Differences between charges over McConville case and Bloody Sunday

Opinion: Peter Hain’s intervention came amid a flurry of futile debate about dealing with the past

 Jean McConville (left)  with three of her children shortly before she disappeared in 1972.  Pacemaker Belfast

Jean McConville (left) with three of her children shortly before she disappeared in 1972. Pacemaker Belfast


Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said on Monday that, in the wake of the arrest and questioning of Gerry Adams, paratroopers believed to have fired on Bloody Sunday should, as a matter of logic and consistency, be arrested and questioned about their roles in the Derry massacre.

This might open up an appalling vista, he suggested. But sauce, goose, gander. . .

However, there is a number of differences between the cases. Not even his most strident critics have claimed Adams was directly involved in the kidnap and killing of Jean McConville. What has been alleged is that he sanctioned or ordered the killing. The equiv- alents in the Bloody Sunday case would not be the shooters but those who had deployed them and given them orders: senior British army officers and, possibly, senior politicians.Hain did not suggest any of this class of suspect should have his collar felt.

There are other differences. A number of suspects in the McConville killing were arrested in Belfast and questioned recently. One, Ivor Bell, has been charged with aiding and abetting the crime. Others whom the Police Service of Northern Ireland suspected to have been directly involved were brought in for questioning and later released.

But there is no need of investigation to establish the identities of those involved on Bloody Sunday. The names and addresses are known to the authorities. The question that arises is not what they did but whether what they did was unlawful. This is to say that the investigation of the Bloody Sunday killings is far more advanced than the investigation of the killing of Jean McConville. But, unlike the suspects in the McConville case, none of the soldiers has been arrested or questioned.

Further inquiries
The explanation given to families of the Bloody Sunday victims is that all other inquiries will have to be completed before the paras are brought in: a premature move could scupper the case. This seems to the families to make no sense. They have put it to senior PSNI officers that suspects in this or that case, “political” or otherwise, are commonly reported as having been arrested and questioned and then released “pending further inquiries”. Why not the Bloody Sunday soldiers? The repeated response has been: “We will have only one shot at this.” Not the approach taken to the alleged former IRA volunteers rounded up in March and April.

Futile debate
Hain’s intervention came amid another flurry of futile debate about dealing with the past. The debate is futile because there can be no agreement on how to handle the past until there is agreement on how to characterise the past. And there’s no sign of a consensus on that matter emerging.

The British authorities have to hold hard to a version that depicts their forces confronting an armed assault on the state and responding appropriately, notwithstanding excesses and mistakes that may have occurred. To admit a contrary interpretation would be to back away from assumption of the propriety of military operations generally. This is not going to happen.

Likewise, the IRA and its adjuncts have to continue to believe their war was sanctioned by a competent authority and properly conducted. Some operations may have been wrongfully mounted and resulted in innocent deaths. But this doesn’t subtract from the campaign’s legitimacy. . .

Veterans of the conflict who are sufficiently hard-hearted not to care or can accept one of the parallel rationalisations on offer may be able to justify what they did or blithely to deny it. But if there is a softness within you and you have come to believe that what you did was all for nothing, you might feel shredded at the core of your being, your sense of yourself destroyed, and stumble half-bewildered into ill-advised confessions, allegations, regrets, defiance. You will then be rubbished as a tout and regarded as dirt by those who have been able to shrug the memories off.

There will be no murals erected to you. Just daubed insults and scrawled lies.

It may be that the children of Jean McConville will never find full ease. But perhaps they can take some meagre comfort in the fact that their mother’s long-disregarded death has been marked by Paula Meehan’s gentle, aching poem At Shelling Hill, which tells of a holiday with her children in the vicinity, as it turned out, of where Jean McConville’s body had been dumped.

“Come Sunday, before we left, we picked flowers,/ armfuls of meadowsweet, cranesbill, vetch, an array/of lupin, of the wild dog rose, and walked to where Bláthnat,/or so we’ve told them, she who was lover of Cú Chulainn, is buried./Lady-made-of-flowers, surprising us, they called her/cross-connecting from what Gaelic they can yet say./So to the children the last word, her requiem prayer:

“Lady made of flowers, bride of the earth, rest in peace.”

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