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The murder of Jean McConville was a crime, by any standards anywhere

THE ghost of Jean McConville has haunted Mitchel McLaughlin as much as it has haunted Gerry Adams and the members of the west Belfast IRA unit that abducted and murdered the widowed mother of 10 young children in December 1972.

The issue of Mrs McConville's murder and disappearance hung over McLaughlin's campaign to win a first European Parliament seat in 1999. As McLaughlin was tramping the hustings for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, the TV and newspapers were carrying pictures of gardai digging a section of beach the size of a football pitch in their vain search for the McConville children's mother. The body was not found. McLaughlin failed to win the seat.

It was to take almost another four years before a man playing with his children noticed a piece of faded material and found it attached to a skeleton, almost half a mile from the spot where the IRA had claimed to have buried the young widow.

The forensic examination of the skeletal remains told the story of what the IRA had done. She had her shoes taken off her, was probably walked to the shallow grave already dug by local IRA men and was then killed with a single shot to the back of the head.

It was only at the inquest last year that the McConville children finally learned that fact and have begun to come to terms with what happened.

It was by this accidental discovery and the process of post mortem and inquest that they learned the truth. It was also the point at which the lies spread about Jean McConville by the IRA and Sinn Fein were also finally buried.

The lying and persecution of the family began almost immediately after her abduction and murder. The local republicans daubed "soldier lover" on the family door and then spread a rumour - and actually told the hungry, lonely children that their mother had abandoned them and run off with a British soldier.

Not a single person on the Falls Road believed the fabrication. Everyone knew the IRA was engaged in a campaign of isolating and ostracising anyone who showed sympathy to the British army. In the couple of months before Jean McConville's disappearance, at least 14 women were taken from their homes and beaten. Some had their heads shaved, some were tied to lamp posts and tarred and feathered.

Mrs McConville, republican sources now say, was murdered not only because she was suspected of having shown some kindness to an injured soldier but also because she was a Protestant who married a Catholic and moved to the Falls Road.

Her children, looked after by their 14-year-old sister Helen, were left completely alone and to fend for themselves for five weeks. Neighbours in the Divis Flats complex actually ignored the children, mainly out of fear of reprisal from the IRA.

Helen, as well as providing for her younger brothers and sisters, was also desperately trying to find out about what had happened to her mother. No one on the Falls Road offered any help.

Eventually she went to the Civil Rights office in Belfast city centre and asked them to help. The Civil Rights people drew the disappearance to the attention of the media and the children were filmed in their spartan maisonette, bewildered and frightened.

The family was then taken into official care and split up, sent to orphanages and into foster care.

Helen, however, never gave up trying to find out what happened to her mother. When she married the resourceful and inquisitive Seamus McKendry from the Falls Road, he joined her quest.

He spoke to hundreds of Provisionals, none of whom was too helpful. He and Helen were repeatedly threatened. "I was told on more occasions than I can remember that if I didn't give this thing up, I would get my head blown off," he said.

But he and Helen persisted. Finally they found and befriended one senior Provisional, who agreed to make inquiries. He told Seamus that Mrs McConville had been shot dead, but nothing about what had happened to her body.

Helen and Seamus then went public, enlisting the help of some journalists and newspapers to promote their search. They found out about the other 'disappeared', and the movement for the return of the bodies gathered momentum alongside the IRA's ceasefire and the "peace process".

Sinn Fein figures tried on several occasions to try and block the McKendrys, continuing to threaten Seamus and Helen. The couple and their children were forced to flee their home in Poleglass because of threats. They moved to a mixed area in south Co Down but the threats continued.

The publicity given to the cases of the 'disappeared' meant that the McKendrys continued to be given some support. A couple of months after being forced out of west Belfast, the couple were invited to a reception at the American consulate in Belfast. A Sinn Fein guest at the party came over to Seamus and pointedly asked how Seamus's father was getting on and mentioned that he lived at Crossgar in Co Down. He then said to Seamus that he knew that he and Helen were living not too far away, either.

"It was just to tell us that they knew where we were and to shut up," said Seamus, who ignored the threat.

The return of the 'disappeared' was written into the deal with the IRA under which its prisoners werereleased.

McLaughlin's declaration on Monday night's Questions and Answers that the abduction and murder of Jean McConville was "wrong" but not a crime led to Helen McKendry calling for his resignation as chairman of Sinn Fein, something which is reliably expected not to happen. "And he is supposed to be one of their more civilised people - he's a school teacher, for goodness sake," remarked Seamus McKendry.

Helen was grievously disturbed by McLaughlin's remark but has received no apology or explanation from Sinn Fein. The other seven remaining brothers and sisters live mainly in Catholic working-class areas where the IRA are unlikely to express criticism of McLaughlin or Adams for fear of reprisal. Threats were made against the family at the time of Mrs McConville's burial, when an IRA figure is said to have told family members that if they buried their mother in Milltown Cemetery off the Falls Road - where the republican plot is located - they would be following their mother into the graveyard in their own coffins.

As Fintan O'Toole, writing in Tuesday's Irish Times pointed out, the murder of Jean McConville was, by all accepted national and international legal standards, a crime.

He pointed out that the International Criminal Court, of which Ireland is a member, clearly states that war crimes do apply to "an armed conflict not of an internationalcharacter".

And, he went on: "Under this heading, it defines as crimes a number of acts against non-combatants that the IRA perpetrated against Jean McConville, including 'violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture', and 'the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all judicial guarantees which are generally recognised as indispensable'.

"The IRA's refusal to disclose Jean McConville's fate or produce her body also constituted a war crime, that of 'enforced disappearance of persons', defined as 'the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organisation, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons'," wrote Fintan O'Toole.

Unlike their calls for inquiries into the killing of 12 people in Derry in January 1972, the bombings of Dublin and Monaghan by the UVF in 1974 and the murder of Pat Finucane, Sinn Fein and Mitchel McLaughlin will not call for any inquiry or prosecution for the murder of Jean McConville or any other IRA atrocity.