Jean McConville's slaying was ultimate act in coercion campaign
The brutal murder of Jean McConville was the culmination of a co-ordinated IRA campaign to terrorise working-class Catholics into submission
Jean McConville was not the only woman abducted by the IRA prior to December 1972. Before her death, 14 young women in north Belfast alone were abducted, beaten and, in some cases, tied to lamp posts, their hair shorn and then covered in black paint and feathers. They were deemed to be "Brit lovers", accused of going out with British soldiers.
When the British Army arrived in Northern Ireland at the outset of the Troubles, they were generally welcomed by the Catholic population of west Belfast as they erected barriers – later to become permanent "peace walls" – to stop the invasions of the Falls area by loyalist mobs. Catholic women brought the soldiers tea and sandwiches at their temporary posts. And, young single Catholic women started attending discos organised by the soldiers in their barracks.
It became a priority for the IRA in Belfast, under the leadership of one of the organisation's most extreme figures, Seamus Twomey, to put a stop to this fraternisation or "collaboration".
Gerry Adams wrote a 21-page "celebration" of his "friend" Twomey's life when he died in 1989. "It was this humanity, his sense of ordinariness which made him so extraordinary," Adams gushed in his tribute to his friend and "comrade".
Others in Belfast took another view. It was rumoured but never proven that Twomey was a homosexual paedophile. He certainly kept the company of a number of older members of the IRA in west Belfast who were paedophiles, including one who sexually abused his own daughter –Adams's own father, Gerry senior, whom the Sinn Fein leader outed as a paedophile and abuser of his own children and who was a close associate of Twomey's.
This characteristic of rhose senior figures in the IRA may have contributed to the viciousness of the campaign against the young Catholic women who had the temerity to go out or associate with British soldiers. Their public humiliations in Belfast and Derry were staged copies of the revenge wreaked in France and other European countries on women who had slept with the Nazis after the Allied invasion.
The campaign against the young Catholic women was also known locally to involve degrees of sexual jealousy. One young woman from north Belfast was widely believed to have been beaten, her hair chopped off, and then tarred and feathered because she had spurned the advances of the local IRA "officer commanding", a man with bad acne. She left Belfast two days later and never returned.
The IRA campaign against collaborators followed the set lines for establishing power within their community described by Mao Tse-tung as creating an environment where the relationship between the guerrilla and the "people" as "water ... to the fish who inhabit it".
The newspaper images of young women tied to lamp posts in Belfast and Derry had a deterrent effect but it was the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville that completed the message.
At some point shortly before her disappearance a decision was made at senior level in the Provisional IRA in west Belfast that she would be made the ultimate example in their campaign of mass coercion of the Catholic population. The order for her execution would have been made by Seamus Twomey.
The sequence of events thereafter still surrounds – but does not appear to have damaged – Gerry Adams. Adams was, allegedly, the second in command in Belfast who passed the order down to the team of men and women who carried out the murder and disappearance. He was questioned by the PSNI about these allegations, but Gerry Adams denies any involvement in these events.
The murder of Jean McConville was part of a series of co-ordinated staged events that led to the creation of the "water" in which the IRA fish could swim.
The key event in this period was Bloody Sunday in January 1972 in which, after the IRA opened fire on it, the Parachute Regiment indiscriminately fired into protesters, killing 12 of them.
The IRA campaign had already been significantly advanced when the army eventually imposed a curfew in the Falls the previous year and fired large amounts of CS gas which hung in suffocating clouds over the lower Falls. The introduction of internment without trial in August 1971 further compounded the alienation process.
Key to the process was the staging of riots, the first aimed at stopping an Orange Order parade to Springfield Orange hall in Ballymurphy, where the Adams family lived, in March 1970. The riots quickly became the background to gun battles.
Again in Ballymurphy, in August 1971 IRA men opened fire, and over two days of fighting 10 Catholic civilians were killed. Sinn Fein is currently demanding a Bloody Sunday-type inquiry into this "massacre". The gun battle was a three-way affair that raged between the IRA and the British Army but also included the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
As well as firing at the British Army base on the Springfield Road, the IRA fired at houses in the Protestant Springmartin estate above and behind the barracks.
The UVF responded by taking up positions on the hill overlooking Ballymurphy and returning mostly indiscriminate fire. Ten Catholics were killed in Ballymurphy, including the local curate, Fr Hugh Mullan, who was assisting an injured man.
Alongside these events, teams of IRA members, young men and women, were directed to target anyone who showed signs of non-support for their campaign. Young men who refused to sign up to the IRA were accused of being informers or criminals and were beaten and forced out of their home areas.
By the end of 1972 the "water/fish" project was more or less complete. In its revised history of the period Sinn Fein paints a picture of community spontaneously and collectively rising up against the imposition of British military rule. In reality the process was far more complicated. Any young man deemed an informer was shot dead. One of these, Bernard Taggart, was the 16-year-old son of one of the victims of the Ballymurphy gunbattle. The youth was said to have the mental age of an eight-year-old.
Jean McConville was a prime target for these IRA figures. She had, according to her family, placed a pillow under the head of a dying soldier shot near her home in St Jude's Walk, in the Divis Flats complex. The family's recollection that republicans daubed 'Brit Lover' on the door ties in with the recollections of other local people.
Jean McConville had been born a Protestant and married a Catholic young man from the Falls who had actually served in the British Army. Arthur McConville's Army background – he died earlier in 1972 – and his wife's religion secured the justification of the major step of murdering a woman. None of the other female "collaborators" were murdered purely for reasons of preventing revulsion among their fellow Catholics.
Mrs McConville's religion and her forced disappearance also ensured that there would be no denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit; several priests in west Belfast were vehemently opposed to what the IRA was doing.
The fact that Jean and her family had only moved to the Falls in 1969 added to the impression that she was an outsider. The suggestion that she was an active informer working for the British Army is strongly disputed by her family, some of whom were teenagers at the time and recollected that she had undergone a nervous breakdown after the death of her husband from cancer in February 1972.
The IRA claim that it found two radio transmitters in her home was never backed up with any evidence. On other occasions where the IRA found electronic listening devices or other British army equipment, it was usually photographed and pictures used in An Phoblacht.
Mrs McConville's life after her husband's death was pitiably hard. She was bringing up 10 young children on her husband's small pension and social security benefit. One son was in borstal, another had a severe kidney illness and one of the girls suffered a broken leg.
Mrs McConville was abducted from her home on the night of December 6, taken to a house about two miles away, beaten and left to walk home on a freezing night in her bare feet. The following night a group of men and women burst into the house, dragged her from her bath and drove off with her. She was never seen again.
The IRA gang told the children they were taking their mother for only a few hours. However, the children were left to fend for themselves over Christmas with almost no money or food.
Helen, then 15, was the head of the family. Some neighbours and their grandmother helped. An IRA man later brought back their mother's purse, which contained her wedding ring.
The children eventually contacted the local civil rights office, which issued a statement about the disappearance. This led to some local news coverage. However, over the next few days, the IRA managed to persuade some local journalists that Mrs McConville had abandoned her children and gone to England with a soldier.
Another of the grim anecdotes surrounding Mrs McConville's murder was that the IRA reputedly used her to "blood" a 17-year-old junior member of the IRA. It is claimed the job of shooting her through the back of the head as she knelt in front of her grave was given to a local youth, Pat McGeown, later to join the Maze hunger strike and then become a Sinn Fein councillor, before dying at the age of 44 in 1996.