McConville case signals pressing need for independent commission of inquiry
There are two ways of dealing with the legacy of these atrocities: all or nothing
Michael McConville, son of murdered Belfast woman Jean McConville, who has called for an independent investigation by a team from outside Northern Ireland so no political pressure is applied. Photograph: PA
Long after the British army’s Parachute regiment left the west Belfast estate of Ballymurphy in September 1971, one of its members, Harry McCallion, reflected with pride that “we had over 15 confirmed kills but had claimed many more . . . It was merely convenient for the IRA that most of them had not been sworn in as members.”
These “kills” had not been sworn in because they were not members of the IRA at all; they were innocent civilians. Eleven of those killed by the Paras between August 9th and August 11th, 1971, were unarmed. Among them were a Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan – who was clearly carrying an improvised white flag made from a babygro – and a mother of eight children, Joan Connolly, who was shot multiple times as she went to help a wounded boy. These events happened in the chaos of the introduction of internment, when the IRA launched concerted attacks on the British base in Ballymurphy. But the evidence strongly suggests that the victims were not caught in crossfire – they were killed by enraged soldiers in what were, at best, acts of appalling recklessness and, at worst, deliberate murders.
Last week, shortly before Gerry Adams was arrested, Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers announced there would be no independent inquiry into the Ballymurphy killings. Sinn Féin rightly pointed to the outrageous double standard implied here. But Villiers also announced that there would be no inquiry into the hideous La Mon hotel fire-bombing in 1978, when the IRA incinerated 12 members of, of all things, the Irish Collie Club. The families of the La Mon victims believe, rightly or wrongly, that transcripts of police interviews with IRA suspects relating to this disgusting crime were deliberately removed from the files in order to protect senior figures of importance for the peace process. Did Sinn Féin complain about the continuing failure to give the La Mon families the comfort of truth? Of course not – it has double standards about double standards.
The abduction, murder and disappearing of Jean McConville is an atrocity that cries out for accountability. But so were the Ballymurphy killings, the La Mon bombing, the McGurk’s Bar bombing by the UVF in which 15 people died, and murder after bloody murder. While the gunmen on all sides preened themselves with talk of “kills” and “war”, the truth is that the conflict was largely about people with guns killing people without guns. So-called republican and loyalist paramilitaries lost between them 563 members. Well over three times as many defenceless civilians were murdered (1,879) – mostly by paramilitaries but in some cases by so-called security forces in or out of uniform. The slaughter of the innocents was not a byproduct of the Troubles – it was the main event.
It was not enough, though, for these poor people to die once, to be the human fuel for a conflict that careened obscenely onwards long after it had lost any semblance of logic. Like souls in Dante’s hell, they have been given an excruciating punishment;
they are recruited to fight, again and again, in the strange meta-conflict that replaced the real one – the fight over which of the perpetrators can claim the coveted status of victimhood. There is, rightly, lingering outrage about the IRA’s “disappearing” of victims like Jean McConville, the denial of a decent burial. But in a sense, most victims are still denied a decent burial. Their bodies are figuratively dug up and paraded through the streets or dumped back again into the abyss of amnesia, depending on who needs them for what political purpose. Tribal disputes are still conducted in part as a form of competitive necromancy.
There are just two decent ways of dealing with the legacy of these atrocities: all or nothing. The nothing option has a certain integrity – it at least prevents the political exploitation of the dead. But it denies to bereaved families the right to know what happened to their loved ones. The only way to counter the exploitation of the dead is to start with the most obvious thing about them – that they died horrible, untimely deaths. Death brings a terrible equality: it does not discriminate between Protestant or Catholic, uniformed policeman or masked gunman, or even between innocent and guilty. Every violent death was a rending in the fabric of the lives of spouses, children and families. Each deserves acknowledgement – not for any political purpose but for its own sake and as a condition of a civilised society.
If Gerry Adams had anything to do with the killing of Jean McConville, he should answer for his actions. But it would be far better if he gave those answers to an open, independent commission with a remit to investigate all unsolved killings by state forces or by paramilitary organisations. If, by design or accident, Adams seems to be singled out, while other crimes are ignored, the cycle of selective memory and selective amnesia will go on. There are no special victims and there must be no special perpetrators.