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Guilt and evasion: The killing of Jean McConville

The Disappeared (2013-14) is a devastating and powerful documentary about the deadly and obscure fate of those deemed to be “traitors” by the IRA, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“If there was a hierarchy of the victims of the Troubles,” says Darragh MacIntyre, the film’s presenter, The Disappeared were at the bottom. The invisible dead. Killing them wasn’t punishment enough.”

These individuals were executed by the IRA and their corpses buried in hush-hush locations – usually bogs – in Ireland. The circumstances of their death were hidden from their families and sometimes, as a cruel cover-up, rumours were deliberately spread that they were still alive and had been spotted in various places. Not until the peace process was underway did the IRA publicly take responsibility for some of the killings, assisting investigators in finding the missing bodies – but not all. Some of the deaths are still veiled in furtive mystery; despite desperate searching by the victim’s families, the location of their final resting places remains unknown.

Wretched spectres whom justice has eluded
The filmmaker’s wanted to delve deeper into why these people were killed and their bodies hidden. The answers were not readily available, but the tragedy of one of the executed, Jean McConville, reveals some of the darkest aspects of human nature; particularly that which arises in deeply divided societies, where people retreat into groupthink, burying their guilt beneath tribal certainty.

The film begins with sobering narration: “Can you imagine being a little boy and watching men and women come and take your mother? And going and talking to people and asking them where she was, begging for her to come back. The children lived in fear, the family was broken up and they couldn’t find their mother. And they went on and on looking for their mother over the decades.”

This refers to Jean McConville, killed by the IRA in 1972 after she was, apparently, identified as an informer for the British. The deceased 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 has been in the news this week when the well-known leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, was detained for questioning by the Northern Irish Police, in connection with his alleged role in her death. Something he has always denied.

In the whole ignominious history of the Troubles, Jean’s sad story is one of especial dishonour.

An isolated outsider in the tight-knit Catholic community to which she had been forced to move, the Protestant mother who had lost her Catholic husband to cancer, had been accused by the IRA of passing information to the British. She had been interrogated and beaten until she was bruised, released to wander the streets, dazed and alone.

In the film, her daughter Agnes recalls her mother coming back to the flat in which they lived, after the interrogation, with a bloody, swollen face. Jean had been fearful and anxious, chain-smoking and drinking tea.

Later that evening, the IRA came back for her. A group of people, some with black masks, dragged the screaming Jean from the arms of her terrified children and bundled her into the back of a car, never to be seen again.

Her son, Michael, who also appears in the documentary, says that he recognised some of the people that took her, two of them were his neighbours. Despite Jean’s plaintive cries for help, none of their other neighbours came to her aid. Perhaps out of fear themselves. In this part of Belfast, Macintyre’s narration informs us, “the IRA exercised strict social control”.

Nobody told the children what had become of their mother and nobody looked for her. Forsaken by the community, they were left to fend for themselves, until eventually there were taken into care and separated.

Thirty-one years later, in 2003, Jean’s skeletal remains were found on Shelling Hill Beach in County Louth by a passer-by. A later autopsy showed she had been killed by a single shot to the back of the head.

Disbelieving the conventional wisdom that she had been an informer, her now grown children wanted to know who had killed their mother and why. The IRA accepted responsibility, but maintained that she had been a traitor and that, while, regrettable, her death was justified in the context of war.

The McConville family requested that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigate her murder, and in the subsequent inquiry no evidence was found that Jean had ever been an informant.

Interviewed in the documentary, the former police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, who had led the inquiry, claims that Jean’s “otherness” had been her undoing. Being a Protestant from the other side of town in a largely Catholic, IRA-stronghold, people were suspicious of her and, so, according to O’Loan they “decided to make an example of her”.

Although fingers have been pointed no one has claimed personal responsibility for Jean’s termination. It is rumoured that up to 20 people were involved in her death, but only one person has been charged (so far).

Her desolate tale is one of many explored in the documentary; of bodies weighed down in bogs to prevent them from rising, should the earth ever dry and expose its grisly secret. Elderly men murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; slain 17-year-olds “who should have had a lifetime to atone for their mistakes”. Priests reading the doomed their last rites before a shallow grave.

When asked about the killings, during his interview in the film, Gerry Adams’ unsatisfying response is that “we are all responsible”.

The Disappeared shows that these pieces of the past exist at the edge of the national psyche. Derelict, and abandoned to their misery and despair, they are often forgotten; the peripheral people that the occasional amnesia of the peace process chooses to erase.

Collectively, they form Shame. An ever-present feeling that undercuts every action, no matter how confidently or successfully.

It hangs heavily, like mist over the mire.