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.