The IRA, Human Rights and the McConville case

The IRA is taking serious heat over the abduction and killing of Jean McConville 34 years ago. This controversy has been bubbling under for some time. Back in January 2005, whilst Mitchel McLaughlin both emphasised the importance of the Finucane murder, and the Dublin/Monaghan bombing and, at the same time, famously asserted that the killing of Jean McConville was not a crime. The family has been campaigning squarely on the single issue of their mother’s innocence for some ten years. This story has come back into prominence because the Police Ombudsman was asked by the family to investigate the IRA’s longstanding claim that she was an informer. She concluded:

“We have looked very extensively at all the intelligence available at the time,” she said. “There is no evidence that Mrs McConville gave information to the police, the military or the security service. She was not an informant.”

The IRA have since claimed that she was: the news of which has taken off round the world like wildfire. The intention, perhaps, to calm the nerves of their overseas supporters, already rattled by the McCartney debacle of last year.

Blogger Chris Gaskin accepts the IRA statement, but believes that the actions of what came after was and remains questionable. Tim Worstall believes the statement that McConville was not an informer. P O’Neill reckons the IRA’s statement is a case of protecting ‘someone”s honour internally. However, as Saoirse32 points out, a version, supportive of the IRA line, is told in full (starts fifth paragraph down) in Ed Moloney’s book, A Secret History of the IRA. Moloney takes up the ‘story’:

“Everyone knew who the IRA in Divis Flats were; they walked around with guns and so on,” remembered one of their number [IRA]. For the British Army it soon became a priority to place a reliable spotter in the flats who could warn them of IRA activity and planned ambushes. Jean McConville agreed to be one of those spotters, but by all accounts she was not very good at her job and showed a too obvious interest in the IRA’s affairs.

It was not long before the local unit tired of her unending questions and began to suspect her. Her apartment was raided, and sure enough the IRA found a radio transmitter that she had been using to communicate with the British Army. “It was taken off her, and she was warned never to do that again; she was a woman and a mother of a large family, and so we let her off,” explained one IRA member familiar with the events. But it was just that, a warning. Next time, she was told, there would be no warning.

Inexplicably McConville went back to spying on the IRA, this time with fateful consequences. Although by this stage the British Army must have been aware that the IRA knew all about her activities and that she was now in terrible danger, her handlers carried on regardless and supplied with a second transmitter. Her spying recommenced, and it did not take long before the IRA worked out that she was back in business, once more betraying IRA volunteers and operations.

This is in direct contradiction of the findings of the Ombudsman’s report. It seems inconceiveable that there would be no trace of this kind of low level intelligence gathering in military files. Indeed, the family tells a very different story. Speaking on Morning Ireland this morning, Michael says the first time they came to the IRA’s attention was when his mother went out to tend a dying British soldier shot outside her front door. Their flat was graffittied the following morning, with the accusation that McConville was a ‘Brit-lover’.

McConville, a widow with ten children, was forceably abducted in front of her kids, and subsequently killed by the IRA towards the end of the same year, 1972. It’s not yet clear whether she died during interrogation or was deliberately executed as an informer. But for an organisation which has spent years carefully crafting a reputation for honestyand reliablity, the IRA has done itself no favours in denying it had anything to do with McConville’s disappearance right up until the point (according to Moloney) that Bill Clinton took a personal interest in the case, some twenty years after her death.

Even though it took place in Northern Ireland’s bloodiest year on record, it is difficult to understate the tragedy of this case. McConville was brought up as a Protestant in East Belfast. She converted to Catholicism after marrying her husband. The family only moved to the Republican West Belfast stronghold of Divis Flats a few years before, after being intimidated out of their previous home by Loyalists. In the wake of the abduction her children were left in the care of her 14 year old daughter Helen. According to one report none of the neighbours dared speak to the children for five weeks after her disappearance.

This story keeps breaking primarily because of the efforts of her family not to let the story remain incomplete. But it also fascinates because of the speculation over Gerry Adams’ role in events. He says he was not involved. But others (Moloney included) argue that because of his senior position in the Belfast IRA of the time, he had to have known about it, even if only afterwards.

Whether, as alleged by one well-informed source, or not the order was given by Adams himself, it is inconceivable that such an order would have been issued without his knowledge.

The absence of any verifiable information from the IRA has only intensified that speculation. In recent years a kind of grudging acceptance has emerged that the State should be held to account for its past transgressions (even though it continues to fight a vigorous rearguard action on certain cases). However, whilst it has long been recognised that Human Rights are unenforceable on the high seas, it would appear they are similarly limited when it comes to expecting accountability from the IRA for its own past ‘mistakes’.

Jean McConville’s family will find the IRA a much tougher nut to crack than the British government has so far proved.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty