It was, nearly everyone agrees, one of the most cold-blooded and pitiless killings in Northern Ireland’s 30-some years of bloodshed and conflict.
Now, 42 years later, it threatens to place Gerry Adams, the man most responsible for ending the IRA’s brutal violence, behind bars for murder and put the Obama Justice Department in the dock for endangering a prized monument to American diplomacy and peace-building.
On a cold December evening in 1972, 37-year-old Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother of 10 young children, was with her family in their cramped apartment in Divis Flats, a working-class housing project on the edge of Catholic West Belfast, when the door was forced open and a gang of masked young women burst in and dragged her away.
Her crying children were left to fend for themselves for weeks, begging and stealing food, until eventually the local social services were alerted to their plight and they were sent to foster homes. The children were never to be reunited again as a family.
Their mother’s fate was worse. The women who burst into her flat were from the female branch of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had been fighting the British army and government for two years to reunite Ireland and achieve full independence from Britain. West Belfast, and the Divis Flats in particular, was one of the IRA’s toughest strongholds.
The IRA women had come for Jean McConville because they believed she had been acting as an informer, passing on low-grade intelligence to the local British army barracks about local members of the IRA. A small radio transmitter had been found in her apartment, and she had been arrested by the IRA and admitted her involvement.
But a local IRA commander had given her one last chance. Brendan Hughes, a veteran IRA activist, told this writer that he had given McConville “a yellow card,” a soccer term that means another offense would result in “a red card,” or an ejection. But in the IRA’s case, “a red card” always meant death.
McConville’s family and the vast coterie of supporters who champion her cause bristle at the accusation, pointing out that a mother of 10 would hardly have time to gather intelligence on the IRA. Instead they say she was killed for giving aid to a wounded British soldier and that local people disliked her because she had been a Protestant until marrying her Catholic husband, when she converted. An inquiry headed by the Police Ombudsman, a sort of referee figure, came down against the informer allegation.
Whatever the truth, the IRA claimed to have evidence that McConville had ignored the “yellow card” warning and had resumed her treacherous activities.
What happened next, according to Hughes, sealed her fate. In the fall of 1972, the IRA in Belfast was commanded by Gerry Adams, regarded inside the IRA as the brightest strategic mind in the organization. He was also, Hughes said, a man who was very media savvy.
A meeting was held of the top IRA leaders in Belfast with only one item on the agenda: what to do with McConville. Those present agreed that the penalty for informing had to be death. The only point of dispute was what to do with her body. Normally the IRA advertised the execution of traitors; the dead bodies of informers would be left in the open, “thrown in the street,” as the phrase had it, as a warning to others tempted to go down the same road.
But admitting that the IRA had killed a widow and mother of 10 was a potential public relations disaster. The media would be appalled and the British delighted. Much better, some IRA leaders argued, to kill her and hide the body, bury it in a secret grave, South American-style, so no one would ever know what had really happened—except the IRA leaders themselves.
The decision came down to “disappear” McConville. Hughes, who also gave the same testimony to Boston College’s oral history archive, said Adams agreed with the order.
And so McConville, believing she was in the hands of a Catholic charity and safe from the IRA’s vengeance, was taken across the Irish border by members of a special IRA unit called “The Unknowns,” so called because the authorities were unaware of their existence.
The unit was, according to Hughes, answerable to Adams, the Belfast commander. And so, Hughes said, the order to disappear McConville came ultimately from Adams.
McConville was taken to Dundalk, a small town just across the Irish border, held for a few days and then taken to a lonely beach at Carlingford Lough, one of Ireland’s most picturesque spots. At the edge of an already excavated grave a single bullet was fired into the back of her head and she fell lifeless into the hole. There she lay until 2003, when a member of the public walking the beach noticed a bone sticking out of the sand.
One of “The Unknowns” who had ferried McConville to Dundalk was Dolours Price, a strikingly attractive member of a renowned Belfast IRA family. Price had joined the IRA in 1971, inspired by an aunt who had been blinded and who lost both hands in an accidental IRA explosion in 1938. Dolours Price would later gain infamy as the leader of a bombing team that devastated London in 1973.
Arrested and imprisoned, she then embarked on one of the lengthiest hunger strikes in British prison history, during which she was force-fed so often she developed life-threatening anorexia and nearly died. Released from jail, she left the IRA, married the movie star Stephen Rea, and had two sons, settling down in an affluent part of Dublin.
But she never lost her Irish Republican beliefs. When Adams concluded secret negotiations with the British, U.S., and Irish governments that resulted in an IRA ceasefire and the acceptance by the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, of the existence of Northern Ireland along with government posts for Adams’s colleagues, Price sensed betrayal.
She had ferried more than McConville to secret graves, and the burden of what she had done took its toll. Like Hughes, Price was interviewed for the Boston College archive, but she kept silent about McConville. When Hughes’s interviews were made public, however, she decided to break her silence and gave a number of newspaper interviews claiming that Adams had ordered McConville to be “disappeared.”
It is these two sets of interviews that form the core of the case against Gerry Adams, that the architect of the IRA’s peace strategy was an Irish Pinochet, responsible for the “disappearing” of innocent victims.
A British government effort to subpoena the interviews held in the Boston College archive has worsened Adams’s dilemma. The archive, begun in 2001, gave interviewees a promise that their memories would stay secret until they died, but a legal loophole created by an international treaty gave the British access to the trove. After nearly three years of legal battles, last fall several other interviews were handed over to the police in Northern Ireland. In March the police moved, arresting Ivor Bell, Adams’s closest confidant in 1972, in effect his No. 2, and charged him with aiding and abetting the McConville killing.
The arrest reignited a firestorm of speculation and controversy over Adams’s role. If Bell had been involved as the police alleged, then what role did the No. 1 play? As the firestorm raged, Adams issued a challenge to the police: “If you want to question me about McConville, then here I am. I will be happy to answer your questions.”
On Wednesday, Adams surrendered himself to the police for interrogation in what is undoubtedly the biggest gamble in his political life.
The McConville allegations have been like a monkey on his back for the best part of a decade. His party, Sinn Fein—Irish for “We Ourselves”—is well placed to enter government in Dublin at the next election, but his opponents have a potent weapon to use against him: his alleged role in the disappearance of McConville. He badly needs to throw the monkey off his back, and that explains his extraordinary move in giving himself up to the police.
It is a calculated gamble. Two of those who claim he gave the order to kill McConville, Hughes and Price, are dead. (Hughes died in 2008, Price in January 2014.) And anyway, their evidence is hearsay and can’t be used to charge, much less convict, anyone.
So if Adams can hold out for the days of interrogation that lie ahead, there is a good chance he can come out of police custody, declare himself an innocent man who answered police questions truthfully, and finally throw the monkey off his back.
There is much more at stake than just Adams’s freedom and reputation, however. He was the principal architect of the IRA peace strategy; without him the IRA would never have been maneuvered out of violence. If the British put him on trial, his hardline opponents’ accusations of naiveté or selling out will be justified and the peace process will be seriously undermined.
In all of this, the role of the Obama Justice Department has escaped the scrutiny that it deserves. The road to Adams’s arrest began in May 2011, when the DoJ served subpoenas on Boston College on behalf of the British government without conducting due diligence.
In an affidavit to the Boston District Court justifying the subpoena seeking Price’s interview with the college, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz cited a Belfast Sunday newspaper report that claimed to have heard Price’s tape admitting her part in McConville’s death.
But Price never mentioned the McConville killing in her interview for the archive, and a moment’s reflection would have revealed as nonsensical the idea that a Belfast newspaper, the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the United States, would be allowed access to such a secret, well-protected archive held by one of the country’s most prestigious colleges. The police in Northern Ireland pulled the wool over Ortiz’s and Attorney General Eric Holder’s eyes, and they did not even notice.
The peace process in Northern Ireland is a monument to American diplomacy. Without the efforts of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is doubtful whether a power-sharing government would be in Belfast or whether IRA guns would not only have been silenced but destroyed. The peace process is testimony to the fact that with enough effort, jaw-jaw can prevail over war-war.
What a shame that a slipshod approach by the Obama administration to such a crucial issue has put it all at risk.