Compulsory reading: Susan McKay on Jean McConville’s life and death

Anyone familiar with some of the stories of the hundreds and thousands of victims of state and paramilitary forces will understand that each has its own unique capacity to appall.

Jean McConville’s is just one of several which has refused to go away. In part because of the brutal context for the killing, and its potential political ramifications.

Today in London Review of Books the writer Susan McKay tells Mrs McConville’s story in considerable and telling detail from her first meeting with her husband.

Above all it carries the genuine flavour of paranoia and mistrust of anyone or anything vaguely reeking of ‘outsider’. First where they had lived before the Troubles in Protestant East Belfast:

Helen and some of the older children were at a neighbour’s house when they heard glass breaking and shouting. ‘They put a gun to my father’s head and they ripped his shirt off,’ she says. ‘He had a tattoo of our Lord on the cross. They said: “You Fenian bastard, you have an hour to get out.”’ By the time the children got home, their father had left for his mother’s house in Catholic West Belfast.

And later in Divis…

Jean McConville was easy to scapegoat. An outsider, she wasn’t from a family deemed ‘sound’ by republicans. She was from Protestant East Belfast, and the widow of a ‘Brit’. Rumours began to circulate. She was said to be going to army dances and passing on information about the IRA, or giving information to a Protestant relative in East Belfast to pass on to loyalist paramilitaries. She had made an enemy of one local republican family: according to Helen they tried to overcharge her when she bought a secondhand suite from them. The dogs the children had named Provie and Stickie after rival IRA factions were shoved into a rubbish chute and killed.

Mrs McConville was not the only victim of the Troubles. This constant brutality from whichever side became a daily feature of life in some of the cockpit areas of the struggle, and victimised more than the dead or injured.

As McKay’s graphic description of her final abduction demonstrates:

Jean was in the bath when the gang came. Four women and eight men pushed past the children and forced her to get out, put her clothes on and leave with them. All were masked except one young woman. She was a member of the local republican family Jean had fallen out with. One of the gang had a gun. Archie, who was 16, said he was going with his mother, but the gang dragged her down to a waiting van and told him to fuck off. By the time Helen returned, panicking when she saw all the people out on their balconies, her mother had gone.

All victims are and were worthy of our empathy and a place in our collective memory. That they’ve not yet been accorded such a space is one of the reason reasons for this continual disruption of the ‘way things are’ post the Belfast Agreement.

For everyone who dies and doesn’t know
The reason why, except it’s not for love.

Brian Lynch, Pity for the Wicked            

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