I wonder how many times I’ve seen that grainy black and white picture. The white top with the high neckline – is it a pinafore? The short black hair – or is it simply tied back? The folded arms, defensive, or perhaps just a bit embarrassed. The half-smile. The eyes, narrowing – is it the sun, or a quizzical look towards the photographer?
Jean McConville. Mother of ten and widow. Abducted in 1972 by the IRA in front of her children at her West Belfast home. Murdered with a shot to the back of the head and buried at a County Louth beach with no admission and no information. Disappeared.
This ghostly image is the only picture I’ve ever seen of Jean McConville. Perhaps it’s the only one that exists. Some images lose their potency the more you see them. Not this one. Whether cropped to reveal Mrs McConville alone, or in its larger form with three smiling children alongside, it continues to shock. To haunt.
This is where the human horror and tragedy of “The Troubles” or “The War” stares at us in the blinkered comfort of our peace. We can look away, as many have for decades, but events often have a way of finally confronting us.
And here is the horrible thought, the gnawing doubt: does Jean McConville matter less than peace on the streets of Belfast where she once lived? Are her children, and many other victims and survivors required to pay the price of justice denied for the sake of peace secured.
Listening to Sinn Fein in recent days you might gain that impression. Gerry Adams’ arrest is “political policing” by “dark forces” within the PSNI and security services. It is an attack on peace and the political process, the party alleges.
But are the police not entitled to question Mr Adams in relation to this terrible event if they have legitimate lines of inquiry?
It is the job of police – everywhere – to catch criminals. That’s what they’re supposed to do and presumably that’s what they want to do in relation to this murder.
Sinn Fein representatives question the timing of the arrest. I’m not sure when they think would have been an opportune moment to haul their party president in for interrogation. But its reasonable to assume – given that the PSNI only received the evidence of the Boston College interviews last month – that they’ve been preparing rather than delaying before speaking to Mr Adams.
It might be more legitimate to question the timing of the investigation itself. Why was nothing done in 1972? The Ombudsman’s report into the case finds that there was effectively no police investigation at the time. Nobody cared enough to bother.
So, was the more recent decision to seek information from Boston College a grand conspiracy by those dark forces to destroy the peace? Again, it’s hard to find evidence to support that conclusion.
Cops hate unsolved crime. Here was one of the most widely known unsolved cases during the conflict and apparently people involved in that crime had confessed in interviews which were held in Boston College. What cop wouldn’t have wanted to know the contents of those interviews?
And once the legal process had begun was there anything any politician or senior police chief could or should do to halt it? Of course not. That, would have been political policing.
The evidence suggests that this is not political policing. It is, however, policing within a political vacuum.
Sinn Fein says there needs to be a wider process to deal with past cases and address the issues of justice and truth. Gerry Adams reiterated that view in his statement coinciding with his arrest:
“Sinn Fein has signed up to the Haass proposals for dealing with the past. While I also respect the right of families if they wish to seek legal redress there remains a huge onus on the two governments and the political parties to face up to all these issues and to agree a victim centred process which does this.”
But the Haass proposals to which Sinn Fein has signed up include recommending the creation of a Historical Investigations Unit that would investigate past crimes (combining the operations of the current Ombudsman and Historical Enquiries Team) and make recommendations to the Public Prosecution Service. So, even under proposals that Sinn Fein supports, there is every chance that an investigation and possible prosecution relating to the McConville case would proceed.
The Haass proposals also suggest the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval. This new body would encourage, at the request of victims, those involved in past killings and violent acts to come forward and tell their story. The information they give could not be used to prosecute them, but it may provide some help to victims and survivors seeking truth and facts about past cases.
However, once again the door is left open to prosecutions if new information comes to light through other channels. Which is exactly what has happened in the McConville case. Information was previously given to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains about Jean McConville. It turned out to be inaccurate, but nonetheless nothing passed to the commission could be used in any prosecution.
Official searches failed to locate Jean McConville’s body, it was only discovered by accident by a dog walker in 2003 following a heavy storm which had led to coastal erosion, revealing the grim contents of the shallow grave.
Because Jean McConville’s body was found independently and not as part of the official process, forensic evidence can be pursued and because the information in the Boston College tapes is not privileged or subject to any limited immunity, it too can be used for investigative purposes.
The Haass proposals – that Sinn Fein says it supports – state categorically that there will be no amnesty. Yet, that may be the party’s ultimate goal.
Last month, Mid Ulster Sinn Fein MP Francie Molloy speculated about the need for a de facto amnesty.
“We have to find a way of dealing with the past which is not about vengeance, and that goes for all sides,” he said.
By all sides, he’s including not just republican and loyalist paramilitaries but also state forces – a difficult pill for many republicans to swallow.
But the MP seemed to suggest that campaigns for justice for republican victims were proving futile: “We’ve never got justice for the families of any of the victims of British rule in Ireland, there have been very few people brought to court, never mind convicted.
“To hold out on getting that justice, the danger is that we drag everybody back into the minefield of the past. That means we have to draw a line, we have to find a means of resolving those differences in a different way rather than relying on the courts to deal with the past,” he added.
Molloy’s comments were not widely reported, coming in the midst of President Higgins State Visit to the UK, but although he suggested he was speaking in a personal capacity, it’s hard not to see this an early indication of where Sinn Fein policy will go.
What’s more, the comments come in the midst of a building campaign from British sources for much the same solution. Former Secretary of State Peter Hain has suggested an effective amnesty and current Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has suggested there is currently too much focus on past wrongs of the state and this needs to change.
When politicians say they want to draw a line under the past, they may – in fact – be seeking a means to forget it entirely. An amnesty of sorts could ultimately suit state and paramilitary alike. It may also have tacit international backing – the Northern Ireland peace process is not going to be a useful model to sell abroad to others engaged in violence if one of its main architects is being pursued for alleged misdeeds dating from the conflict.
Of course, none of this would help victims or deliver justice. The pragmatists will argue that it is a sacrifice that allows Northern Ireland to move on from its past. But that faded photograph of the lady in white will continue to haunt.
(This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 4th 2014)