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In the only photograph of Jean McConville, taken in 1965, she stands beside a row of her children. She’s pregnant, her arms folded, hands hidden, wearing an apron. Her head is tilted, dark wavy hair pulled back and eyes scrunched up against the light. In the foreground, often cropped out, is her husband, Arthur. He is sitting down so you can’t see how tall he was. ‘They used to joke that 12 was their lucky number,’ their daughter Helen McKendry told me. ‘He was 12 years older than her, and 12 inches taller, and she had 12 pregnancies.’ Jean McConville was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in December 1972. Few remember her life. Even the memories of her children, most of whom were very young at the time, clash and contradict.

McConville was dragged out of the family’s flat by an IRA gang. A few weeks later, a young man brought back her purse. In it was 52p and the three rings she had been wearing. In a BBC interview filmed in January 1973, the children sit in a line on a sofa. The interviewer asks Helen, then 15, if their mother would stay away without telling them. ‘No,’ she answers, shaking her head. They would by then have heard the talk. That their mother was living across the city with a loyalist, that she was a ‘whore’, that she had run away to England with a British soldier. When the children were taken into care, social services recorded the reason as ‘deserted by mother’.

In 1999, when it finally admitted to killing her, the IRA claimed it had done so because McConville was an informer. In an interview published posthumously in 2008, Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commander, claimed that the British army had supplied her with a transmitter to pass on information on IRA activities. The IRA found out and warned her to stop, and when she did not, she was ‘executed’.

Her family regards the claim as ludicrous. ‘How could she have been? What could she have even known?’ Helen asks. ‘This was a woman who had buried her husband after a 16-week illness; a woman who had since his death been looking after ten children on a widow’s pension; a woman who was so depressed she had tried to kill herself with overdoses three times in the same number of weeks. We used to hear her crying herself to sleep at night. She had sort of given up. She didn’t want to get out of bed.’ Helen too has struggled with depression for years. ‘I used to get the kids to bed and sit down with a drink and the anger would just get to me.’ Now 56, with five children and 11 grandchildren of her own, she feels the campaign to recover her mother’s body and to get the IRA to admit the truth about what it did has kept her alive.

Jean Murray was born in 1935, the first of five children. The family lived in a tiny two-up two-down house owned by the Corporation in the heart of Protestant East Belfast. From the front door you can see the yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where Jean’s father worked until he died when she was still a small child. At 14, she left school and went to work as a servant to Mary McConville, a Catholic widow on the nearby Holywood Road. Mary’s only child, Arthur, was 26 and a British soldier who had served in Burma. His father had also been a soldier and died as a result of being exposed to poison gas during the First World War. Arthur and Jean became involved. One of Jean’s uncles who was in the Orange Order gave her a beating when he found out she was seeing a Catholic. Arthur’s mother was also opposed to the match. The couple ran away to England and, although they have no record of it, their family believes they got married there in 1952, when Jean was 17. Their first child, Anne, was born in November that year. They lived for a time in army barracks in England but moved back to live with Jean’s mother in 1957. Helen says her granny ‘got it hard’ from her own family for taking Arthur in, his Catholicism trumping the fact that he was a British soldier who had served in the war.

By the age of 32, Jean had carried 14 children to term; four of them had died in infancy and one was brain-damaged. ‘I don’t know how my mother coped,’ Helen says. ‘It was blood, sweat and tears. Little red books to get food on tick at the shop till pay day. My father’s suit used to be taken out of the house on a Monday and we’d be told it was going to the cleaners but now we know it was going to the pawn shop.’ The house had two small bedrooms, one of which was Granny Murray’s. There were open fires, no bathroom and just a cold water Belfast sink. They would watch TV at a neighbour’s house.

Arthur McConville left the army in 1964. ‘After that he couldn’t get work some of the time. He worked in the Sirocco works for a while till they found out he was a Catholic, and then in the ropeworks. My mother worked there too, for a while. I think she worked the granny shift, when the kids went to bed.’ Their father ‘ran the house like a military camp’, Helen remembers. ‘I wasn’t allowed to get my hair cut. When I got a wee bit older, I wasn’t allowed make-up. I remember I had a top my mother gave me. When my father saw me in it he cut me to ribbons. Said I looked like a tart, a whore with a hockey stick.’ Jean didn’t go out at all until after the birth of her youngest children, twins, in 1966. ‘Then she’d go to bingo or to the Castle Picture House. She’d do her own hair so she’d have it in rollers with a headscarf over it, like Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street. She was a witty woman and she liked a laugh.’

When Terence O’Neill resigned as prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1969 he admitted that he had failed ‘to break the chains of ancient hatreds’. Ian Paisley was on the rise, stirring up fear and bigotry among the Protestant working classes. The McConville children lived in a Protestant area but went to a Catholic school and to Mass, though Helen also went with Granny Murray to ‘happy clappy’ evangelical meetings in church halls. Helen remembers her parents going round the corner to the neighbour’s house to watch the TV news that summer. On 12 August 1969 the Battle of the Bogside began in Derry and trouble soon spread to Belfast. Nationalists rioted and attacked the police, while loyalists burned Catholics out of their homes. In Protestant areas, vigilantes set up barricades and patrolled the streets. The British army was sent in to keep order. The Scarman tribunal, which reported in 1972, found that during that summer 1820 families fled their homes in Belfast, 1505 of them Catholic.

Helen and some of the older children were at a neighbour’s house when they heard glass breaking and shouting. ‘They put a gun to my father’s head and they ripped his shirt off,’ she says. ‘He had a tattoo of our Lord on the cross. They said: “You Fenian bastard, you have an hour to get out.”’ By the time the children got home, their father had left for his mother’s house in Catholic West Belfast.

Other local Catholic families were put out. One woman who lived nearby remembers a crowd of more than a hundred people descending on her house. ‘We left that night and never went back,’ she says. Jean and the children stayed for several days, hoping things might calm down and that Arthur would be able to return. Helen claims that ‘they attacked the house every night,’ and that ‘the police came and said to my mother: “Now that you are rid of him, why don’t you stay and bring your children up as Protestants?” She said no, she was going with her husband.’

There are some in the area who dispute this version of events. They say that Arthur McConville was made to leave because he beat his wife and his mother-in-law. ‘He was like an awful lot of other men in Belfast at that time,’ one told me. ‘He was a drinker and he had a temper and he took it out on Jean and on her mother.’ According to this account, Jean was told she and the children could stay so long as her husband did not return. Helen rejects this: ‘My father beat no one and I never saw him drunk. They put us out because we were Catholics.’ In the end McConville decided that East Belfast was no longer a safe place for her. So, helped by a local Protestant minister, she packed her children, the youngest the two-year-old twins, and her belongings into a taxi and set off to join her husband on the other side of the River Lagan. The taxi driver dropped them some distance from Mary McConville’s, refusing to go any further, and they walked the last couple of miles through a city in chaos.

They had not arrived in a place of safety. There were gun battles, fears that a timberyard behind Mary McConville’s house would be torched. The relationship between Jean and her mother-in-law deteriorated rapidly. ‘She didn’t have much time for her son either,’ Helen says. Soon the family joined the refugees flooding into school halls. The Corporation eventually allocated them one of the wooden chalets it was putting up as emergency housing, but they arrived to find another family had squatted in it. After that, Arthur sat night and day at the building site at Divis until his family got a chalet. ‘It was my mother’s first place of her own. Four rooms with an outside toilet, but it was her wee palace. I remember her buying material to make curtains, and going down to Smithfield Market to get junk.’ The next year the McConvilles were allocated a four-bedroom maisonette in the not yet completed Divis Flats complex: 13 seven-storey blocks and one tower overlooking the Catholic St Peter’s Cathedral. Divis would eventually house nearly eight hundred families. ‘It broke my mother’s heart to move,’ Helen remembers. ‘The day we were leaving she was cleaning and polishing and the builders told her she needn’t bother – they were about to knock it down! I remember her crying as we left.’

The flats were bigger than houses like Mrs Murray’s, and had hot water and bathrooms, but every sound could be heard through the plasterboard walls. There was black fungus on the walls from condensation. There was nowhere for the children to play, other than a large area of wasteground. The McConville boys missed the pigeon loft they’d had at Mrs Murray’s house and smuggled birds into one of the bedrooms. Their mother, furious, released them.

The IRA was active in the complex. The first child killed in the conflict, nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, died in his family’s flat there in August 1969, after the army fired a Browning machine gun at the block during a gun battle. There was an army post on top of the tower and an army barracks just up the road in the old mill at Albert Street. Soon after the McConvilles moved in, the army conducted a house to house search for weapons, which was followed by rioting. The army then imposed a 36-hour curfew, which boosted support for the IRA because it convinced people that the army was not a neutral peacekeeper but an anti-Catholic force.

Once again, the fact that Arthur McConville had served in the army did not protect his family. Helen says her father thought the British forces were ‘toy soldiers’. He didn’t like it when a senior army officer took to addressing him cordially as a fellow army man on his tours of the flats; he didn’t want to be seen by the IRA to be fraternising with the enemy. She says that the children were harassed and beaten up by the soldiers. She was arrested and charged with riotous behaviour. Her friend was shot in the face by a rubber bullet. She saw a young IRA sniper shot dead, and the British soldier who had shouted in jubilation fall down dead himself, hit by another sniper. Some of the children attended the wake for a young IRA woman who was also killed during this 12-hour gun battle.

In 1971 Arthur McConville was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died at home in January 1972. Two months later, the McConvilles’ eldest son, Robert, was arrested and interned on the prison ship Maidstone, one of several thousand Catholics interned during the early 1970s on often unfounded suspicion of IRA membership. Helen, then 14, was taken out of school to help mind the younger children. After a series of suicide attempts and several spells in hospital, her mother was living on cigarettes and tablets.

Belfast newspapers from 1972 report murders, shootings, bombings, ambushes, hijackings, armed robberies, riots and the burning down of churches. Nearly five hundred people were killed that year and thousands injured. News reports describe the police meeting a ‘wall of silence’. Bulletins issued by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association claim that army patrols threw children into armoured cars ‘full of jeering thugs’ and took them to be tortured by ‘RUC sadists’. A British major is said to have boasted on television that he was willing to ‘kill men, women and children’ and to have alleged that 13-year-olds were firing machine guns for the IRA. The NICRA bulletin adds that in an attempt to break a rent strike by nationalists in protest at internment (the McConvilles took part), the government had begun a ‘whispering campaign’ designed to turn neighbours against one another. At first romances had flourished between local girls and British soldiers, but now women married to soldiers moved to England or into fortified army camps. Ex-servicemen were tolerated in Catholic areas only if they were seen to have republican views. Young women who were deemed ‘soldier dolls’ were tarred and feathered. Helen remembers seeing them chained to railings and lamp-posts, a warning to others.

Late in 1972, the McConville family say, a dying British soldier banged on their door shouting for help. There was shooting outside and Jean and the children had been lying on the floor, but she went out, cradled his head on her lap and whispered a prayer in his ear. After that, ‘Brit lover’ was painted on the door, paint was thrown over the front of the maisonette and windows were broken.

In her 2006 report on McConville’s murder, the then police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, notes that the only record of a soldier injured near the family home situates the incident eight days after her disappearance. Local republicans claim that other women comforted or helped soldiers without repercussions; in Helen’s memory such behaviour was not allowed. On one occasion she saw some women trying to shelter a soldier who had become separated from his patrol. ‘The IRA pushed in and shot him in the face in front of us.’

Jean McConville was easy to scapegoat. An outsider, she wasn’t from a family deemed ‘sound’ by republicans. She was from Protestant East Belfast, and the widow of a ‘Brit’. Rumours began to circulate. She was said to be going to army dances and passing on information about the IRA, or giving information to a Protestant relative in East Belfast to pass on to loyalist paramilitaries. She had made an enemy of one local republican family: according to Helen they tried to overcharge her when she bought a secondhand suite from them. The dogs the children had named Provie and Stickie after rival IRA factions were shoved into a rubbish chute and killed.

Once a week Jean went to play bingo. On 6 December 1972 she had decided not to go. She had that day moved to a new maisonette in St Jude’s Walk, just a few hundred yards from her old flat, but with a different heating system that she hoped might be less harmful to her children’s health (one of the boys had asthma). When her friend Bernie called for her, Jean said she wasn’t coming. Knowing Jean was broke, Bernie said it would be her treat, and the two women set off, leaving Helen to mind the younger children. A short time later, a flustered Bernie appeared back at the flat, and asked Helen if her mother was there. Someone had told Jean that Helen had been knocked down and a car was waiting to take her to the hospital. Jean had left immediately. Bernie and Helen set out to search for her. Shortly after 2 a.m. soldiers arrived at the flat and said they had a Mrs McConville at Albert Street Barracks. They said to bring a coat and shoes.

‘I could hear her screaming before I got there,’ Helen says. ‘Her feet were bare and her hair was all over the place. Her face was bleeding and she was shaking.’ When they got home, Helen’s mother told her that the IRA had blindfolded her and taken her to a place she thought was derelict. They tied her to a chair and screamed questions into her face. They beat her. After a while she realised they had gone. She struggled free and ran out into a street she did not know. An army patrol picked her up.

Helen said they should go back to Granny Murray’s in East Belfast. ‘She said no, she had done nothing wrong, and she was not running from anybody. We talked that night. She asked me what I wanted from my life. She told me she missed Arthur and she said she hoped I would find a good man. She gave me a cigarette.’

The next day Jean had a black eye and cuts on her lips, and was pulling clumps of loose hair from her head. The cooker in the new flat had not been connected so in the afternoon she sent Helen out for fish and chips and told her: ‘Don’t be stopping for a sneaky smoke!’

Jean was in the bath when the gang came. Four women and eight men pushed past the children and forced her to get out, put her clothes on and leave with them. All were masked except one young woman. She was a member of the local republican family Jean had fallen out with. One of the gang had a gun. Archie, who was 16, said he was going with his mother, but the gang dragged her down to a waiting van and told him to fuck off. By the time Helen returned, panicking when she saw all the people out on their balconies, her mother had gone.

After the purse was given back, Helen went to the local civil rights office and told them what had happened. A piece about her mother’s disappearance was published. The BBC filmed a report and the local papers took up the story. The police questioned the children. The IRA admitted it had taken McConville but claimed she was free to return to her family. No one seems to have helped the children. Helen thinks her mother’s friends were afraid. Mary McConville lived nearby but was hostile; Granny Murray was unable to intervene. ‘The boys wouldn’t go to school and they were running wild,’ Helen says. ‘We had no money, no food.’ Eventually she went to a call box and rang social services and asked them to take the family into care. The children were taken to Nazareth House, a large home run by nuns in East Belfast, not far from where their mother had fled with them less than four years earlier.

In the years that followed, the children would run away repeatedly. They camped out in a derelict house on the Falls Road for a time. They were separated and sent to different institutions; some of them were badly treated. With time they drifted apart. Relationships among the siblings remain difficult. In 1994, on the 22nd anniversary of her mother’s abduction, Helen was interviewed on a popular radio show. It was becoming clear that others had met a similar fate. In 1995, Helen wrote to President Clinton; so did Margaret McKinney, whose son Brian had also been ‘disappeared’. Clinton’s intervention ensured that the issue became part of the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In 1999, the House of Commons set up a Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains which offered immunity from prosecution to anyone providing information that could lead to the discovery of the bodies of 16 people who had disappeared during the Troubles.

The IRA told the commission that McConville had been ‘arrested’ in 1972 and had ‘admitted to being an army spy’. She had ignored its warning to stop, so the IRA had killed her and buried her body at Templetown beach in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland. The McConvilles arrived at this remote and beautiful place to find hordes of journalists as well as the police and search teams. Over fifty days, hundreds of thousands of tons of sand were excavated. The McConvilles watched and waited, sometimes, embarrassingly, quarrelling in front of the cameras. When the body of Eamon Molloy, another of the Disappeared, was recovered elsewhere, Gerry Adams’s response was that Molloy had been an informer, ‘something which is reviled in all aspects of society on this island’.

The search for McConville’s body was called off, resumed and finally abandoned. Four years later, on 27 August 2003, the family was informed that skeletal remains had been found by a man out walking with his children on Shelling Hill beach, which is essentially a continuation of Templetown beach. Some members of the family say their mother was identified by a blue nappy pin attached to her cardigan. Helen says this is nonsense. Jean McConville had been shot once in the back of the head.

In 2005, the Sinn Féin chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, claimed during a television debate that although McConville’s death was ‘wrong’, it was not a crime because it happened ‘in the context of conflict’ and the IRA believed she was an informer. In 2006 the police ombudsman upheld the McConville family’s complaint that the RUC had failed to investigate the murder, and added that, having ‘looked very extensively at all the intelligence available at the time’, ‘there is no evidence that Mrs McConville gave information to the police, the military or the security service.’ The next day, the IRA released a statement: ‘Following a public request from the family of Jean McConville the IRA carried out a thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding her death. That investigation confirmed that Jean McConville was working as an informer for the British army.’ A month later the then chief constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, said it was unlikely anyone would be prosecuted for her murder. The Historical Enquiries Team, which Orde established, found just two pages of notes in her file and these were dated 1995. There was no formal record of her disappearance or any evidence that any attempt had been made to find her, even though the police had received intelligence that she was being held by the IRA in Dundalk. ‘There were over ten thousand shooting incidents’ in 1972, the deputy chief constable, Paul Leighton, said. ‘I think it is important for people to realise just what the situation was at that time.’

McConville’s murder has dogged Gerry Adams, now the Sinn Féin president, because it’s been alleged that he was the IRA leader who insisted that she be ‘disappeared’. Dolours Price, one of the Old Bailey bombers, who died earlier this year, claimed that Adams was her commanding officer. In an interview with CBS in September 2012 she said she had driven Jean across the border to Dundalk after her abduction. Price said she was aware ‘that would be her end.’ Did she regret it? ‘No, not at all.’ Adams still denies he was ever a member of the IRA.

After a BBC documentary on the Disappeared was shown last month Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said the use of disappearance by the IRA had been ‘wrong, unjustified and cruel’ and that people should co-operate with the commission. But most republicans refuse to talk about the murder. Some claim that to highlight McConville’s case is to create a hierarchy among victims; others say they don’t want to risk incriminating themselves. (Only information given to the commission is covered by the offer of immunity.) They point to recent arrests over murders committed during the Troubles and the fact that Boston College has been forced to hand over to the police taped interviews, by Price among others, which were given to the college as part of an oral history project. Some republicans will speak of her, off the record. ‘What could she have known?’ one senior figure asks. ‘The worst she could have done is tell the Brits she’d seen someone who was on the run and got them interned. I think paranoia must have played a part in the very narrow closed world that people lived in.’ ‘She was a scapegoat,’ another says. ‘It shouldn’t have happened.’ These men believe she may have been disappeared because the IRA knew that the killing of a widowed mother of ten would have been seen as unacceptable even by republicans.

Helen McKendry believes her mother was set up by IRA women in Divis to protect one of their own who actually was an informer. The family has names of some of those they allege were involved, including people now active in Sinn Féin, but they’re unlikely ever to discover exactly what happened.

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