The Ghost that cries for justice
Could allegations in a new book about the death of Jean McConville come back to haunt Gerry Adams? Malachi O’Doherty investigates
The only image most of us have of Jean McConville is of the sallow and tired face of a mother in black and white.
Her destiny was already a difficult one before she became an embarrassment to the IRA and she can never have imagined that she would be one of the most talked about victims of the Troubles 40 years after her death.
And IRA leader Gerry Adams, who back then spent much of his time dodging between safe houses, occasionally to clean up for meetings with British diplomats and even ministers to negotiate ceasefire terms, must equally have thought it unlikely that that single IRA operation against a woman would stalk him down the decades, long after more urgent and dangerous and bloody missions were forgotten. Belfast in 1972 was almost incomprehensibly different from today.
Many people at that time behaved in ways which they would not easily be able to explain to those who weren't there. Life in Divis flats, where the widow Jean McConville was raising her children alone, was described to me back then, by a caretaker, as “hell with the lid off”.
I interviewed him for the Sunday News, where I was a reporter. He described to me how the flats were virtually run by the IRA; how they would order him to turn off the landing lights when they planned to open fire on the Army.
The debate about the fate of Jean McConville, murdered by the IRA and dumped 50 miles away from home, their guilty secret, hinges on two separate understandings of how she reacted to the chaos around her.
The IRA and some journalists close to the story say that Jean was an informer.
Her family say that she was murdered by the IRA for going to the help of a wounded soldier. I don't know which, if either, of these stories is true.
But Jean McConville was not bound by the rules of the IRA. As a mother of small children living in a flats complex which the IRA was routinely vandalising and launching attacks from, she was under no legal or moral or traditional onus to protect the gunmen and bombers who swarmed around her home and made life as difficult for people who lived in Divis Flats as for those outside.
If she chose to help the police, to side with the state against armed insurrection, that was a rational and respectable choice.
It would have marked her as very different from the many others around who would have seen it as simple common sense to pretend to see nothing and to say nothing.
Those who say that anyone who would have behaved in that way was an informer, speak from the values of the paramilitaries themselves. Most of us who lived in areas saturated by the paramilitaries were not given the option of reflecting on the question as a matter of individual conscience. We knew the rules. It is no particular credit to us that we kept them.
So if Jean McConville was reporting IRA activity to the police, that is no stain on her character.
The other version of why the IRA killed her is that she ran to the aid of a wounded soldier.
For what it is worth, I am acquainted of a similar incident in an equally troubled area of Belfast at the same time.
When a soldier was injured by a tripwire bomb in my own front garden, my mother, a trained nurse, rushed out to give him medical aid.
The British Army, tactless as usual, delivered a bunch of flowers to her at home, as an expression of gratitude.
No criticism was levelled against my mother for doing that, though we lived in close proximity to the IRA gang which had planted that bomb and which had, throughout much of 1972, walked the streets with guns, shooting at army patrols with almost carnival abandon.
That is not to say that the story about the shooting of Jean McConville, which regards it as revenge for her helping an injured soldier, is untrue; but it tells me that the IRA was not consistently vengeful against those who did nurse wounded soldiers at that time.
A fuller version of the circumstances around the shooting of Jean McConville is anticipated in a book to be published next month.
Voices From The Grave by Ed Moloney is expected to feature an account of the detention and murder of Jean McConville as told by Brendan Hughes, who was a senior member of the IRA at that time.
Nicknamed The Dark, Hughes in later life suffered deep remorse over much of what he had done. Among other things, he blamed himself for the hunger strikes of 1981, which he felt would not have proceeded had he held a firm resolve and maintained an earlier hunger strike and allowed his own men to die.
He called it off after going without food himself for 53 days.
Hughes was among a number of republicans who rejected the peace strategy of Gerry Adams and saw an insufferable disjunct between the goals which they had thought justified slaughter and the terms finally settled on.
Hughes has already spoken extensively about his experience. He described to journalist Peter Taylor how a British soldier, Gary Barlow, had got separated from the foot patrol he was on and had been beaten and shot with his own weapon.
Hughes said he pitied the man because he had just been a boy who had cried for his mother. He said that even years later he did not feel good about it.
He also described how he was arrested along with Gerry Adams and Tom Cahill. He shocked Taylor with the details of the savage beating he had taken from British soldiers and which Taylor had been loth to believe until he had confirmed the story with his own Army contacts.
He also described how he had escaped from Long Kesh and established a new identity for himself as a toy salesman called Arthur McAllister. In that role he directed much of the bombing of Belfast.
Ironically, his willingness to wear a suit while at war was deployed as an analogy for the Sinn Fein strategy of going into party politics and Stormont, years later at a debate in Conway Mill. The analogy doesn't quite hold.
Voices From The Grave is based on interviews which Brendan Hughes gave to Boston College, on the understanding that no details would be published until after he had died.
When he was dying, Gerry Adams went to his bedside to be identified with an old comrade who had shared time in prison with him. Adams knew by then that Hughes was disillusioned and regarded the struggle as having been a failure.
Gerry Adams had been insisting for years that he had not actually been a member of the IRA himself. Some have expressed cynical thoughts about why Adams would have rushed to be with Hughes who had rejected his strategy, but it is also possible that identifying himself with Hughes was as close as Adams felt he could go towards acknowledging his bond to the men who had killed so many for the IRA.
Another one of those who has criticised the Adams compromise is former bomber Dolours Price whose period of greatest activity within the IRA was that same time, the early 1970s.
Brendan Hughes had the goods on all of them and we will not know until the book appears just how frank he has been.
It seems highly unlikely that he preserved the conceit to the end that Gerry Adams was not an IRA leader at that time.
Dolours Price has said candidly that he was her commanding officer.
That means that he is the one who sent her to bomb London with Gerry Kelly and her sister Marion.
As committed republicans Hughes and Price must have reconciled their decisions to identify Adams as an IRA officer with the IRA code that declares that an offence worthy of execution.
Certainly, Jean McConville, like her near neighbours at that time, would have known that had they passed on such information, they would have died for it. That makes
Jean McConville, if she was passing information to the police, either very brave or very reckless. She would not have got much in exchange, however, for the information that Gerry Adams was an IRA leader back then. It was common knowledge.
In the summer of 1972, he met in Donegal with British diplomat Philip Woodfield to argue for, among other things, the right of IRA members to bear arms during a coming ceasefire.
Woodfield had declared himself impressed by the young warlord and told him he hoped he would give up his fight and go to university.
Adams had been released from prison for that meeting and a further meeting in London between the IRA leadership and William Whitelaw.
He would be back inside the next spring, scooped alongside Brendan Hughes.
Much of what the IRA did in the intervening months, when Jean McConville was kidnapped, shot and buried, was their responsibility.