The Long, Dirty War

Jean McConville with three of her young family, c. early 1970s

Jean McConville with three of her young family, c. early 1970s

Following on from last week’s post about the vandalism of graves of former servicemen in Ulster, this week’s article looks at remembrance of a different shade and how after a generation justice is still elusive to the dead.

In December, 1972, the Irish Republican Army scored a victory against oppression and the British forces occupying their homeland of Ulster. A small cadre of volunteers kidnapped and executed a young mother, then secretly buried her body in an unmarked grave, many miles away in Co. Louth. The woman’s name was Jean McConville and the only crime she was suspected of was that of holding the hand of a dying British soldier. For this seemingly human and selfless act, this young mother of ten became one of ‘the Forgotten.’ Yet over forty years later a historian may hold the key to finding her killers and to bringing justice to at least one of the Forgotten.

Last Rites being given to a British Soldier Murdered in Northern Ireland

Last Rites being given to a British Soldier Murdered in Northern Ireland

When one examines the case, claims of collusion seem increasingly tenuous. Jean’s husband Arthur, who died in 1971, was a Catholic (Jean had been a Protestant before she converted) and had served in the British Army. The family were newly moved to the Divis area of the Falls Road, Belfast when the abduction occurred. The McConville’s own republican pedigree should have been strong enough to weather more than casual criticism from the movement’s hierarchy; Jean’s son, Robbie, was a member of the Irish Republican Army and was at that time imprisoned in the Long Kesh prison complex in the North. Nuala O’Loan (the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman) has commented officially that the only British soldier killed within a time-frame associated McConville’s abduction was in fact killed eight days AFTER Jean was abducted, making the ‘giving succour to the enemy’ story implausible at best. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (the forerunners of the modern Police Service of Northern Ireland), claimed that they only had enough resources to investigate ‘the most serious of crimes’ and alleged that Jean McConville had absconded with a soldier; the PSNI later apologise to the family, with the British government claiming that Mrs McConville was not in any way connected to the secret gathering of intelligence by an apparatus of the state. In short, the IRA more than likely whipped up by the perceived need to strike back against British antagonism in the early and heady days of the Troubles, murdered an innocent woman and orphaned a young family.

In The Name of The Republic. TV3's examination of the controversy surrounding the IRA operation of 'Sing Sing' Prison and the alleged Killing Fields of Martin Corry in Cork

In The Name of The Republic. TV3’s examination of the controversy surrounding the IRA operation of ‘Sing Sing’ Prison and the alleged Killing Fields of Martin Corry in Cork

The slaughter of Bloody Sunday and the brutal hitting back by all sides in the Troubles ensured that the vicious cycle of sectarian violence had begun to permeate through the fabric of Ulster society before and after this incident. Unfortunately for those living through them, dirty wars are rarely clean cut. The McConville’s experiences were replicated around the world. In Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s we can see all the hallmarks of this campaign of abduction and covert murder; that conflict had its share of disappeared also. The same can be said to have existed in the Irish War of Independence, with the Loughnane Brothers, the abduction of British soldiers and Black and Tan policemen and allegations about Martin Corry’s ‘killing fields’ located outside Cork City. Chile, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Lebanon, all these wars had their share of disappeared. What was to make the Irish case any different?

Some of Argentina’s Disappeared during the Dirty War

Not a lot to be frank. Murdering someone is relatively easy. Murdering someone as part of a conspiracy is easy initially, but ‘getting away with it’ gets more difficult, the more people you involve, the more variables, the greater potential for a chaotic outcome. However for a small cadre (either pro or anti-state) involved in such an activity, control of the operational environment can often be the deciding factor which predicates either success or failure. We see from earlier examples that extra-judicial murders often take place away from the home/workplace, so that the murderers have plausible deniability. They also have the means to dispose of the body and other evidence such as weaponry and clothing. This is what makes the cases of McConville and the other Disappeared so heinous. Ireland is a small place, with a fairly small population. People know each other. Even if you don’t know who kidnapped your mother, you probably know someone who does. To think that someone could remain silent about the whereabouts of bodies of innocent men and women for decades should make any decent mind revolt.

Boston College, Mass.

Boston College, Mass.

Last month a 77 year old man was arrested in connection with McConville’s murder. Last night a 65 year old senior republican and politician voluntarily presented himself to the PSNI for questioning in relation to the case. The case against the 77 year old man is claimed to centre itself around a series of interviews which he gave to historical researchers based at Boston College, Massachusetts. The tapes were intended to form an oral history of the Northern Irish conflict (the Troubles) and were only to be released after the contributors’ deaths. The respondents were former paramilitaries who gave ‘candid, confessional interviews’ about the time they spent on active service during the Troubles and about the crimes which they committed. Despite promises made by historians, legal proceedings in the United States have required the early release of some of the tapes to law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic. This breach of trust by the researchers throws up an uneasy ethical difficulty for the historian. Should sources be protected to the point of denying justice to their victims?

The remains Jean McConville being removed from a County Louth Beach

The Boston College tapes controversy will have ramifications far beyond this case. But the McConville family may at last get some closure regarding their mother.

Helen McConville daughter of Jean

Helen McConville daughter of Jean

In a long war, sooner or later everyone gets dirty.

For further information, please see this blog

About eamonntgardiner

Dr. Eamonn T. Gardiner, is a Consulting Historian. He has previously conducted research into links between wartime traumatic-neurosis and evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst veterans of the First World War serving as Auxiliary Policemen, during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921. He has written extensively on British central and colonial administrative responses to popular insurgencies. In 2009 he published 'Counterinsurgency and Conflict: Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War (CSP, 2009).' Published papers include; 'The training of the Irish Volunteers, 1913-1916' (The Irish Sword, 2017); 'Scattered, Ambushed and Laid Out: War and Counterinsurgency in the greater Tuam area, 1919-1921' (JOTS, 2015). Research interests include De-Colonialisation/Post-Colonialism; Insurgency, Police/Military Histories; Institutional Histories; Modern Irish/World History; History of Conflict, Protectorates and Peace-Keeping; Hegemony; Old and New Terrorism.
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