The New Yorker magazine has a long, if occasionally flawed, investigation into the 1972 detention and execution – which one can alternatively read as kidnapping and murder – by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army of the suspected British Army informer Jean McConville, during one of the worse years of the 1966-2005 “Troubles”. The thirty-eight-year-old recently widowed mother of ten children was taken at gunpoint from her home in the battle-scarred Divis Flats complex of West Belfast in December of 1972 by female volunteers or guerrilla-fighters of the IRA acting under the orders of the city’s Brigade Headquarters’ Staff, driven across the “border” to County Louth and, following a brief and perhaps brutal interrogation, executed with a single gunshot to the back of the head. Her body was buried in a secret beachside grave and her family were never formally informed of her death.
Jean McConville’s fate had been determined some days earlier at a meeting of the aforementioned HQ Staff of the Belfast Brigade following the revelation that she had been supplied with a “walkie-talkie” style radio transmitter by intelligence officers of the notoriously “gung-ho” First Gloucestershire Regiment of the British Army which was then on a tour of duty in the neighbourhood. This was in fact the second such incident involving McConville. Throughout the autumn and winter of 1972 she had been under surveillance by the IRA after a previous search of her home had revealed a similar military transmitter.
Under questioning the widow – who had lost her husband in January to cancer, leaving her impoverished and with a developing drinking problem – admitted spying for the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces in return for money. This was considered particularly shocking because her son, Robert “Robbie” McConville, was a volunteer of the rival (Official) Irish Republican Army, and had been recently imprisoned by the British in the infamous Long Kesh concentration camp, just outside the city (by 1974 he was a member of the Irish National Liberation Army or INLA, a guerrilla splinter which grew out of ideological divisions within the OIRA).
Reluctant to kill a clearly desperate woman – not least because of the adverse publicity it would engender – the Belfast HQ Staff allowed McConville to live, albeit with a warning of fatal consequences should she be caught spying again. By December their patience was ended and after a short discussion over “banishment” versus “execution” her death was ordered through a majority vote. Among those supporting the latter option was the Brigade OC or officer commanding, Gerry Adams. However the manner of her killing was hotly debated. There were continuing fears that the acknowledged detention and killing by the Irish Republican Army of a widowed mother of ten children (including a young political prisoner) would have a disastrous effect on support for the movement; that it would be exploited by Britain’s well-oiled propaganda-machine, as well as insurgent rivals in the OIRA; and that the slaying could reduce morale among local volunteers.
In the end those favouring a “public execution” were out-voted by those supporting a secret death sentence and “disappearance”, a solution some argued would have the added benefit of sowing confusion amongst their adversaries in the UK intelligence groupings. This was a practice that was already beginning to take root – albeit intermittently and with a great deal of controversy – in the city. In this decision it seems that Gerry Adams was again in the majority camp.
Following Jean McConville’s disappearance chaos reigned amongst her family. A long-delayed investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC, the United Kingdom’s hated paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland, uncovered virtually nothing, meeting a wall of communal silence in the Irish nationalist community of West Belfast. Though some officers suspected her kidnap and killing by the IRA a campaign of misinformation by British Army intelligence to cover up their role in the whole affair, spreading rumours that the widowed mother had abandoned her children for a new lover, added to the confusion that hung over the case. Within months the halfhearted RUC investigation was closed down and it would take another three decades and a peace process for the McConville family to uncover some of the the truth and the hidden remains of their mother.
In reading the New Yorker article some points should be born in mind:
1) Jean McConvile was not killed by the Irish Republican Army because she supposedly rendered aid to a British soldier who had been wounded or injured outside her flat in Divis. Several different – and in places widely variant – versions of this story exist none of which have been verified, despite a significant number of investigations by journalists, politicians and notably Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2007. In fact the weight of evidence makes it clear that no such incident involving Jean McConville ever occurred.
2) The IRA has claimed for many years that before her death Jean McConville was discovered to be in the possession of two radio transmitters supplied to her by intelligence officers attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment of the British Army. These were described as “walkie-talkie” radios, possibly Stornophone models, which she had secreted in her home. Despite counter-claims that such devices were not in use by the UK military in Belfast during this period recently uncovered photographic evidence shows soldiers with the “Glosters” using these radios in the Divis Flats in 1972. The very year McConville was killed.
3) Though a 2006 report by Baroness O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, concluded that there was no record of Jean McConville acting as a paid informer for the British Forces, this did not exonerate her. It is clear that there was a considerable effort by the United Kingdom to cover up its part in her violent end, spreading false stories about her whereabouts, hampering RUC investigations, and dissuading her family from pursuing their case. In part this seems to have been driven by the need to deny the IRA any formal confirmation of its “successes” in thwarting British intelligence operations in Belfast during a period of escalating espionage and counterespionage. Just three months before McConville’s death the Republican Army had created panic among the covert elements of the UK Forces in Belfast through a series of deadly attacks on undercover troops in the city. These included members of the notorious Military Reaction Force or MRF, a British death squad whose members later boasted of working as “terrorists” during the period. Subsequently the gathering of information by field agents or local sources effectively dried up making “human assets” like McConville all the more important. This perhaps explains the UK insistence that she kept spying even when her role was known to the IRA.
4) The revelation that the “war diaries” of the First Gloucestershire Regiment, the combat records of the British unit when it was garrisoned in West Belfast during the early to mid-1970s, have been placed under a sealed embargo for an unprecedented eighty-four years has led many to conclude that they must contain some references to Jean McConville. Among those demanding that the United Kingdom’s government open them up as part of a new investigation are Baroness Nuala O’Loan and members of the McConville family.
5) The two journalists and writers most associated in the public mind with charting the history of the “disappeared” and Jean McConville in particular, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, have both stated that they have an open-mind on the allegations that the middle-aged woman was a paid informer for the British Forces. [Update 11.03.2015: The writer Anthony McIntyre, who carried out much of the research that formed the basis for the book “Voices From The Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland”, has been in touch to state that he does indeed believe that Jean McConville was a paid informer for the UK Armed Forces at the time of her death in 1972]
6) While Jean McConville is claimed to have acknowledged during two interrogations that she received payments from the British Army to spy on her local community in the Divis Flats area we cannot know for sure what other pressures were placed on her to act as an informer. She was a recent, grieving widow with several young children in a district known for its endemic poverty, apparently lacking any financial resources of her own. Her son, Robert, was a captured insurgent in the feared Long Kesh prison-camp, a place synonymous with the torture and ill-treatment of inmates. It may well be that McConville was initially persuaded to co-operate with the UK services in order to ameliorate the conditions of her son’s incarceration, or perhaps achieve his early release, as well as seeking support for her other children. Once trapped inside the intelligence war she was not permitted to escape, even when her activities were uncovered. One can only imagine what threats or inducements were used to force her to continue in her role of paid informer.
7) There are very few people in Ireland who believe that Gerry Adams was not a volunteer of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army from the 1970s to late 1990s or early 2000s. It is generally accepted that he was a senior member and strategist of the organisation, rising up through the ranks from the Belfast Brigade to the GHQ Staff and Army Council by the end of his military career. He almost certainly was amongst the group of officers who ordered the secret execution and burial of Jean McConville in December of 1972. However the truth about the events of that year, and Adams’ role in it, can only become clear under the aegis of a general amnesty in relation to all actions during the course of the Long War, whether the participants were British or Irish.