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The woman who haunts the IRA This year's Orwell Prize-winning book sheds clear light on past ambiguities

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

June 26, 2019   8 mins

There’s a memorable scene in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Winston Smith, confirmed in his loathing for Big Brother and the all-powerful Party, believes that he is being inducted into a secret organisation called the Brotherhood which works to overthrow the state.

A representative of The Brotherhood, named O’Brien, asks Smith a series of questions to test his loyalty to the revolutionary cause. They range across Smith’s preparedness to commit acts of betrayal, sabotage and murder, including: “If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face – are you prepared to do that?” Smith answers unhesitatingly that he is.

At the end of the book, with the Party still in power, and the Brotherhood revealed to have been a front for it, O’Brien plays back to a broken Smith the recording of his declared readiness to do those terrible things. He intends to make a mockery of Smith’s residual belief in his own moral superiority, even though Smith never actually carried out any such deed.

Yet another question hangs in the air: when the ends are used to justify the means – and sometimes very brutal means indeed – then how does the psyche retrospectively process its acquiescence in such means, if those ends have not ultimately been achieved?

This scene, written in 1948, came back to me as I read Patrick Radden Keefe’s masterly book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which has deservedly won the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

In it, a similar question of appalling means and unresolved ends returns to haunt some of those who were part of the IRA’s long campaign.

Say Nothing is the intensely sad story of Jean McConville, a working-class widow and mother of 10 who was abducted from her home in West Belfast, murdered and ‘disappeared’ by an IRA unit in 1972.

But it is also the story of those IRA members involved in her murder, in particular Dolours Price, who died in 2013, aged 62, after taking a toxic mixture of prescription drugs. By the time that Price admitted to her role in McConville’s murder – to the journalist Ed Moloney in 2010 – she was a fragile individual outside the mainstream Republican fold, heavily disillusioned with the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and his political strategy, and tormented by depression and a history of anorexia nervosa.

Yet, at one time Price and her sister Marian were not only extremely close to Gerry Adams, but also the poster-girls for militant Irish republicanism in an era when idealised images of ‘revolutionary’ women had begun to attract international attention. The young and glamorous Price sisters drew press coverage for their role in a high-profile London bombing campaign in 1973, for which they were jailed along with six others.

Keefe’s account captures the fanatical and stubborn certainties of these young IRA women as they moved in the thick of a conflict that was dangerously over-heating on all sides – and also their initial, heady excitement: donning disguises, pretending to flirt with unwitting British soldiers, bringing London to a standstill.

The Price sisters came from a Belfast republican family, which took pride in its history of IRA involvement. The girls had imbibed stories of it from an early age: their aunt Bridie, who lived with them, had lost both hands and been blinded while handling IRA explosives and their father Albert had been a prominent IRA man in the 1940s.

Dolours, Keefe writes, was at first confident that a political route would succeed in redressing inequalities in housing and reforming Northern Ireland’s antiquated local election system which discriminated against Catholics. But the concerted ambush in 1969 of a student ‘People’s Democracy’ march at Burntollet Bridge by an armed loyalist mob – whipped up by a young firebrand preacher called Ian Paisley – while police did little to provide protection, changed her mind.

With her familial radicalism reinvigorated by events, in 1971 the trainee teacher Dolours Price requested to join the nascent Provisional IRA. So did her sister Marian. A special meeting of the Provisional IRA was convened to determine that for the first time women could join the organisation as full members: with the Price sisters, women’s lib had reached the PIRA campaign.

Meanwhile a disastrous British policy of sweeping internment of Catholic youths was followed, in 1972, by the events of Bloody Sunday, both of which contributed heavily to support for the IRA.

Women’s lib had not, however, done much for Jean McConville. The recent widow had fallen into depression after her husband Arthur, a Catholic ex-serviceman, died of cancer. Theirs had been a mixed marriage – Jean was born Protestant – and she was now struggling alone to look after her 10 children, the eldest of whom was 17, in a council flat in Divis Flats. The army frequently patrolled there and republican “paramilitaries were embedded throughout the complex”.

In a city marked by the scarred geography of intensifying sectarian warfare, the McConvilles had found themselves objects of suspicion on both sides: too Catholic for East Belfast, too Protestant for Divis in West Belfast. The McConville children clearly recall an incident – which the author tries and fails to locate in the records – when their mother comforted an injured British soldier and they had “Brit-lover” daubed on their door.

Keefe is both forensic and lyrical in his approach. He successfully evokes the tightening, nauseous claustrophobia of place and time, the swirl of rumour, and the sense of intimate, escalating bullying as the vulnerable McConville family first grew isolated from the Divis community and then was overtly targeted by the IRA. The IRA alleged that Jean McConville was using a radio transmitter to pass local information to the British (something which the McConville family strongly denies, and for which the police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan found no evidence in her 2006 investigation).

After being beaten up once by the IRA, McConville was abducted, protesting, from the family home one night in December 1972 by a large group of male and female IRA members. Among them was Dolours Price. Jean McConville was never seen alive again. Her children were not told where she had gone, although her rings and purse were returned to them a week after her disappearance.

Footage still exists of the confused, motherless McConville children being interviewed in January 1973 on the local news, Scene Around Six. It is almost unbearably painful to watch: the smaller children huddle into the two older girls like nestlings exposed to the storm. Their mother, unbeknownst to them, had already been ‘disappeared’ by the IRA: shot and buried without trace. In 2003, her body was unearthed on a beach in County Louth, with the nappy pin she always carried still stuck to her clothing.

Say Nothing is about the McConville family and what they courageously endured, a trauma compounded by some horrendous experiences in residential care. It is also about the trajectory of the Provisional IRA movement, of revolutionary ideals begetting deep cruelties and how those deeds return to haunt their perpetrators.

Towards the end of her life, a troubled Dolours Price – who later married the actor Stephen Rea and had two sons – began to talk to trusted contacts, friends and journalists. She revealed that she and her sister Marian were in an IRA unit called The Unknowns, which answered directly to Gerry Adams himself and did what Keefe calls “dangerous, secretive, sometimes unsavoury work”. It was work such as driving alleged informers to their IRA killing, and even (as in the McConville case) carrying out the killing themselves.

Some of Price’s later quotes are chilling, including her disparaging of the memory of the undoubtedly terrified Jean McConville – “she talked too much” – and flashes of the ideological ruthlessness that first propelled her into action: on the question of informers, she told Moloney, she had believed “they were less than human. Death was too good for them.”

Yet she was also clearly tormented by what she had been steeped in, arguing that she had been “required to act in a way that was contrary to my nature”.

The abandonment of the IRA ‘armed struggle,’ which came as such a relief to the rest of the world, had left many of its former combatants psychologically high and dry. If – seen through Price’s eyes – the involvement of the British state in Northern Ireland was indeed Big Brother, then the ‘armed struggle’ had ended with Big Brother still in situ, and the IRA responsible for roughly 1,800 dead.

Adams would assure his supporters that he was playing the ‘long game’ and that Irish unity could be pursued more effectively through political strategy. Time may or may not eventually prove him right. Since the ceasefires, Sinn Fein has retrospectively sought to cast the IRA campaign as more about ‘civil rights’ than a united Ireland (the dissident republican Kevin Hannaway, Adam’s cousin, countered this tendency with: “If they were out for an Irish Republic, they failed. If they were out for civil rights, they got it in 1973. So what the fucking hell was the other 30 years of war for?”) For ex-IRA members such as Price, however, who had gone through imprisonment, hunger-strikes and force-feeding for a united Ireland, Adams’ long game felt more like ‘game over’.

As Keefe writes: “Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury: she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for her own conduct.” Extreme means had left their scars, even on those who dispensed them, and ends had not been delivered. Meanwhile, there were growing revelations about the degree to which the inner circle of the IRA had been penetrated by British intelligence.

As Price talked openly about the details of what had gone on, she made one particularly explosive allegation: that Adams had a decisive role as her ‘officer commanding’ in ordering McConville’s murder and disappearance.

Her claim was backed up by the late Brendan Hughes, a prominent former Belfast IRA man and one-time close companion of Adams, when Hughes gave evidence to the controversial Boston College academic project. The project confidentially recorded testimonies from the Troubles on the basis that they would only be released after the interviewee’s death or with their consent. Hughes died in 2008.

Along the way, the Irish republican revolution had devoured many of its own children, in particular those who – for personal or political reasons – felt they could no longer be part of the enveloping post-conflict Sinn Fein worldview. It did not, however, devour Gerry Adams, who emerges from these pages as an icily strategic figure with an unusual ability to compartmentalise his personal history. He has always denied being in the IRA, a position which may have begun as a practical strategy to avoid arrest but has ended up looking like a canny distancing from the bloody reality of what the IRA did.

Yet Hughes and Price both alleged that it was Adams himself who gave orders for McConville not only to be killed but also ‘disappeared’ (despite the objections of the veteran IRA hard-liner Ivor Bell who, Hughes said, argued for McConville’s body to be displayed openly as a warning to others accused of defying IRA edicts). Their emphatic recollection sits in direct opposition to what Adams personally told the McConville family – that he was certain the IRA had killed their mother, but he had no idea who authorised it.

In 2014, Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned over Jean McConville, but prosecutors later announced that he would not face any criminal charges. Ivor Bell, in contrast, was charged with involvement in the McConville murder, but the prosecution was abandoned on the grounds that the elderly Bell was ‘unfit for trial’.

Of all the ghosts created by the IRA, it is perhaps Jean McConville who has returned to haunt the organisation most relentlessly and powerfully. In this book, Adams’s insistence – as alleged by Price and Hughes – on ‘disappearing’ McConville would seem to echo Adams’ wider strategy through his long and morally complex history: to bury stomach-churning realities, layer them in ambiguities and denials, and forever seek to elude wider judgement.

That strategy, broadly speaking, has served him well. Today, Adams’ Twitter feed is a curated mixture of social justice campaigning, jokes, poetry and sanitised Troubles reminiscences. Last year he published a ‘Negotiators’ Cookbook’ full of homely dishes that he said sustained the Sinn Fein team in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement.

He is TD for Louth, the very county in which Jean McConville met her lonely death with a shot to the back of the head. And he appears now to be officially feted in the US as Ireland’s most authentic representative: in 2018 the New York Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly awarded Adams freedom of the city and anounced that he was renaming St Patrick’s Day ‘Gerry Adams Day’ while the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, looked on. Throughout, Adams has appeared to suffer little of the psychological distress which clearly beset Price, Hughes and numerous other ex-IRA members.

As a journalist who grew up in Northern Ireland, I am familiar with many of the histories in Say Nothing, but Keefe weaves them together with gripping clarity and skill. He adds some fresh hypotheses of his own, chiefly the suggestion – arrived at by piecing together information from Dolours Price and other sources – that it was Marian Price who fired the shot that killed McConville, something that Marian Price vehemently denies.

This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland during the Troubles, its sadness and squalor, and its complex, feverish texture. Keefe grew up among the Irish Americans of Boston, a community that – as he says – has tended to view IRA violence through “the sentimental attitudes of tribal solidarity”. But there’s no touch of green mist permeating the writing here – or, indeed, mist of any variety. For those of us who have grown weary of selective ambiguities, it comes as a relief to watch a stranger take our murky, disputed past and lay it out, as clearly as he can, under the light.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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