More than 40 years after she was “disappeared” down the barrel of the Provisional IRA’s guns, Jean McConville’s name is a byword for the legacy the republican movement has been unable to shake off.
Sinn Féin has seen its electoral base increase exponentially in the Republic in recent years. Any other party of its size winning 14 seats at the last election would have taken its place in a coalition government by now, or at least been seriously courted by the larger parties. But following a Troubles era dominated by male gunmen and bombers turned negotiators and peacemakers, it is the legacy issues presented by women that cling to Sinn Fein most doggedly now.
The sisters of Robert McCartney, the 33-year-old found fatally stabbed outside Magennis’ bar in Belfast in January 2005, ran a high profile campaign for years highlighting the involvement of IRA members in murdering their brother and covering up the barbaric bar row killing.
Dublin woman Ester Uzell also highlighted the involvement of the IRA in the murder of her brother Joseph Rafferty, who was shot dead in west Dublin in April 2005.
More recently, allegations by Mairia Cahill that she was raped by a member of the IRA aged 16 in 1997, and then subjected to repeated interrogation by members of the paramilitary organisation when herattacker was present, has hugely damaged would-be new Sinn Féin. But the abduction and murder of McConville is regarded as the ugliest episode linking Sinn Fein to the dark days of the past.
A mother of 10 children, she was abducted on December 7th 1972 from her home in Divis Flats in west Belfast, and never seen again. An average of almost 10 people were killed per week in 1972; an estimated 480 in all. It was by far the bloodiest year of the conflict.
McConville, originally from east Belfast, was a 37-yearold widow of 10 months when she was initially kidnapped on December 6th. She was held for a few hours before escaping and returning to her four-bedroom flat.
In 1998 when the IRA agreed to help search for the bodies of the disappeared, McConville’s daughter Helen – aged 15 in 1972 –recalled: “She was going to have a bath because she had been beaten the night before [during the first abduction]. Eight fellows and four girls dragged her from thebathroom at gunpoint.
“We have learned since then that they put a plastic bag over her head and she suffocated. The last story we heard was she left a house in Belfast with four men. They came back five minutes later and she was not with them.”
A shot to the back of the head ended McConville’s life, a post mortem found. Broken bones in her head and hands suggested to many she was beaten or even tortured.
Helen’s eldest sister Anne was aged 19 at the time ofthe killing in 1972 and mentally disabled and in hospital. Her 17-year-old brother Robert was interned. After her mother was disappeared the family broke up and the young children – including 6-year-old twins — went from orphanage to orphanage.
The reason why Jean McConville was abducted, murdered and her body dumped was not clear at the time. Her family had later speculated the IRA wrongly assumed she was an informer. McConville had also converted from Protestant to Catholic to marry her husband Arthur McConville, a Catholic former British Army soldier who died of cancer in early 1972.
There has also been a suggestion, albeit confused, that she tended to a wounded British soldier outside her door in the summer, just months before her murder. In the years that followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the Republican movement insisted McConville was an informer.
Former IRA member Brendan Hughes alleged she had only been killed after being warned to stop supplying information. However, a Police Ombudsman investigation in 2006 found no evidence to support that contention.
It also concluded the murder had not been investigated until 1995, when a minor probe was undertaken by the RUC. After years of searching, McConville’s body was found in 2003 when heavy rain unearthed the remains at Shellinghill Beach on the Cooley peninsula in Co Louth.
In recent years, interviews given to an oral history project at Boston College in the US have apparently proven pivotal in the case. Brendan Hughes and fellow IRA member Dolores Price both admitted involvement in the 1972 McConville murder during taped interviews for the college project. Those recordings were barred from release until after the deaths of the interviewees.
After Hughes's death, a book was published in 2010 in which some of his account of the killing emerged. He claimed McConville admitted being an informer and that Gerry Adams was involved in her disappearance. This account, including the alleged role ascribed to Adams, was repeated in a newspaper interview in 2010 by Price, who died three years later. The PSNI has since won a legal battle to have the transcripts of some of Boston College interviews with Hughes and Price released to it.
Since then six people have been arrested, including Gerry Adams. He was held for four days from April 30th but released pending further inquiries, and has protested his innocence.