The late Dolours Price had recently begun to speak out about her role in IRA murders, writes Jim Cusack
IN THEIR mid and late teens the Price sisters, from Slievegallion Drive in the Andersonstown area of west Belfast, were strikingly pretty girls who would finish their school work and then take to the streets armed, one or both hiding an Armalite rifle under their raincoat, to take part in gun battles with the British army. They were studious, and both went on to St Mary's Teacher Training College not far from their home, where Dolours was accepted on to the then prestigious Bachelor of Education course. Dolours was described as "an intelligent, gifted girl" by her lecturers in St Mary's.
In March 1972 she travelled to Italy at the invitation of the extreme leftist group Lotta Continua to discuss "British repression". She and her male companion were deported after they were arrested for breaching immigration rules.
As well as being a bright student and left- wing activist, she led the double life of a terrorist close to the heart of the IRA in the city. Aside from her "military" duties, she was a courier for correspondence between the Belfast leadership and the "Army Council" which usually met in Dublin. She carried the correspondence in which the Northern leadership pushed the mainly Southern-based leadership to extend the bombing campaign to Britain and to the heart of the British Establishment. She trained in firearms and bomb-making in Monaghan.
In December 1972, at the time she said she was involved in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville – which she said was at the orders of Gerry Adams, but which he denies – she hired and stole five cars from Hertz rental in Belfast. These cars made their way to London in preparation for the March 1973 attack on the city centre. Nine other young IRA members made their way to London before she flew in from Dublin on March 7, the eve of the attacks. She had already scouted out the mission with her sister and the two had posed to have their photos taken at landmarks, including the then largely unguarded 10 Downing Street.
She was in command of the bomb attacks. Four car bombs were planted, and two exploded outside the Old Bailey and New Scotland Yard. Another near the British army's recruitment headquarters and another army broadcasting office failed to detonate. In all 200 people were injured. Fred Milton, a 60-year-old who ran a small shop near the courts, died of a heart attack after assisting other injured people.
Two telephoned warnings were given about 50 minutes before the bombs exploded, one to The Times newspaper offices, the other to Bow Street police station. Police were still clearing the area around the Old Bailey when the bomb exploded.
Price's plan was for all 10 members to have plane tickets to catch flights to Dublin before the bombs exploded. The cars had been left in place at breakfast time and by lunchtime the bombers were at Heathrow. The London Metropolitan Police had been expecting attacks for some time, and Special Branch officers at Heathrow were on the lookout for potential IRA members. The group of young Belfast bombers, aged between 18 and 24, standing together under the flight information board, attracted their attention. The police noticed the group was responding to directions from Dolours Price.
They were arrested when they refused to answer questions. They also appeared to be using aliases – Dolours Price had a ticket in the name of Una Devlin. Dolours and Marion Price were taken to Ealing police station for questioning. Evidence was later given in their trial that when police were interviewing Marion in Ealing station she looked "pointedly" at her wrist watch at around 2.50pm and smiled at the officer. That was when the Old Bailey bomb exploded.
The bombers were sentenced mostly to life terms of imprisonment in November 1973 after a 10-week trial and immediately began a hunger strike demanding their transfer to prison in Northern Ireland. The sisters were visited by their father, Albert, who had imbued the two in militant republicanism from childhood and who had served time in prison for his part in the IRA campaign at the outset of the Second World War.
Speaking to journalists after visiting his daughters in Brixton Prison, Albert Price said: "Of course they are happy. Happy about dying. The only thing that will worry them is the stupidity of the decisions which are forcing them to do this, and the excuses that will come when they are gone."
In January 1974 the two were visited by Bernadette McAliskey who described Dolours, saying: "She has lost over two stone in weight. Her once dark hair has lost its colour to the extent that it is fair and actually white at the roots. Her face appears to have changed shape, the bone structure so pronounced that her complexion is ashen pale."
She added: "For the past seven weeks the sisters have been 'fed' by having a wooden board pressed between their teeth and a thick rubber tube passed through a hole in the board, down the throat and hopefully into the stomach. Water is then poured down the tube and if either girl loses her breath and chokes, the tube is hastily withdrawn, having gone into the lungs by mistake.
"If the tube has safely reached the stomach, 24 fluid ounces (more than a pint of liquid diet) is poured into the tube through a funnel, the whole process taking only five minutes.
"The patient is then held in position for 15 minutes to prevent the liquid from being brought up again. This procedure takes place at about 10.30am every day. According to the girls, they can feel their stomach being blown up and deflated as the liquid goes through their system."
By June they were both transferred to the hospital unit of Brixton Prison. Their hunger strike, along with fellow bombers Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney, lasted for 205 days before ending in June 1974 with a promise by the then British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins that they would serve the "bulk" of their sentences at prisons nearer their homes. They were moved to Armagh women's prison in March 1975.
Marion was released in 1980 but Dolours remained in jail. In April 1981 she was taken from Armagh prison for treatment for anorexia and depression, which she had begun to suffer after being separated from her sister.
In November 1983 she married actor Stephen Rea, from a Protestant middle-class background in Belfast. They met while he was acting in the Neil Jordan film, Angel, in which he played a musician who hunts down an IRA gang after they bomb a ballroom in which his band performs. The two were married in Armagh Cathedral by Fr Raymond Murray, one of the priests who visited the sisters in prison. The two became prominent in the Dublin art scene. They have two sons, and separated in 2003.
The sisters parted ways with the Provisionals at the point where it was becoming evident that the Adams-McGuinness leadership was moving towards a political settlement in Northern Ireland. The two sisters attended the 1997 ard fheis of Republican Sinn Fein, the breakaway group led by Gerry Adams's predecessor as president of Sinn Fein, Ruairi O Bradaigh.
Marion Price was the more vocally active of the two in denouncing Sinn Fein; she had her licence for parole from her life sentence revoked in 2011 and is now in Maghaberry Prison.
At about the same time her sister was returning to jail, Dolours began to speak out about her role in the IRA's "disappeared" murders. She contacted the commission which had been unearthing the remains and offered information about the disappearances of three men from Belfast. Last year she gave an interview to CBS television saying she had driven the car which had taken the widowed mother-of-10 Jean McConville from Belfast to her murder at Templetown Beach on the Cooley Peninsula.
When asked by the reporter was she aware what McConville's fate was to be, she replied, without showing emotion: "I was aware that that would possibly be her end, yes."
She also stated that the order for the disappearance of McConville was given by Gerry Adams, whom she described as her "officer commanding" in Belfast. Adams denies this and continues to deny he was ever in the IRA.
Dolours Price gave one of the recorded accounts of her time in the IRA to Boston College researchers; the accounts are now the subject of a US court action by the PSNI due to her 2010 statement to a Belfast journalist that she had been part of the gang which had abducted and murdered McConville.
The Boston Federal Court has heard her statement, one of seven which includes detail of the McConville murder. The matter is still before the courts in Boston.
Since the break-up of her marriage she had suffered from depression and was also said to be a heavy drinker. It is understood a mixture of alcohol and anti-depressant medicine contributed to her death.