003, members of the public discovered her body, exposed by coastal erosion, on a beach in County Louth.

Her children campaigned last year against Gerry Adams’s candidacy in the Irish general election, citing their belief that he had set up an IRA squad called “the Unknowns” which “disappeared” its targets, including their mother. Their view was supported by a 2010 book by the Irish journalist Ed Moloney entitled Voices From The Grave, which cited tape-recordings of the late IRA man Brendan Hughes saying: “I never carried out a major operation without the OK or the order from Gerry… there is only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed. That man is now the head of Sinn Fein.”

In addition, the Belfast-based Sunday Life newspaper carried a story by a writer called Ciaran Barnes, reportedly based on recordings of the prominent former IRA woman Dolours Price, saying that she herself had driven Mrs McConville to her fate and that Gerry Adams, then her Officer Commanding in the IRA, gave the order for the killing. Gerry Adams flatly denies all of the above, and duly topped the poll for Louth for a seat in the Dail.

All of which brings us to last week, and the decision by Boston College to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s request to hand over archived tape-recordings. In these, Ed Moloney and colleagues had extensively interviewed former IRA members and loyalists with the promise that the information would not be made public until after their deaths. The PSNI wishes, however, to scrutinise the content in a review of the McConville murder, for which no one has ever been charged. And therein lies a grotesque dilemma shaped by the “peace process” itself.

It was a central tenet of the “peace process” that justice, as dispensed by the courts, be comprehensively overturned. Republican and loyalist prisoners, guilty of appalling crimes, were released from prison. Sinn Fein was rendered respectable, and McGuinness and Adams were nudged towards the top political jobs as a way of tethering the peace. The British government knew all about Adams’s background – they had long-standing informants at the very heart of the IRA – but the era of mass denial had begun.

In such circumstances it has fallen to courageous journalists such as Mr Moloney to deliver their own form of justice, by uncovering uncomfortable facts and allegations and placing them firmly in the court of public opinion. The PSNI subpoena puts him and his colleague Dr Anthony McIntyre in an impossible, and potentially dangerous, position. Yet one can equally understand the fierce yearning of the McConville children for legal resolution. Two forms of justice are at odds.

Could Adams be implicated in a criminal prosecution over the McConville case? There remains the great difficulty of getting witnesses and evidence into court, a process for which there will be scant enthusiasm on the part of the British and Irish political establishment. The affair is set to thicken unpredictably, with only one certainty: the questions stirred up by it will prove troublesome for Mr Adams. The ghosts of victims have long had a particular resonance in Irish history, and – as Sinn Fein knows only too well – you can’t shoot a ghost.