Jean McConville murder: The Protestant-turned-Catholic mother of 10 executed by the IRA – but not found for 31 years
It was not until 1998 that the IRA said they accepted full responsibility, promising to do all in their power to alleviate the 'incalculable pain and anguish' inflicted
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Thursday 01 May 2014
When Jean McConville was done to death by the IRA in 1972 Northern Ireland was one of the most dangerous places in Europe. Although she was one of almost 500 people who died violently in that year, her story was one of particular horror.
The bullet fired into the back of her head not only ended her life but condemned her orphaned children - 10 of them - to disturbed lifetimes scarred by pain and trauma.
It was once remarked that "the bullet just travels on for years through time" but in the case of the McConville family a single shot caused a tremendous amount of damage.
A slight woman who stood less than five feet tall, Jean McConville was a Protestant who became a Catholic on marrying her husband. Intimidated out of a Protestant area, they moved into the republican Falls Road district which was blighted by the twin ravages of violence and deprivation.
The couple, who lived in a small flat, had 10 children before her husband died. Less than a year later the IRA accused her of passing information to the army and she was abducted by a large gang of male and female IRA members.
"Four girls dragged her from the bathroom at gunpoint," her daughter, Helen McKendry, recalled. "The twins, who were only six at the time, were clinging to her, screaming to the women to let her go but they took her anyway. All we ever got back were her rings and her purse." The children were terrified and in hysterics.
She was never seen alive again. An additional gratuitous cruelty was that the IRA never admitted they murdered her: in fact, stories were circulated locally that she had deserted her family - she had probably, it was said, run away with a soldier.
Eight of the family were taken into care, with the family split up and scattered to various homes and orphanages. Many of them had deeply disturbed childhoods. "Some of them have got into trouble," according to Ms McKendry. "Others have had problems forming relationships. It ruined us."
Her brother Michael recalled: "I could quite easily have wound up being a thug, because that's what you learned in the homes. The IRA had ruined my life as a child, but I promised myself it wouldn't ruin my life as an adult."
It was more than two decades later, after the IRA declared its 1994 ceasefire, that the story of Jean McConville and the other Disappeared surfaced, to general astonishment and horror. Even then the IRA stonewalled. It took sustained political and public pressure before they admitted what they had done and revealed where some of the bodies were buried. Despite large-scale searches a number have yet to be found.
It was not until 1998 that the IRA said they accepted full responsibility, promising to do all in their power to alleviate the "incalculable pain and anguish" inflicted.
Mrs McConville's body was discovered on a southern beach in 2003, bringing some small element of closure to her family.
As president of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams has met members of the family and other affected families, promising to address their concerns. His personal position is that he was never a member of the IRA and had nothing to do with the Disappeared.
In the last few years however his name has increasingly been linked with the McConville case. A number of veteran republicans who were active in the 1970s admitted they were involved in the McConville disappearance, and claimed that she was killed on the orders of Adams.
A number of these gave interviews to an oral history project run by Boston College, on the understanding that their contents would not be divulged during their lifetimes.
But the US authorities launched protracted and ultimately successful legal proceedings which resulted in the college handing over tape recordings to the British security forces.
In recent weeks police in Belfast, having sifted through the college material, have made seven arrests in connection with the McConville killing. Five people, three men and two women, have been released without charge while a sixth, a veteran republican, has been charged with aiding and abetting. Gerry Adams is the seventh person to be arrested.
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