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Who Killed Jean McConville? A Battle For IRA Secrets

Irish Republican Army murals still loom over streets in West Belfast, where Jean McConville lived until she disappeared in 1972.
Peter Morrison
Irish Republican Army murals still loom over streets in West Belfast, where Jean McConville lived until she disappeared in 1972.

A legal showdown is evolving. It affects an American university, the British government, a brutal Irish paramilitary organization and the murdered mother of 10 children.

Journalist Ed Moloney is fighting to keep secret interviews with former paramilitary members of the Irish Republican Army out of the British government's hands. Those interviews are kept under lock and key at Boston College as part of an oral history project that Moloney started in 2001.

On July 6, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in favor of the British government's request to get transcripts of those secret interviews. But Moloney says the former militants only agreed to talk because they were assured the interviews wouldn't be released until after they died.

"The idea was to build up an archive that would provide a unique insight into the minds of people that took part in this huge, momentous conflict — one of the most searing conflicts in Irish history," Moloney tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

The Belfast Project

Several dozen former IRA militants and also militants who carried out terror attacks for the pro-British Ulster Volunteer Force have been interviewed for the Boston College project, called The Belfast Project. But none of the interviews were authorized by the IRA, and only one person involved in the project knows the identities of those who cooperated.

"The IRA is a very controlling organization," Moloney says. "It has very strict rules about disclosure of information. Its members are not permitted to talk to anyone about IRA business."

Boston College was meant to be the guarantor that those interviews would remain confidential. The problem is that Boston College may not have that right.

"The court ruled that the universities don't get to decide where crimes are investigated — governments do," Shawn Pogatchnik says. He's covered Ireland for The Associated Press for more than a quarter-century.

A Mother's Brutal Execution

The crime he's talking about could be an explosive story. It's a 1972 murder that potentially involves some of the most important Northern Irish political figures — including Gerry Adams, the longtime leader of the nationalist party, Sinn Fein.

The murder victim was Jean McConville, a widow and mother of 10 children who lived in a rough west Belfast housing project. Pogatchnik says by most accounts, she was an ordinary Belfast housewife.

"But rumors were circulated that she was perhaps a British Army spy and had a transmitter in her house, and she was secretly spying on the IRA members in her community or in her midst," Pogatchnik says. "Whether there's any truth to that, we'll never know. But that's the IRA story, and so one day an IRA unit came by and made her disappear."

That year, 1972, the provisional IRA intensified its anti-British terror campaign. Belfast became the scene of devastating bombings and intense firefights.

"1972 was the very worst year of the entire past four decades of conflict," Pogatchnik says. "There were 470 people killed in Northern Ireland that year. And you have to keep in mind that this was a country, at the time, of barely 1.5 million people."

McConville was one of at least 19 people in Northern Ireland who simply disappeared without a trace.

Jean McConville's daughter Helen McHendry waits with her husband Seamus as Irish police search for her mother's remains in 1999.
Peter Morrison / AP
Jean McConville's daughter Helen McHendry waits with her husband Seamus as Irish police search for her mother's remains in 1999.

It would take more than 25 years for the IRA to admit responsibility for her death. And in 2003, McConville's remains were finally located on a beach in eastern Ireland. The post-mortem examination revealed a gunshot wound to her head. McConville was executed.

Nobody has ever been prosecuted for her murder.

Finding Answers At Boston College

That's where the Boston College oral history project comes in. One of the people involved in McConville's murder may have been a woman named Dolours Price. It's widely believed that Price gave a confidential interview for the Boston College project. Pogatchnik says she was part of a legendary IRA unit.

"She was one of the members of the first car bombing team that went to London and bombed the Old Bailey Courthouse and Scotland Yard headquarters and a few other locations," Pogatchnick says. "She was really part of a unit that invented the use of the car bomb as a major terror tactic. She's also a heavy critic of the current Sinn Fein peace strategy." That includes Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

It's believed that the account she gave — the account now under lock and key at Boston College — may reveal that she drove McConville to her executioners, and, most explosively, that the order in 1972 was given by none other than Gerry Adams.

"The Buck Stopped On His Desk"

While most historians say Adams was a senior commander in the IRA, Adams has always denied it and says he was never involved in paramilitary activity. Pogatchnik says Adams laughs off the accusations.

"He shrugs it off," Pogatchnik says. "He has a wonderful Teflon quality about all these things. And the fact is, that when you have been a senior figure in the provisional IRA, or really any sophisticated paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, nothing can be proven because you never got your hands dirty."

"It was always the grunts who planted the bombs, who handled the weapons, who got forensic evidence placed against them in court," Pogatchnik says. "But if you're Al Capone, the only way they'll get you is on not paying your taxes."

The allegations are not new. In 2010, Ed Moloney — the reporter who co-founded the oral history project now housed at Boston College — wrote a book called Voices from the Grave.

That book was based on another interview given to Boston College: the testimony of a notorious ex-paramilitary figure named Brendan Hughes.

After Hughes died, Moloney published Hughes' account of what happened to McConville. Irish television was given his video testimony and turned it into a documentary.

"Because she was a woman, we let her go with a warning," Hughes said in the documentary. He was talking about McConville. "A few weeks later, another transmitter was put into her house. She was still cooperating with the British. The special squad was brought onto the operation then, called the 'Unknowns.' When anyone needed to be taken away, they normally done it. I had no control over the squad. Gerry had control over this particular squad."

On those tapes, Hughes pointed the finger at Adams. And journalist Ed Moloney says Adams was the Belfast commander at the time.

"The buck stopped on his desk, as they say," Moloney says. "The unit that took her across the border — along with other people who were disappeared — was his creation and reported directly to him. On that basis, you'd have to say that there has to be some fire along with Brendan Hughes' smoke."

U.S. Law And The Promise of Confidentiality

But while Ed Moloney believes Adams was involved in McConville's murder, he also believes that the accounts under Boston College's protection should remain confidential, and that the commitment made to those who gave interviews should be honored.

Boston College, though, sees it somewhat differently.

"Mr. Moloney was completely aware when he conceived this project that there were limitations to the protection of confidentiality based on U.S. law," Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn says. "He signed a contract to that affect, the line of which states clearly that there were limitations to confidentiality to the extent of American law."

A bilateral agreement between the U.S. and British governments compels each side to help the other in solving crimes. The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has interpreted that agreement to apply to this case.

'They've Kicked You In The Rear End'

The AP's Pogatchnik says the big issue now is if the interviews are handed over to the British authorities, will they be published and go on the public record?

While the oral history testimony may not be enough to implicate Adams for McConville's murder, the publication of that testimony could have huge political ramifications in Northern Ireland — where a unity government of both Protestants and Catholics is still shaky.

Moloney believes it could undermine the decisions Adams took as a political leader in the past two decades.

"So here you have the guy who brought the IRA into the peace process — who made all sorts of huge ideological compromises with the British government — being dragged into court on the basis of information provided by the same British government," Moloney says.

"What does that say to members of his own organization and other organizations who have doubts about the whole peace process?" Moloney continues. "It says, basically Gerry, you did a deal with the British, and now they've turned around and they've kicked you in the rear end."

The story is still evolving. Moloney has filed a new lawsuit to keep the oral history project out of the British government's hands. For now, those secrets remain at Boston College. And by the time a final decision is taken — it could be many, many years — most of the people involved may be long gone.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.