Unearthing what happened to Jean McConville

The ‘disappearance’ of a widowed mother of 10 remains one of the most shocking IRA killings of the Troubles. In this extract from a new book, Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker inquires into the Price sisters’ role in her death

Jean McConville was 38 when she disappeared and had spent nearly half her life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth. She brought 14 children to term and lost four of them, leaving her with 10 kids ranging in age from Anne, 20, to Billy and Jim, the sweet-eyed twins who were six.

In Belfast in 1972 immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes and she didn’t get any. Instead, life dealt her an additional test when her husband, Arthur, died after a gruelling illness. She was left alone, a widow with a meagre pension and all those children to look after.

The family had recently moved into Divis Flats, a dank and hulking public housing complex in west Belfast. It was a cold December and the city was engulfed in darkness by the end of the afternoon. The cooker in the new flat was not hooked up yet, so Jean sent her daughter Helen, 15, to a local takeaway for a bag of fish and chips.

While the rest of the family waited, Jean drew a hot bath. She had just got out, her skin flushed, when somebody knocked on the front door. It was about 7pm. The children assumed it must be Helen with their dinner. Instead a gang of people burst inside.

It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were — roughly eight but it could have been 10 or 12 — men and women. Some had balaclavas; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks. At least one was carrying a gun.

As Jean emerged, pulling on her clothes, surrounded by her frightened children, one of the men said, gruffly, “Put your coat on”. She trembled violently as the intruders tried to pull her out of the flat. “What’s happening?” she asked, her panic rising. That was when the children went berserk. Michael, 11, tried to grab his mother. Billy and Jim threw their arms around her and wailed.

The gang tried to calm the children, saying they would bring Jean back — they just needed to talk to her and she would be gone for only a few hours. Archie, 16, the oldest child at home, asked if he could accompany his mother and the gang agreed. Jean McConville put on a tweed overcoat and a headscarf as the younger children were herded into one of the bedrooms. The intruders offered blunt assurances, addressing them by name.

A couple of the men were not wearing masks, and Michael McConville realised, to his horror, that the people taking his mother were not strangers. They were neighbours.

The abduction and killing of Jean McConville horrified Belfast

At the bottom of the stairs, as many as 20 people were waiting, masked with balaclavas. Several had guns. A blue Volkswagen van idled at the kerb. Suddenly, one of the men wheeled on Archie, and pressed the tip of a gun into his cheek, hissing; “F*** off”. Archie froze. He was desperate to protect his mother, but what could he do; a boy, outnumbered and unarmed.

Reluctantly, he turned and ascended the stairs. It would later strike him that the gang had never had any intention of allowing him to chaperone his mother — they had been simply using him to get Jean out of the flat. The last words his mother had said to him were: “Watch the children until I come back.”

Dolours Price had been helping to “disappear” people for the IRA for some time when she was ordered to take McConville across the Irish border. She had not known the woman, but McConville had confessed to being an informer, Price insisted. When she had been taken for questioning by the IRA, Price claimed, she “made an admission” of informing, “for money”.

In 2010, Price told journalist Ed Moloney: “We believed that informers were the lowest form of human life. They were less than human. Death was too good for them.”

McConville’s children dispute the suggestion she was an informer, and a 2006 investigation by the police ombudsman of Northern Ireland found “no evidence” that she had ever been one.

Along with “Wee” Pat McClure and another IRA volunteer, Price picked Jean McConville up at a house in west Belfast where she had been held, and they drove towards the border. Price told McConville she was going to be turned over to the Legion of Mary, a Catholic charity, who would take her away to a place of safety. “Will my children be brought to me?” McConville asked.

The funeral of Jean McConville

Price had not realised until that moment that she had children. “Yes, I’m sure they will,” she lied.

According to Price, McConville felt no fear, having already confessed everything to the IRA. Along the way they stopped, and Price bought McConville fish and chips and cigarettes. Price told Moloney she did not like McConville. “She said at one point, ‘I knew those Provo bastards wouldn’t have the balls to shoot me.’ And the ‘Provo bastards’ who were driving her thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t they?” Price said coldly, adding, “She talked too much.”

Was this true? It’s so starkly at odds with the memories the McConville children had of their mother; not some coarse-tongued instigator, but a cowed and tentative recluse. Could McConville really have lashed out in such a suicidally impetuous manner, when her encounter with Price was so obviously fraught with danger? Was Price consciously lying about the woman — or had she coped with her own sense of culpability by remembering Jean McConville as something less than human?

Price said they left Jean in Dundalk, with the local unit of the IRA. Then what happened? Moloney asked. “She stayed there for a while,” Price said. “This is where it gets dangerous for me.”

“I need to know the facts,” Moloney told her.

“OK, well, we were called back,” Price said. “She’d been there for about four to five days. And we were called back to Dundalk.” The local IRA unit had dug a hole. All they had to do was take McConville across a field to the freshly dug grave and shoot her. But they had not.

“They didn’t want to do it,” Price said. It was because McConville was a woman, she thought. “So you guys had to do it,” Moloney said. “Yeah,” Price replied.

There were three IRA members with McConville when she died, according to Price. There was McClure, another volunteer and herself. They had only one gun, and they worried about their consciences and decided they would each take a shot, so they could never say for certain who had dealt the killing blow.

“We each in turn fired a shot,” Price said. She claimed she had deliberately missed. Then one of the others pulled the trigger and McConville collapsed. “We left her in the hole,” Price said. The local Dundalk unit sealed the grave.

I eventually figured out what had happened to McClure. His family moved to Connecticut, not far from where I live, in New York, and he died in 1986. For five years beforehand, he had worked as a guard at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, a high-security prison.

I approached McClure’s widow, Bridie, and their children, to see if they might speak with me. After all, Dolours Price had put Pat at the graveside of Jean McConville and described his involvement in other notorious incidents during the Troubles. But the family had no interest in talking, and it struck me that they did not know the husband and father they loved had been a war criminal.

An obituary for McClure noted he had been a parishioner at his local Catholic church. I wondered whether, before his death, he had confessed.

Over dinner one night in Drogheda, republican historian Anthony McIntyre told me Dolours Price never spoke about the fate of Jean McConville in her recorded interviews for the Boston College oral history project. But “off tape”, she had told him the same story she gave to Moloney, about the three-person death squad and the unmarked grave.

Marian Price was implicated by sister Dolours Marian

Like Moloney, McIntyre declined to tell me the identity of the third person. He did say it was this third individual who had fired the shot which killed McConville. And he gave me one further clue: at some point, Gerry Adams had asked the shooter to become his personal driver. But McIntyre told me the killer had never actually taken the job, instead declining Adams’s offer. A representative for Adams denied he had ever made such an offer.

For several years, I made periodic trips to the Bronx, to meet Moloney. Eventually he shared with me an unpublished transcript of one of two long interviews he conducted with Dolours Price. The document consisted of 30 dense, single-spaced pages. Before entrusting it to me, Moloney had made one key redaction — he removed the name of the third executioner at McConville’s grave. His rationale was simple: Price and McClure were dead, but this third person was still alive.

In the transcript, I encountered something that made me sit bolt upright. Moloney asks Price about the positions Adams held in the IRA during the early 1970s. At a certain point, Price says, “He may have been moved to Brigade — because he wanted my sister to be his driver.”

She mentions her younger sister Marian Price, casually, in passing, and Moloney does not interject. “You know, he always had to have a driver,” Price goes on. “And she refused, because it was such a boring job.”

Marian Price would not speak to me for this book. Her lawyer in Belfast stonewalled my various overtures. When I tracked down one of her daughters, she requested, politely, that I never contact her again.

Dolours Price had become so associated with the disappearance of Jean McConville in the public imagination that it had never occurred to me that her sister — a fellow IRA bomber and hunger striker in the 1970s — might also have played a part in the killing.

While Moloney redacted the name of the shooter from the interview transcript he gave me, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the original unredacted transcript, which they obtained from Boston College. If Dolours Price implicated her own sister in the murder of Jean McConville, and the police in Belfast knew about it, wouldn’t they have charged Marian Price with the crime?

Not necessarily. Price also implicated Adams, and the oral history of Brendan Hughes, another dead IRA member, corroborated her account — yet Adams was never charged. It would appear that if a person implicates himself in the Belfast Project oral history, those utterances can be used against him in court, but if he implicates somebody else, it’s hearsay rather than admissible evidence.

The more I mulled over the suggestion that Marian Price may have fired the shot that ended Jean McConville’s life, the more it made sense. After all, the sisters were both members of the Unknowns, a secret unit in the IRA which “disappeared” victims. They both reported to McClure. As Dolours liked to say, they did everything together.

Dolours condemning Jean McConville in the fiercest terms to Moloney, and insisting the killing was justified, may have been an expression of the strain she felt in struggling to reconcile not just her conduct with some plausible moral code, but the even graver conduct of her sister.

I spoke to one other person in whom Dolours had confided before she died in 2013. I asked whether she had ever mentioned Marian playing a role in the McConville killing. This person confirmed she had — that Dolours had said the execution of Jean McConville was “something the sisters had done together”.

Finally, I wrote to Marian’s lawyer in Belfast, spelling out what I had learnt and intended to publish, and asking whether Marian would deny it. He never wrote back.

Extracted from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, published by William Collins, £20 (€25)

Patrick Radden Keefe in The Sunday Times, October 28 2018

This article appeared in Church News Ireland

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