The Eternal Gallimaufry of the Jean McConville Affair

Some years ago I was having dinner with John Derbyshire and some others when John suddenly erupted, apropos of nothing, about the 1972 Jean McConville killing in Belfast. He did the usual denunciation of the killers, who remain unknown (though there have been many possible candidates).

Why was he on about the McConville case at this time? I guess it was in the news again. It had been in the news recurrently for the past few years, sometimes indirectly. In 2011 the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now calling itself the PSNI), along with the UK government, successfully subpoenaed some old audio tapes from my father-in-law’s library at Boston College. This subpoena was controversial for two reasons. One is that Boston College had given the interviewees a solemn oath that the tapes would not be made available to any intelligence or law-enforcement agency, whether from the UK or the USA or anywhere else, while any of the interviewees were still living. The subpoena was essentially a demand that Boston College break that promise. The other, simpler bit of controversy was that the US Department of Justice was enabling a foreign agency to lean on a private American institution.

The correct response to the subpoena by the Burns Library and Boston College, in my opinion and in that of my brother-in-law (who endowed and named the goddamned library) would have been to make digital backup copies of these interview tapes, then run the tapes through magnets till they were well and thoroughly scrambled. That would enable BC to comply with the letter of the subpoena while still keeping their word to the interviewees (who by this point were mostly dead and couldn’t complain). Everyone knows cassette tapes go bad eventually. At least I assume they were cassette tapes. Open-reel? Same deal.

I would also have advised President Nixon to have done much the same with the White House Tapes, and burned the originals in a mad bonfire on the White House lawn. (South Front; near Rose Garden.) I am not the first to think of this, but at this point it is neither here nor there.

Going back to the McConville case, it was in the news once again in 2014  because Gerry Adams had just been arrested by the PSNI for his possible role in the execution of Jean McConville. Rumors abounded that it was Adams who ultimately gave the order. Adams denied the accusation, there was no proof, and he was quickly released. This may have occasioned the Derb’s outburst at that dinner.

There’s never been any reliable evidence or testimony in the McConville case, yet I’m still seeing UVF-wannabes and others rant about it on Twitter, insisting that one Brendan Hughes or Dolours Price did the deed, and Gerry Adams gave the order.

The most preposterous reasons are offered for McConville’s death. One is that she was a Protestant, so that’s why the Provos killed her. Well, she wasn’t a Protestant, though she seems to have been, nominally, as a child. Another explanation is that she once helped a wounded British solder that came to her door, and this generated hostility among her neighbors. She may well have done such a thing (this is a claim made by her children) but that was year or more before her abduction and execution. Anyway her late husband, a Catholic, had been likewise a British soldier.

What nobody seriously challenges is that Jean McConville was at least suspected of giving aid and comfort to the British intelligence services—be they Special Branch, the RUC, MI-5, or intelligence operatives in the army. Her military handlers allegedly supplied her with a piece of radio gear, either a large Stornophone, or the newer, smaller Pye radio. This was a claim of Brendan Hughes, one of her abductors. The RUC/PSNI ombudsman and Special Branch roundly denied it. But then, it’s an easy claim to deny long after the fact. No proof is necessary or even possible. Ed Moloney and James Kinchin-White seem quite certain Jean McConville did have a police/army radio. Whether or not she used it much is another question.

A common narrative is that about a month before her final abduction and death, Jean went off to a bingo game, but was taken away for what seems to have been a drugged interrogation. She was discovered hours later, wandering the streets, barefoot and disoriented. Presumably she had been interrogated and warned by the Provos. Her final abduction suggests the Provos thought the warning didn’t take.

Those who whinge about Jean McConville’s death being “murder,” a murder of an innocent mother of ten children, simply deny all evidence and testimony to the contrary. Surely they could still mourn her death while nevertheless admitting the likelihood that she was a low-level spy, an intelligence asset for the army or RUC. This points to profound dishonesty on their part. Likewise, any culpability on the part of her handlers is overlooked or dismissed. She was living in a public-housing complex that held many IRA sympathizers and operatives. Surely, it was an unsafe place for her to be. Her handlers could and should have moved her and her family to some neutral ground, an estate where the neighbors were less partisan. Her handlers obviously didn’t care; they were ready to sacrifice her. Meanwhile using her and her children as human shields whom the Provos wouldn’t dare hurt.

And if the Provos did hurt them, well, enhh—no great loss, one supposes. Fine and dandy people, those handlers.


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