Jean McConville will not go away. Although Gerry Adams, when asked about her murder, will half mumble the word ‘regret,’ he will quickly move on to repeat the well-worn cliche “but we have to move on.” And then he will smile his predictable smile. Jean McConville will not be moved on and she is back in the news again.
This poor woman, a widow, the mother of ten children “disappeared” from her Divis Flats home in Belfast about three decades ago. A few years ago, what remained of her body was found on a County Louth beach. These remains had been partially uncovered by very high seas. By the time a casual walker on the beach came upon the grim scene, animals, foxes and dogs, had done the rest.
There is a picture of this woman and her ten children which is occasionally reproduced in newspaper and television reports. The children are like “steps of stairs,” as my mother would describe very large families once common in Ireland. They are separated in age from each other by a year or a year-and-a-half.
The children look stiff and unsmiling in the picture. They have obviously been told to “stand still for the camera.” They are not very fashionably dressed, even by the standards of the time, but they look well cared for. Their mother, Jean, stands beside the smallest child. She seems to have the suggestion of a wan smile on her face, but there is a vulnerability there, with a touch of toughness. Life has clearly not been kind to this woman.
She lived in Divis Flats, in a troubled, over-crowded complex, in which nobody would want to live if they could have found alternative accommodation. But Jean McConville was totally dependent on the State for the necessities of her family’s life, so she could not afford more congenial surroundings.
She is now in the news again because of the so-called “Boston Tapes.” These are the recordings of the confessions and experiences of some members of the Provisional IRA, made voluntarily, and professionally supervised by the Department of Sociology of Boston University. The ultimate objective of these tapes was the academic study of the ingredients of conflict. A solemn agreement was entered into that the content would not be released until after the deaths of the participants. Compliance with the terms of this agreement is accepted as a moral imperative.
But there are other imperatives. Since the investigation of the murder is still ongoing, the police have asked for access to the alleged confession given by a woman, still alive, who is said to have acknowledged that she was the driver of the car which took Jean McConville from her home to the place of her murder. And there is the urgent demand of her children for justice.
It is easy to understand the demand. The events of that night when she was taken from them so ingrained on their memories that they have never been forgotten, and indeed have influenced and coloured the quality of their subsequent lives.
They still vividly recall their terror when men came to take her away. They tell of their screams as they held on to her clothes and tried to drag her from her assailants, and of how she tried to hold on to them in the struggle. They tell of how, daily, they waited for her return and of how they were all separated and sent to different institutions and were never a family again.
Nuala O’Loan, the former Ombudsman, has made a special study of the McConville case, and she says that the Provisionals added to the appalling distress of the children by telling them that their mother would return (although she was already dead), and then that she had abandoned them, and had run away with a soldier.
The argument on the status of the tapes, and whether the solemn promise or the pursuit of justice should prevail, will probably be finally resolved in the courts, but the facts of this crime remain to challenge our capacity for outrage, and indeed for bewilderment, when it is realised that a woman shared in its responsiblity.
Of course, as the classics and Shakespeare have illustrated, women are capable of anything, and are not immune from the capacity for evil which is inherent in humankind. But there is something about the McConville murder which challenges us - especially us women - because it occurred in our lifetimes, in our country, in our name as Irish women.
It does not need a vivid imagination to visualise the terror of the children as their mother was taken from them; nor indeed to suppress the echoes of their cries and screams. And yet, a woman saw and heard and was, apparently, untouched by pity.
The car which took her to her death was driven by a woman. If she was not gagged (and she probably was) Jean McConville must have begged and pleaded and promised and thrown herself at the mercy of her abductors. Was the driver so focused on her “mission,” so trapped by her twisted ideology, that she still remained untouched.
All of the forgoing may seem “emotional” but there is an unanswered question, which makes the murder of Jean McConville, because of its immediacy, its poignancy, and the presence of her ten orphan children, an incident from which it is difficult to accept the Adams recommendation to “move on,” and that is: What logic, what indoctrinations, what perceived wrongs, what experiences, what causes, either singly, or collectively, are so powerful that they can make a stone from the human heart?