Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Opinion

Column: Justice delayed, and denied, in Northern Ireland

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Silence sometimes speaks eloquently. Imagine the haunting, whispery voice of Jean McConville — a widowed mother of 10 assassinated by the Irish Republican Army — pleading to be found and for justice to be done.

After an IRA bullet to the back of her head brutally ended her life, the Belfast woman was secretly buried south of the Northern Ireland border, beneath the beach sands on the Cooley Peninsula of County Louth, Ireland. For more than three decades, people came and went, not knowing that her body lay buried nearby. My family — my wife and three young sons — were among the many passersby.

She had been dragged down the steps of her apartment building in West Belfast after being snatched from her children by a dozen abductors one night in 1972. The IRA had already beaten her up a week earlier for allegedly being a snitch — a charge later rejected by a formal inquiry. Her children had pleaded with her to seek safety at their grandmother's house. But Jean stayed. She died.

While on a sabbatical trip to the British Isles, my family and I rented a bungalow on the Cooley Peninsula. That gave me easy access Belfast to do some academic research. This was in 1979, when bombs, bullets and Belfast were nearly synonymous. I had been advised to leave my family below the border and go on to Belfast by myself. I did.

The three weeks I was gone, my wife and boys roamed the peninsula on daytime excursions. A nun they met on a pathway through the woods told them how to make potato bread. But darker things were going on nearby.

County Louth was an IRA staging area for terrorist attacks — and secretly burying bodies. The remote-control device that murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten was being field-tested in the woods while we were there. Weeks later, and on that same day the queen's cousin was killed, the IRA also activated two bombs from the banks of the peninsula that killed 26 British soldiers on the other side of the border.

Jean McConville perched perilously on the sectarian divide that's so often dealt death and spawned bitterness in Northern Ireland. Born Protestant, she married a Catholic. She was a turncoat no matter which way she turned. Jean's family was finally forced out of a Protestant housing estate and into a Catholic one — which also turned hostile after her husband died. Then came the nasty run of rumors — Jean a snitch, Jean allegedly aiding a wounded British soldier. Her abduction and murder followed.

As part of the 1998 peace process, the IRA admitted responsibility for nine of "the disappeared," including Jean McConville, and provided leads on the location of bodies.

The search for Jean's remains came to Cooley but came up empty. Then a storm found Jean's body. The resultant beach erosion exposed her corpse in 2003. She finally came home to Belfast for proper burial.

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were slowly turning. Rumors rippled through West Belfast of Gerry Adams' alleged involvement in Jean's death. A project at Boston College recorded interviews with former terrorists — both republican and loyalist — as part of the reconciliation process. The truth began dribbling out.

Brendan Hughes, a member of the IRA Belfast Brigade, and Dolours Price, who bombed the Old Bailey in London with her sister Marian, both stated that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had ordered Jean McConville's abduction, death and secret burial. Dolours said she had driven the car across the border that delivered McConville to an IRA execution squad. Adams, who earlier had falling outs with both of his accusers over the peace process, denies any involvement in the murder.

Adams was released from police custody without charge Sunday, although a file of potential evidence was handed to prosecutors. His recent arrest and possible prosecution is bringing all this to a climax on the eve of elections north and south of the border. He is back on the campaign trail.

I've written and taught on the Troubles for years, including a recent article comparing the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing to the Price sisters of Northern Ireland. Accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be brought to trial this fall; I doubt if Gerry Adams ever is.

James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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