This photograph is all that Helen McKendry has left of her mother Jean. Accused of being an informer, she was dragged out of her house in 1972 by a masked gang. Inquiries about her fate have been answered with a gun in the face. Jean was just one of the people killed by the IRA and disposed of in secret. Now the IRA has said it may reveal where the bodies are buried - on condition that no one is prosecuted. It's a bitter solution. But Helen is already preparing the flowers to put on her mother's grave
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The Independent Culture
Helen McKendry was just 15 when the IRA "disappeared" her mother. They came after dark, eight men and four women, wearing masks so her children would not recognise them. They dragged her from the bathroom of her maisonette in Belfast's notorious Divis flats and, in spite of the children's screams, bundled her into a waiting car. When her 16-year-old son, Arthur, tried to intervene, a gun was put to his head and he was told to "fuck off". It was shortly before Christmas 1972, and it was the last time that the children saw their mother, dead or alive.

It was a cowardly abduction, carried out because of dubious claims that Jean McConville was an informer, and it left 10 youngsters without a mother, without even a grave to mourn her.

Mrs McConville is one of Northern Ireland's "disappeared", a group of between nine and 14 individuals who were killed by the IRA and buried in secret. Until recently, few people knew that the Troubles had spawned this category of person - after all, this wasn't Chile under Pinochet or Argentina under the military junta. But try telling that to Helen McKendry.

Last week the IRA admitted for the first time that Mrs McConville had been taken by volunteers. Its Army Council said she was one of nine people the IRA had killed and buried for a variety of reasons between 1972 and 1981, "enemies" forgotten by everyone except the loved ones they left behind (others whom the IRA does not admit to went missing as late as 1986).

The Army Council said that it had located their graves and indicated that it would divulge the locations if the Irish and the British governments agreed that no prosecutions would follow. For Mrs McKendry, the announcement held out the cathartic possibility that she may finally be able to lay her mother to rest after more than 26 years.

"The night before they killed her, they took her from the local bingo hall for `interrogation'," she said. "They held her for hours and beat her, claiming she was an informer. But that was nonsense. Somehow, she got away and was found by the Army, wandering barefoot and confused. It was freezing cold, 6 December.

"The Army took her to the barracks in Albert Street and tried to make some sense out of what had happened. They came and asked me to collect her. When I got to the door of the barracks I could hear her screaming, but she insisted on coming home to look after us."

Mrs McConville had been a Protestant but converted to Catholicism when she married her husband, Arthur. They had lived for a time in a predominantly Protestant area but left at gunpoint in 1969 when the Troubles were in their infancy. The people of the Divis did not trust the former "Prod", but her husband protected her. However, a year before her abduction, he died of cancer, leaving her with 10 children at the age of 37.

"They had had their eyes on her for several months," said Mrs McKendry. "A soldier had been shot outside the flats, and she had gone down and put a pillow under his head and prayed with him until he died. Well, you just didn't do that there. That made her very unpopular."

The day after her "interrogation", Mrs McConville tried to restore an air of normality to her home and her traumatised children. Despite her injuries she spent the day looking after them, and was running herself a bath at about 6pm.

"She asked me to pop out to the shops, and they came while I was away. I didn't even get to say goodbye to her," said Mrs McKendry. "There were eight men and four women, and they dragged her from the bathroom - it didn't matter to them that there were children screaming and crying and hanging on to her.

"They said they were only taking her for a few hours. My elder brother, Arthur, followed them down to a waiting car, but they wouldn't let him go along. One of the men pulled a gun and put it to his head and told him to eff off.

"They had been wearing masks but they took them off once they got outside. Arthur knew who some of them were, but he has never said who and he never will - or the same thing might happen to him."

After the abduction, the children simply waited. They were too afraid to call the police. As well as Arthur and Helen, there were the twins, Billy and Jim, aged six, Suzanne, seven, Thomas, eight, Mickey, 11, and Agnes, 13. The oldest daughter, 19-year-old Anne, who was mentally handicapped, was in hospital at the time; the oldest son, Robert, was in prison, jailed on his 17th birthday along with hundreds of other Catholic youths under internment.

"We just waited for her to come home, but she never did," said Mrs McKendry. "One or two of the neighbours came in with food and another gave us some little Christmas presents, but mostly we were ignored.

"The IRA put the word round that my mother had run off with a British soldier and abandoned us. People would come up to us in the street and say our mother was a whore who didn't want us. Over the years, some of the young ones began to believe that, and we had to keep reminding them that it wasn't true. The idea that she was an informer was ridiculous. If she was one of their informers, would the Army really have released her after the first beating? Of course not.

"We heard nothing about my mother, and then just after Christmas a man knocked on our door. He had my mother's purse. Her three rings were inside it. He said he knew nothing about her and had simply been asked to give us the purse. And that was all we had left of our mother."

Helen did her best to look after the other children, but eventually they were taken into care with the promise, quickly broken, that they would be kept together. All their possessions were taken away; Helen managed to salvage a grainy photograph of herself with her mother.

On her 16th birthday, Helen was given pounds 1 by the Sisters of Nazareth, who had been looking after her, and told to go and make her own way in the world. She relied on friends for help and kept in touch, when she could, with her brothers and sisters at a variety of homes. Fortunately she had met a young man, Seamus McKendry, who had been working at the home, and they were married at the age of 18.

Ever since that day Mr McKendry has done everything possible to locate his wife's mother. "Every time I was in a bar or a pub I would ask what people knew," he said. "Often I was ignored or cold-shouldered or threatened. I've had a gun in the face more than once."

The breakthrough came in 1994 with an IRA ceasefire imminent. Mr McKendry decided to tackle Sinn Fein head on. He walked into their headquarters and, to his relief, saw that a man he knew was on reception. "I told him that I didn't want to affect the chances of a ceasefire, but that we would go public if they didn't help us. He told me to come back in three weeks, but when I did he pretended not to know me or what I was talking about."

Undeterred, the McKendrys went on radio to tell their story - and the results were astonishing. The people of Northern Ireland were jolted out of fearful silence and the relatives of other "disappeared" people came forward. Soon, a rough list - disputed in parts by the IRA - emerged. There was Charles Armstrong, 55, abducted on his way to mass in 1981; Gerald Evans, 24, who vanished in 1979; Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright, both taken from their homes in Andersonstown in October 1972; John McClory and Brian McKinney, aged 17 and 22, who disappeared in 1978; John McIlroy and a second Seamus Wright, taken in 1974; Columba McVeigh, 17, missing since 1985; Brendan Megraw, 24, abducted by nine men in 1975; Sean Murphy, 25, taken in 1986; Seamus Ruddy, 33, a republican activist killed by associates in France in 1985; and, finally, the SAS captain Robert Nairac, who disappeared from a south Armagh pub in 1977.

The IRA now says that it has located nine of the graves, but it has signalled that it will go no further until it receives a commitment that no prosecutions will follow the recovery of remains and any forensic evidence that digging produces. The Irish and British governments have agreed in principle, but legislation may be needed before Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, can waive the right to prosecute. Meanwhile, the families of the disappeared are in limbo.

"It's just so cruel," said Mrs McKendry. "They're not satisfied with sticking the knife in; they want to twist it."

However, with or without IRA help, Mrs McKendry may soon be able to give her mother a decent burial. Recently, through a series of anonymous telephone calls from clearly guilty participants, she has been able to piece together her mother's last hours.

She found that a terrified Jean McConville was "interrogated" at a house in Beechmount, now a desperately run-down area of Catholic Belfast that then boasted new housing. "Other houses were being built nearby at the time, so our guess is that they buried her under there," said Mrs McKendry. "Now those houses are falling apart, and they will be demolished soon. So I hope then that her remains will be found and we can bury her."

Last week, for the first time since they were taken into care, Jean McConville's children gathered together in one room - only Anne, who died of a stroke in 1992, was missing - and they planned their mother's funeral. If it ever takes place, it will be at Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel in Dunmurry, south of Belfast, because, like Mrs McConville, it was once Protestant and is now Catholic.

There will probably be a horse-drawn hearse to take Mrs McConville's remains to the Catholic Milltown cemetery, so that the American tourists can look at her grave as well as those of the men of violence who lie in the cemetery. The children have even chosen the flowers.

"There are some things that I can't remember about her," said Mrs McKendry. "But I do remember that my mother liked carnations and lilies, so we'll get some of those to put on her grave."