Mother’s Captors in Plain Sight, Child of the Troubles Seeks Justice

KATRIN BENNHOLD / New York Times News Service

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Helen McKendry was shopping recently when she spied a former neighbor who she is sure was one of the members of the Irish Republican Army who burst into her home 42 years ago and abducted her mother.

They stared at each other, then moved on.

It has always been that way for McKendry and her nine brothers and sisters, the children of Jean McConville, a widow who was wrongly suspected by the IRA of being an informer and dragged out of her living room in front of her family one afternoon in 1972. She was shot in the back of the head and buried on a beach in the Republic of Ireland. Her body was not discovered until 2003, when it was exposed during a storm.

The children grew up and went about their lives knowing the identities of most of the men and women who took their mother, but they never dared go to the police. They say they still see her abductors around town, even on a list of candidates running in local elections this month for Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the IRA and one of Ireland’s main political parties.

But now McKendry, 56, the eldest daughter in the family, says she is no longer afraid to speak up. Out of the house when her mother’s abductors came, she says she was told their names by her siblings immediately afterward. She says she gave those names to the police in March, after she became convinced they were serious about investigating the murder. She has also filed a civil suit against Sinn Fein.

“If they want to put a bullet in my head, well, they know where I live,” she said in an interview at her home outside Belfast.

In this city where walls up to 45 feet tall still separate Catholics from Protestants, a very different kind of wall has sprouted over the years: one of fearful silence over injustices committed within the same community, at first in the service of war, and then, after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement ended decades of violence, in the interests of peace.

But cracks have been appearing. First, confidential accounts by former IRA members were subpoenaed by the police from an oral history project at Boston College. Then in April, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader who was instrumental in negotiating the Good Friday agreement, was questioned over McConville’s murder. Now it has emerged that NBC News has asked a judge to unseal all subpoenaed materials from the Boston College interviews.

One of McKendry’s brothers, Michael McConville, said in a separate interview that he too wants justice but will remain silent, fearing the consequences for his family. The fact that the police offered him a new identity and witness protection as recently as 18 months ago has only reinforced his fear.

“I know what they’re capable of,” McConville said of the IRA, officially disbanded since 2005 but still a presence.

It is a familiar story to many families who have seen the effort to move past the Troubles overlook the unresolved issues surrounding those they lost to violence.

In January 2005, as sensitive discussions about the decommissioning of IRA arms were taking place, Robert McCartney, a Catholic father of two, was stabbed to death in a bar fight involving a former IRA member. Questioned by the police, more than 70 witnesses in the bar claimed to have been in the bathroom at the time of the murder. There was no forensic evidence; the bar had been scrubbed clean. The next morning, graffiti appeared on a wall outside his family home: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

But no case has shaken the uneasy peace more than the killing of Jean McConville.

The tight-knit Divis Flats neighborhood in West Belfast, where the McConvilles once lived, is on edge. Fresh graffiti has appeared across the area denouncing “Republican informers” and “touts.” On Falls Road, a front-line during the Troubles, a new mural of Adams was hastily painted after his brief arrest this month. “Leader, Peacemaker, Visionary,” a label on it reads. Next to the portrait is a fading quote from Frank Stagg, an IRA hunger striker: “I want my memorial to be peace with justice.”

Locals question whether both things are possible at the same time. Like other victims of the Troubles - especially among those whose assailants came from within their own religions and neighborhoods - the McConvilles have lived without justice, victims in their eyes of a political decision that the best way toward a future of peace in Northern Ireland is to forget the past rather than make an aggressive effort to account for it.

Younger residents expressed a guarded sympathy for the McConvilles’ quest for the truth. “If it was my family I would like to think I’d be fighting until I had no more fighting left inside of me,” said Donna, 29, who like many here declined to give her last name. But she also worried that it could set off a new bout of violence: “Most people from that time still live here,” she said.

Some McConville children have told their children that their grandmother died of cancer, McKendry said. She does not blame them: When she first started campaigning to recover her mother’s body in 1995, appealing for anonymous tipoffs about where she might be buried, two of her children were beaten up, her car was vandalized and her husband was threatened at gunpoint. (Nobody ever did come forward with accurate information; instead her mother’s remains were discovered by chance in 2003 when a beach walker 50 miles south of Belfast in the Republic of Ireland discovered her tweed coat sticking out from the sand.)

Michael McConville, who was 11 at the time of the abduction, still remembers how he and his siblings had clung onto their mother, a terrified tangle of small arms and legs trying to tie her to the living-room sofa. The youngest of them, twins, were just 6 years old.

In the end, they let go. Familiar voices had called their names and calmed them. Some of the intruders were masked, but McConville said the children knew them well. Many lived in their housing project - one woman just a couple of doors down on the same floor. “Don’t fuss,” she had told them. “We’re only going to take your mother for questioning.”

About a week later he knew that his mother was dead. There was a knock on the door. A young man he had never seen before handed over her small black-and-red purse. Inside were three rings - her wedding and engagement rings and one other - and 52 pence.

Shortly after, a group of teenage boys grabbed him on the stairwell of his apartment building. They pulled a wool sweater over his eyes and marched him across the street and into the back of an empty house. Through the roughly knitted stitches, McConville could make out their faces: Two of them were boys who knew his older brother and had been to his house, he said.

Taking instructions from an older man, they bound him to a chair and beat him, warning him never to breathe a word. They stuck a penknife into his left thigh and fired a mock gun against the back of his knee.(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

McKendry recalled taking her youngest daughter for a birthday treat at McDonald’s. It was 1995, shortly after a cease-fire had been agreed and McKendry had started her campaign to recover her mother’s body. She was 37 at the time, the age her mother had been when she was killed.

They were standing at the counter ordering food when her daughter said: “Mummy, that woman is screaming at you.” She turned around and it was the neighbor that had lived a couple of doors down from them all those years ago. “She was shouting that I should stop telling lies,” McKendry said.

McConville said that one day he might be able to forgive the people who killed his mother.

“But someone needs to pay for it,” he said. “I am not prepared to choose between peace and justice.”