Jean McConville’s death: uniquely evil?

Of all the people who were killed in the course of our Troubles, why is it that everyone knows  and most feel deep sympathy with the violent death of Jean McConville?
Well,  because she was a mother of ten children and her violent death  had a seriously damaging effect on the family. This sympathy is kept fresh as grown-up members of the family attest to the horror of what happened  and as they seek for the whereabouts of her body.
So that’s why her death stands out from many of the other violent deaths that occurred during the Troubles.
Why was Jean McConville killed?  The IRA  at the time claimed that she was passing information on local republicans to the British  army.  Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman, said in  2006 that an investigation by her office found no evidence that this was the case. Sinn Féin’s  Mitchel McLaughlin came under heavy criticism in 2005 when he said that McConville’s death should not be classed a criminal act, given the context of the time and the belief by the IRA that she was an informer.  The journalist Fintan O’Toole immediately denounced McLaughlin for so saying, and  denounced the killing of McConville as a war crime. And this morning, my old friend Eoghan Harris is  critical of  RTÉ interviewer Keelin Shanley, because in some interview she didn’t concentrate sufficiently on the McConville family. In fact Eoghan thinks the media in general aren’t nearly strong enough in their support of the McConville family. For him her death was an action of unadulterated evil.
Right. There can be little doubt that the McConville family suffered a great deal as a result of the death of their mother. It’s also true that Nuala O’Loan, as police ombudsman, found no evidence that Jean McConville was an informer. But except you believe that the IRA killed Mrs McConville because they just felt like doing it, it seems reasonable to suppose they believed she was an informer. O’Loan’s research says they found no evidence that she was an informer. The IRA of the time clearly thought they had enough such evidence, otherwise why kill her?
The media are detailed in their account of the death of Mrs McConville and the effect it had on her large family; they are less thorough in their exploration of what the IRA believed about Jean McConville at the time. They believed they were fighting a war, and it’s reasonable to suppose they believed Mrs McConville was a spy in their midst and they killed her. Ghastly, cruel, shattering for loved ones – but that’s what happens in periods of violent conflict.
Jean McConville may indeed have been totally innocent of passing information to the security forces; but it’s very likely the IRA of the time believed that she was. Only when media commentators deal with the second-half of the last sentence  as well as the first, will any moral judgment about the killing  make sense.

18 Responses to Jean McConville’s death: uniquely evil?

  1. Anonymous July 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    If you are happy enough to believe the I R A rather than Naula O 'Loan ,I think that tells us all we need to know about your moral judgement .On your scale of values,the I R A would have been justified in murdering Freddie Scapaticci ! I wonder why he was allowed to leave the jurisdiction ?

  2. giordanobruno July 15, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    Surely what the IRA believed has no bearing on how Society should judge this death (not murder Jude?). It only has a bearing on how they would judge themselves.
    For the rest of us the motivation for killing someone is only taken into account when sentence is being passed.
    We need to judge the IRA's actions by our standards not by those they applied to themselves.
    Or can we all act how we please if we think we alone are justified?

  3. Jude Collins July 15, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    `I'm not sure I agree, gio. “If we think we are justified” – is that not conscience, the ultimate judge we must apply to our actions?

  4. Anonymous July 15, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    In your response to gio above,are you implying that the I R A had a conscience in such matters?

  5. giordanobruno July 16, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    “Conscience doth make cowards of us all”.
    It is a sad situation if conscience compels us to execute and 'disappear' a mother of ten.
    I suspect you would see a parallel with the French Resistance in this. I do not
    Self appointed judge jury and executioners cannot be accepted with a regretful shrug.
    What standard of evidence and proof do you hold the IRA to? Is it enough to say;
    'well they must have had a good reason to do it'?

  6. Anonymous July 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Look forward to Jude's response to above as you seem to be in the unique position of getting answers from him!!

  7. giordanobruno July 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    Anon 17:50
    Yes he has been coy of late. I am honoured.

  8. Anonymous July 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Are there any accounts from the I R A of the time to back up your supposition ?It seems that you are inclined to support whatever belief the I R A held.Is there one law for Jean Mc Conville and another for Freddie Scapiticci?

  9. Anonymous July 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    One of the accounts seem to come from the late Darkie Hughes who made a form of death bed confession to the security forces via the oral history project

  10. Anonymous July 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    It looks like Jude the Silent in relation to this blog.I had thought that you as his “favourite son”might have been able to elicit a response but apparently not.

  11. Anonymous July 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm #


    first Mary Travers and now this. You pick them. I think it is important to consider the issue from all angles but it looks as if you are floating and exploring ideas rather than firmly believing them.

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  13. Anonymous November 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    It is terrible.It is heart-breaking.I,ve just watched a CNN documentary-secrets of the Belfast project,reporting among other stories -the violent death of jean Mcconnville.I cannt believe it that people could do such things to others knowing very well,the impact her death would bring to her 10 children.I cannt just beginn to imagine what the children went through as a result of their mother,s death. My deapest symthathy goes to these innocent children who went through hell on earth.My God bless them.

  14. Anonymous November 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    I,ve come across this story today and it has had a great impact on me.First and foremost,my praise goes to the eldest of those 10 Children-Helen Mckendry for taking the role of her parents and helping to bring her younger siblings up.May she be blessed.

  15. Double Ó7aolain December 12, 2012 at 2:10 am #

    I think that much is clear. The IRA were completely conscious of the weight of history upon them, and of the fact that their actions would be judged beside the actions of the many groups who led armed insurrection in the past, Collins, 1916, The Fenians, The Young Irelanders, The United Irishmen etc.

    Secondly, as is evidenced by the low civilian casualty rate (30%) and standing orders that civilians were not to be targetted, the IRA showed over their 30 year campaign that they were capable of incredible violence without resorting to wholesale slaughter. For the most part, they were motivated by the need not to alienate public support, and their was much public support like it or not, due to the appalling state of Northern Ireland and the appalling treatment of Irish people in the North.

  16. Double Ó7aolain December 12, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    That the IRA acted with conscience is clear. The IRA demonstrated over 30 years that it was able to commit incredible violence while keeping civilian casualties at an extraordinary low level, 30%.
    Standing orders not to target civilians, bomb warnings and many other examples showed the IRA to act with discipline at least, if not exactly pious prudence.
    What people have to accept, and it MUST be accepted, is that the Troubles broke out as an explosive revolutionary war against an oppressive state superpower.
    The terms were clear, I remember Martin McGuinness saying in no uncertain terms that collusion with Crown Forces would be punished by death. The IRA were fighting a war, whether you agreed with their decision to fight or not it was nonetheless a war. One that rent an entire society asunder.
    From a purely military perspective, when one side is fighting an overwhelmingly larger and ubiquitous force, ruthlessness is demanded or defeat.
    For whatever reason, and we may never know, Jean McConville came under suspicion and was shot. Watch any movie about war anywhere and you will see people get shot. Its horrible. Its war. And war, no matter what you think, cannot be created by a few recalcitrant hoods. That is simply not how human society works.

  17. Double Ó7aolain December 12, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    The French Resistance executed hundreds of people, including in extra judicial executions at the end of the war. War is not a gentle thing, and military decisions are made every second which can advance or collapse your cause. You seem to think the IRA should have handed over suspected informants to the Crown Prosecution Service for investigation!
    Get real. Its war and people, many innocent, get killed. thats why its called war. Thats why a million died recently in Iraq.

  18. Double Ó7aolain December 12, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    The IRA would, I think, judge every situation on its merits, including damage caused, impact on the population, public opinion.
    A war is not an elevated form of normal society. It is an exploding whirlwind, and many decisions in war are made under immense pressure, many times without full access to all facts. Its not good, which is why humans generally prefer to live in “not-war”, which has a more even and methodical approach.