Category: Archive

A View North For families, grief never disappears

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The timing of the IRA’s recent appeal for help in finding the bodies of people who it abducted, murdered, and buried secretly was certainly appropriate. It came on the 26th anniversary of the disappearance of Mrs. Jean McConville, mother of 10, whom a dozen IRA members dragged screaming from her apartment in the Divis Flats complex. It was just over two weeks before Christmas. I remember well seeing her children lined up on a couch pleading on the television news for their mother’s return. It was a sight I will never forget.

They never saw their mother again. Nine of her family were put into care. One of them was mentally retarded. It was perhaps one of the most sickeningly brutal incidents in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.

It never did emerge why the IRA murdered McConville, a Protestant who had married a Catholic and was recently widowed. There was speculation that it was because she gave comfort to a dying British soldier who was shot outside her flat. Or maybe it was because she was said to have been carrying on an affair with a former British soldier who lived in the Divis Flats. Her murderers never did explain what happened. Their long silence about it, one hopes, is a testimony to the shame they should feel for what they perpetrated on a vulnerable woman and her children.

The year she disappeared, 1972, was a bloody and violent year — the worst in the history of the Troubles. In working-class Catholic areas of Belfast the only law was that of the Provisional IRA. And the Provos answered to no one.

To call it law is, of course, somewhat euphemistic. It was the law of the ghetto, and usually it was applied ruthlessly.

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"The people who took my mother away that night left a house full of screaming children behind them," McConville’s daughter Helen told a reporter in 1995. "The 6-year-olds were clinging to my mother’s legs, but the kidnappers didn’t care. I was 15 years old at the time and had the responsibility of looking after my brothers and sisters. About two weeks after Christmas, this fellow called to the door with our mother’s purse and ring. I asked him where he got them, but he just said he had been told to give them to me. I never knew then I would never see my mother again."

It was not until 1995 that Sinn Fein, in the form of Gerry Adams, promised to help. According to Helen: "Gerry Adams called to the house. He asked to go to the bathroom straight away and stayed there for 15 minutes before coming to speak to us, but he couldn’t look me straight in the eye. He asked us why we thought it was the IRA and we gave him the details. He tried to apologize and said he was glad he was in prison when they came and took my mother. But he is from the area and was very influential in the Falls then."

Adams may have been having a memory lapse when he told Helen that he was in jail in December 1972. In fact, he had been released the previous June to attend the IRA’s cease-fire talks with the British government in London, which took place at the beginning of July. He was not rearrested until the spring of 1973.

Helen McKendry, as she is now called, is part of a group named the Families of the Disappeared who are campaigning to have the paramilitary murderers of their loved ones reveal the burial sites of their victims. Her husband, Seamus, claimed last year to the Irish Times that he received death threats and was forced to move from his home in the West Belfast estate of Poleglass.

A few years ago the civil rights campaigner Fr. Denis Faul compiled a list of those who were "disappeared" at the hands of the paramilitaries. It contains 13 names, and includes Captain Robert Nairac, a British soldier who vanished after he left a pub in a nationalist area near the border in May 1977. Faul’s list is provisional (no pun intended). It does not contain the name of Seamus Ruddy, who disappeared in May 1985 from an apartment in Paris. Ruddy was a former member of the Irish National Liberation Army who once ran guns from the Middle East to Ireland. He was murdered by other INLA members, who are believed to have buried his body just over the French border in Belgium. Like the IRA, the INLA promised to help Ruddy’s family recover the body, but they have so far failed to do anything, possibly because one of those who made the commitment, Hugh Torney, was murdered in September 1996 during an INLA feud.

Not all the disappeared are the responsibility of republicans. One of the most mysterious cases is that of Belfastman Patrick Mooney, a small-time Catholic businessman who worked in the construction industry. He disappeared in the summer of 1976 when his empty car was found in South Belfast with a few small specks of blood on the floor. At the time, I was working as a researcher for the BBC Northern Ireland Television current affairs show "Spotlight." I was involved in making a program about Mooney, with the help of his family. He left behind a wife and two children. Christmas was coming up and we did an emotional plea from his wife for information about her husband. Mrs. Mooney told her daughter that her da had gone shopping for her Christmas presents, and as the holiday approached the young girl was becoming increasingly excited and upset that he had not yet returned.

As far as I know, he never did. We spoke with the loyalist groups as well as with the IRA. None of them admitted to having any link to the disappearance. But we came to the conclusion that loyalists may have abducted him, perhaps for money, and that something went wrong. This has apparently occurred in a few of the cases involving the IRA, including that of a German businessman, Thomas Niedermayer, kidnapped in 1973.

Uncertainty makes the pain of the loved ones left behind even more excruciating. It is a horrifying reminder of what happens when the rule of law passes into the hands of gunmen unanswerable to any but their own councils.

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