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.

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  • Pete Baker

    A couple of quotes stand out in the Irish Times report, firstly the anonymous SF spokesman:

    A Sinn Féin spokesman said: “The IRA have said what the IRA have said. Sinn Féin have said what Sinn Féin have said and that’s all we are going to say about it.”

    and secondly from an anonymous Irish government spokesman:

    Politicians in Belfast and Dublin heaped scorn on the IRA statement. But Taoiseach Bertie Ahern refused to be drawn on the issue. “The Taoiseach will not be making any comment on it,” a Government spokesman said yesterday.

    Another example of a lack of clarity and courage?

  • Nevin

    [i]Following a public request from the family of Jean McConville the IRA carried out a thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding her death.

    That investigation confirmed that Jean McConville was working as an informer for the British army.

    The conclusion of this investigation was reported to Michael McConville.[/i]

    I suppose ‘P O’Neill’ could pass a copy of the official report to the Police Ombudsman …

    PS What’s stopping Bertie Ahern nailing his colours to the mast?

  • Wasn’t P O’Neill Seanna Walsh, friend of Denis Donaldson? His report would add to our stock of knowledge all right.

  • Mick Fealty

    You are one stroke away from a banning Taigs. Play the ball!! Or get off the pitch!!!

  • Rory

    It is indeed true, as Mick says, “that Human Rights are unenforceable on the high seas”. But as the Human Rights legislation are a set of accords between and, by agreed compliance, enforcible on, sovereign states, the High Seas can be taken to include all other non=government agencies and those sovereign states which simply refuse to comply such as China and the USA. So I believe that an attempt to smear a body such as the IRA with non-compliance is disingenuous to say the least.

    That said, I do strongly believe that there is a overiding human rights concern here that attaches itself in the main to Mrs McConville’s children and more widely to her community and further to the wider community and that is a requirement by the IRA to make a renewed effort to fully and openly explain the circumstances of this abduction and killing. The issue will not go away and is damaging to the republican and nationlist cause and to the higher cause of peace and reconciliation to which they have shown themselves to be committed.

    There is another concern which might account for Bertie Ahearn’s reluctance to comment at this time and that is the suspicion that the orchestration of heightened concern on this matter might yet prove to be the work of the dark forces within British agencies to undermine and renege on already agreed aspects of inter-governmental co-operation. It would not be the first time as the last chapter of Tim Pat Coogan’s book The Troubles chronicles in a dreary list of British nefariousness, dirty tricks, duplicity and outright lying while apparently committed to a peace process, not only prior to but indeed also after the Downing Street Declaration had been agreed and published.

  • Seanna Walsh, I thought, publicly announced the IRA permanent ceasefire.
    I was going to suggest that this site could help by simply collating when Ms McConvile was abducted, and when the soldier to whom she may have given succour was shot in Divis. These rwo pieces ofi nformation are easily collated and compared.

    But never mind. If I inadvertently hurt Seanna’s or anyone else’s feeling, I must have done the crime. So therefore, as a consequence, I will do the time.

    Yours down the old bog (road)

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s not about feelings, it’s about priviledging argument over venal fist fighting.

  • Hidden Gem

    The Provos need to share, in detail, the findings of their “thorough investigation” so that their defense may be objectively questioned or challenged. This of course isn’t going to happen so really, for all their efforts at damage limitation, their talk is as cheap as ever”

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    Let’s look at some of the facts here:

    For many years, the IRA denied having anything to do with this woman’s disappearance. I think we can conclude from this that they were lying.

    Jean McConville was abducted, probably tortured, and definitely murdered by the IRA. Her ten young children were left to fend for themselves.

    Their mother was buried in a bog by a group of men who classed themselves as being at war, but were unable to sustain any casualties themselves without screaming about human rights abuses. Where exactly were this woman’s human rights?

    Many year’s later, under pressure from the US administration amongst others, the IRA finally admitted culpability and with much difficulty located the remains for proper burial.

    SF stated that the murder was ‘not a crime.’

    Nuala O’Loan declared that Jean McConville had not been an informer.

    The IRA issued an official statement saying that she HAD been an informer. They therefore, in 2006, as an organisation with a political wing representing 25% of the NI vote and approx 11% of the southern vote, see fit to make the following claims:

    1. The police ombudsman is wrong.
    2. Abducting and murdering a mother of ten is fine as part of an ‘armed struggle’ — not a war, an ‘armed struggle.’
    3. Lying consistently through your teeth is fine.
    4. Murdering someone and hiding their body is fine.
    5. Prolonging the suffering of an innocent family is fine.
    6. Being in the IRA sets you above all moral precepts.
    7. The thinking and morality of the IRA has not changed in 34 years.

    Now please will somebody explain to me why the HELL anyone would vote for these people?

  • joeCanuck

    Gerry lvs Castro

    If your points 2-6 were put forward as Sinn Fein’s election manifesto, I think they would get very few votes.
    I have never voted Sinn Fein but I would imagine the reason people do vote for them is simply that they see that party as being best positioned to maintain their civic rights.
    I can only assume that the voters, in their minds, find a way to put some distance between Sinn Fein, the political party, and the atrocities of the IRA such as the murder of Mrs McConville.

  • Animus

    Most people just aren’t very bright it would seem, and most people don’t care if other people die, as long as they are not their own family members. So I guess we get the government we deserve then.

    Joe – I think point 6 has won many many votes.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    ”I can only assume that the voters, in their minds, find a way to put some distance between Sinn Fein, the political party…”

    A mite difficult in this case, since Mitchell McLaughlin, who is after all a prominent SF spokesman, declared to the world that this wasn’t ‘a crime.’ If abducting and murdering a defenceless mother of ten isn’t a crime, then exactly what is?

    ”they see that party as being best positioned to maintain their civic rights.”

    Again we’re talking about a party more than happy to order their constituents children out onto the streets to riot, thereby putting young children at great risk for the sake of local political ends. One recent example was the attempt to stop the PSNI entering the Short Strand in search of evidence re the McCartney murder.
    Fomenting civil conflict is one of the things this party are best at, whether it’s importing spokesmen to front ‘local’ concerned residents groups or ‘peacefully’ picketing meetings of the police federation. Whether it’s in the best interests of ‘their’ community’s civil rights to have their kids out throwing rocks or being denied a police presence for cheap political ends is highly debatable — SF have their own long-term political agenda and if they can state that one of the most repulsive crimes of the ‘troubles’ wasn’t a crime because the brave men of the Ra did it, I wouldn’t personally trust them with my goldfish never mind my vote.

  • joeCanuck


    I hear what you’re saying and I’m not going to try to defend Sinn Fein. Others here are much better equipped to attempt that.
    I simply gave my thoughts as to why people (the vast majority of whom I imagine are not Sinn fein party members) vote for that party.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    Fair dos Joe. I’ll wait patiently for some of the SF cheerleaders to tell me why they can justify their vote in the light of this case.

  • harpo

    ‘So I believe that an attempt to smear a body such as the IRA with non-compliance is disingenuous to say the least.’


    No it isn’t disingenuous at all.

    The point is that if the PIRA claims to have been at war and to have caught a clean war, and to have be4en morally superior to the various enemies that it faced, then it has to demonstrate such character, and not just say it.

    Yet every time an incident is raised where the PIRA is accused of less than this self-declared moral behaviour, the initial reaction from people like you is ‘wait – the PIRA didn’t sign up to those rules, so those rules don’t apply’.

    Thi isn’t about the rules – it’s about the PIRA’s behaviour. You can’t claim in the one breath that the PIRA was of good character, and then in the next say ‘but the commonly accepted rules don’t apply’ when an incident is raised where it is clear that the PIRA didn’t act in a highly moral fashion.

    The rules that are referred to are the bare minimum that is expected of combatants. One would expect that any highly moral organization engaged in conflict would not only meet these rules, but exceed them. Yet the supposedly highly moral PIRA routinely broke all of these minimum standards, never mind meeting and exceeding them.

    So maybe you could explain how this excuse of ‘but the rules don’t apply’ demonstrates that the PIRA was of good character, when it comes to issues like killing civilians and killing unarmed prisoners? Those are war crimes if they were at war. Highly moral organizations don’t engage in war crimes, but the PIRA did. Saying ‘the normal rules don’t apply’ is just a cop out, designed to excuse the PIRA from anything and everything.

    Bomb a street full of kids? You will say the normal rules don’t apply so the PIRA can’t be judged against those rules. That doesn’t change the underlying fact that it is a lie that the PIRA was of high moral character – such bombings prove otherwise.

  • Rory


    The issue where I raised the ‘disingenuous’ argument was, in my first paragraph, on whether or not the application of Human Rights legislation was appropriate.

    In my second paragraph, which begins ” That said…” I then go on to argue that there is clearly a “human rights” (smaller case) issue which the IRA needs to address.

    I think you agree with me that that is indeed the case.