Jean McConville, a Belfast woman suspected of being a British Army informer, was arrested and executed by the Irish Republican Army in December 1972 and her body hidden as one of the so-called “Disappeared” until August 2003
As the impact of the arrest of the veteran activist Ivor Bell continues to reverberate within Republican circles there is a lot to agree with in this analysis by Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe:
“Ivor Bell is awaiting trial in Belfast on charges he aided and abetted the murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 who in 1972 was abducted, shot, and secretly buried by the IRA after she was accused of being an informer.
Bell’s lawyer said Bell was innocent, but acknowledged that Bell was the man referred to as Mr. Z in a series of tape-recorded interviews made by a researcher hired by BC to compile recollections of republicans and loyalists who fought in Northern Ireland.
That researcher, former Irish Republican Army volunteer and prisoner Anthony McIntyre, told me from Ireland that he expects police to knock on his door any day. If they do, they’ll be wasting their time. “I wouldn’t even tell them hello,” he said.
Neither will Bell, 77, who was a senior IRA commander before his star dimmed…
Bell was among a group of IRA veterans who opposed the compromise accepted by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1998, effectively ending the Troubles.
Now, police would love Bell to implicate his former comrade turned foe, Adams, who has repeatedly denied involvement in McConville’s murder. Adams says BC naively allowed McIntyre, who openly opposed his leadership, to interview former IRA members who were inclined to implicate him for political reasons.
McConville’s children believe that Adams was behind their mother’s murder and insist he face justice. But this debacle has never been about justice. It’s about politics, specifically about sticking it to Adams and his party…
…the prosecution is so biased and politically motivated as to undermine all credibility.
The police in Northern Ireland have shown no interest in the other half of the oral history project: interviews with loyalists, who presumably could shed light on state-sanctioned murders they carried out with the covert assistance of the police and British military.
Ed Moloney, the journalist who oversaw the Belfast Project paid for and archived by Boston College, called Bell’s arrest “a cheap publicity stunt” by police and prosecutors who know that the oral histories, given to an academic by people who were neither under oath nor given legal warnings about self-incrimination, will not stand up as evidence in court.
As critical as he is of the authorities in Northern Ireland, Moloney said it wouldn’t have gotten this far if the US Department of Justice had rebuffed British authorities who asked their American counterparts to gain custody of the BC tapes, or if BC officials were willing to risk fines and even imprisonment to defy the government.
What a mess. An American university has been unwittingly and unwillingly used by a foreign government, with the acquiescence of the US government, to build a criminal case.
Oral history and academic freedom are dead and gone.”
The author Ed Moloney has suggested on several occasions that the pursuit of the forty-year old McConville case by Britain, and particularly by the PSNI or the British paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland, has more to do with the settling of old scores than any concerns over justice delayed. During the Irish-British conflict from the late 1960s to the early 2000s the RUC, the much-feared predecessor to the PSNI, incurred thousands of casualties amongst its officers while combating the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and others. Though that came to an end with the Peace Process of the late-to-mid 1990s the negotiated settlement also brought about an end to the RUC. However despite promised reforms many hardcore RUC men were kept within the ranks of the new PSNI or subsequently rejoined it when the political spotlight moved on to elsewhere. Under their influence, and that of some senior British government officials, retribution upon former opponents has become a primary impulse of law and order in the north-eastern region of Ireland.
This post-conflict vendetta is one that anti-Sinn Féin elements of the Irish and British media have proven eager to pursue with little thought for the consequences (which in this case is a not inconceivable eruption of renewed armed conflict). Nor is SF itself blameless. Elected members of the party, notably Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have been less than honest with their electorates and the Irish people as whole. While there were good reasons for their obfuscation during and in the immediate aftermath of the war those reasons are looking increasingly threadbare now that we have had over a decade of (near) peace. Furthermore Sinn Féin’s willingness to see former, now rival, Republican comrades and colleagues thrown to the PSNI wolves is less than edifying.
All this is not to excuse the Republican movement of any wrongdoing when it comes to the central issue of Jean McConville’s death. It is clear that after a considerable debate McConville was executed/killed/murdered by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army on the orders of senior officers within the organisation, her body hidden and her relatives left with no (honest) account of what had happened. Repeated claims by the news media in Ireland and elsewhere that McConville was killed because she had lent aid to a British soldier wounded outside her home by a sniper are completely unfounded. It simply never happened, as a 2006 investigation by the Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan made clear. Indeed the belief that such a gesture of simple human decency would elicit the ultimate penalty says much about the wilful ignorance of the conflict by observers both in Dublin and London. While the O’Loan examination went on to find no evidence of McConville communicating with the British Forces, and specifically denied that she was a known informer, it did reveal that the British Army had initially insisted that her disappearance was a hoax or later that she had willingly deserted her children and was living elsewhere in Ireland. Whether that reflected poor intelligence or something more sinister has never been established (certainly such rumours may have originated with the IRA in an effort to confuse any potential investigation though local people were aware of her execution and the reasons behind it within weeks).
Unfortunately Britain has prevented access to selected British Army records relating to this period by journalists and members of the McConville family which is why so much of the case remains in the realms of speculation. In an unprecedented move the so-called “war diaries” of the First Gloucestershire Regiment, which was garrisoned in the Divis area of Belfast where McConvile lived, have been placed under an embargo until 2059. Of the nine British Army units to have toured in the locality during the early 1970s the “Glosters” are the only unit to have its records sealed for a remarkable span of one hundred years. To compound the suspicions of many the Gloucestershire Regiment was noted in contemporary media accounts for its “gung-ho” counter-insurgency tactics, actively confronting both Republicans and the civilian population in general, while boasting within army circles of its intelligence gathering capabilities. Remarkably in 2012 the former ombudsperson Nuala O’Loan admitted that the existence of the Gloucestershire war diaries were kept hidden from her initial 2006 investigation and that they now must be made public.
However, that aside, we do know that back in the early 1970s no serious investigation was carried out by the RUC into Jean McConville’s disappearance until some considerable time after her death (and that the subsequent investigation was thrown off track by the misinformation supplied by the British military – and the First Gloucestershire Regiment in particular – despite the RUC’s more informed sources who correctly guessed what had happened). The evident reluctance of the British to address the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972/3 remains the subject of much discussion, both fair and unfair.
A rare photograph of a soldier from the First Gloucestershire Regiment taken inside the Divis flats, Belfast 1972, the home of Jean McConville. The “walkie-talkie” radio he is using is of the same type that McConville was allegedly caught with by (P)IRA, possibly a Stornophone model.
The Irish Republican Army is adamant in its counter-claim that Jean McConville was a paid informer who had been arrested and warned about her activities following the discovery of a British-supplied military radio transmitter (a so-called “walkie-talkie“) in her possession several weeks before her death. Though we cannot be sure it seems likely that she was seized by the IRA’s Belfast Brigade the day before her known disappearance, interrogated (perhaps beaten) and then released, almost certainly in relation to the uncovering of a replacement radio transmitter at her home. That would match British military reports and statements from some of her family relating to the discovery of a woman likely to be McConville in streets near her home in a state of some distress and confusion the day before she was abducted. With overwhelming evidence of her spying in its hands the local Brigade HQ Staff of the IRA discussed what to do next, in part spurred on by fears that Jean McConville would be spirited away to safety by the British now that her cover was truly blown or that she had further knowledge to impart to the enemy (her son, Robert McConville, was a member of the Official IRA and detained in the infamous Long Kesh concentration camp at the time of her death. During this period the OIRA and PIRA were bitter rivals, especially in Belfast and McConville remained a committed Republican activist going on to serve with the insurgent INLA).
Jean McConville’s refusal to heed the warnings given her and suspicions that her actions had already caused losses led to a majority favouring the death penalty. This resulted in her seizure the next day by female Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and her eventual transportation across the border to the spot where she was shot dead and buried in a pre-dug grave. Or at least we can suppose that is the sequence of events. The truth is, of course, that everything to do with the killing of Jean McConville is supposition. We simply don’t know what happened during that dreadful period some forty years ago. However, as yet, no one has produced a plausible reason for the controversial killing of a mother of ten from an intensely close-knit community beyond that offered by the killers themselves. Nor have the circumstances surrounding the uncovering of her alleged spying been examined in any detail with some fingers pointing to family members as the source for the IRA’s information about her covert activities. Finally, if the allegations did prove true what of the British Army’s role in persuading an impoverished widow to risk her own life in return for financial gain, even after she had been discovered by the very people she was informing on?
The only legitimate way to end yet more years of speculation and anguish for the McConville family is for the governments of Ireland and Britain to agree a general amnesty that will allow all participants to the conflict, willing or otherwise, to give truthful testimonies free of fear or repercussion. Only then will we learn the truth about Jean McConville. Or about Gerry Adams.