In a recent issue of the New Yorker there was a review by Patrick Radden Keefe of a documentary film, I, Dolours, composed largely of extracts from an interview with Dolours Price, a former Provisional IRA terrorist (she preferred the term volunteer), which describes in detail how she helped in the kidnapping, murder and burial of Jean McConville, a widow and mother of ten children, in Belfast in the 1970s. More than 3000 people were murdered in the Troubles, but the circumstances of Mrs McConville’s murder were particularly horrifying. Her children clung crying to her skirts in a vain attempt to prevent her abduction, and the Provos made them wait almost thirty years before confirming her death. As a result her murder has become notorious beyond the norm of terrorist horrors on both sides of the Irish border.
After the Good Friday Agreement the IRA admitted the kidnapping and murder of McConville, and Price broke the Provo code of omerta further by acknowledging that she had taken part in these actions on the instructions of Gerry Adams. He denies this, of course, but he also denies that he was in the IRA. In the film, however, Price gives more details of what happened and of the much more central role she played than anyone had revealed before.
John O’Sullivan’s column appears in every edition of Quadrant.
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She was a member of a group within the Provos called “The Unknowns” who took on tasks requiring an especially strong stomach—among which was transporting their victims, usually informers, across the border to the Republic where they could be killed and buried. Some of those being transported were unaware that there were “marked for death” and given various soothing explanations for the journey. Their murderers were often only slightly better informed. Price learned that McConville was a mother with a large family from her victim during the ride. She went ahead anyway.
Indeed, she did rather more. She and her two companions were supposed to hand McConville to local Provos for the actual murder. But: “They didn’t want to do it,” she says, of the local IRA men. “They couldn’t bring themselves to execute her. Probably because she was a woman.”
“So you guys had to do it?” Ed Moloney, the American journalist who carried out the interview, asks. “There had been a grave dug by the Dundalk unit,” Price says. So the three Unknowns took McConville to the edge of the grave and shot her in the back of the head.
Price paid no legal price for her role in this murder, but she may have suffered a worse penalty. Keefe tells us that she “had struggled with alcohol and prescription pills, and been diagnosed with PTSD [and] she was being treated at a local psychiatric hospital”. She died in 2013, not long after the interview, of an overdose of pills. Though Keefe tells us that she was composed and coherent in the interview, he also observes that in describing the murder she slips into the third person—and what Anthony Daniels has explained as the excusative version of the passive voice: “It is clear in the film that she is acknowledging her own responsibility, yet she recounts the act as though it was carried out by someone else.” McConville “was taken by the three volunteers to the grave, and shot in the back of the head by one of the volunteers”, Price tells Moloney.
In the end, however, she faces up both to what she has done and to the limited benefits of a purely psychological confession. Some consequences she cannot escape: “Do the disappeared haunt you?” Moloney asks Price. “Yes,” she replies. “I think back on those who I had responsibility for driving away. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I would say a prayer for them.” Moloney asks if she regards such forced disappearances as a war crime, and Price responds, “I think it’s a war crime. Yes.”
One cannot help being reminded of Act V, Scene i, of Macbeth:
Lady Macbeth: Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Doctor: What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged.
Gentlewoman: I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.
The film I, Dolours is, among other things, an opportunity for the rest of us to reflect on the truths of Jean McConville’s murder and of the wider massacre that was the Troubles. Keefe’s book on the case, Say Nothing, which is to be published next year, is likely to be another one. But we’ve missed other such opportunities, and we shouldn’t miss this one. I, Dolours should be shown at peak viewing hours on the major establishment media in Ireland and Britain, including both the BBC and RTE, and made the subject of their principal discussion programs. American media too should treat it as an important event. For it demonstrates the harsh and terrible consequences of terrorism, for the terrorists as well as for their innocent victims—and Jean McConville was innocent, whatever comforting myths about her being an informer that Gerry Adams and the Provos still tell themselves to keep the ghosts of the disappeared at bay.
It’s vital those consequences be known because many of the young people who became Provo terrorists did so from motives and ideals that were essentially frivolous. They had posters on their university walls of Che Guevara, of whose mass judicial executions they knew little and cared less. They had seen French students hurling stones at policemen in Paris during the 1968 manifestations but they somehow didn’t notice that these riots provoked an election landslide for de Gaulle. They failed to apply any critical faculty to the Irish Republican myths that brushed a million Protestants out of history and out of their minds but not out of Ireland. They ignored the clear signs that Unionist leaders in the North and Irish prime ministers in the South were moving progressively to remove the discrimination and abuses that still afflicted both sides of Ireland, albeit the North disproportionately. Details, details. For they felt revolution was in the air and they didn’t want to miss the party.
As a result they shot policemen and blew up innocent bystanders in a terrorist campaign that made most Ulster Protestants their determined enemies, retarded the necessary civil rights reforms that were eventually achieved by democratic politicians, and succeeded not in achieving a united Ireland but in making Ian Paisley First Minister at Stormont. Some who joined the party realised this malign drift of events in time and got out of the struggle before they had committed themselves too deeply to murder and worse. But others had pulled a trigger or planted a bomb that left a man maimed, or a woman dead, or a child orphaned. And they now faced a future of bleak choices.
To deliberately kill another human being is to cross a Rubicon, and the Rubicon is an oddly deceptive river. It’s moderately difficult to cross but quite impossible to re-cross. So the temptation is to continue on the same course. After all, as the theologians will tell you, any sin is easier to commit the second time, even murder. And if one can justify a first murder, doesn’t that justification point to the necessity of a second murder, and a third, until eventually you find yourself at a freshly-dug grave behind a frightened mother of ten with a gun in your hand. You never expected to go that far, but after the first murder, what choice did you have?
You had another choice, of course, but initially at least it is a painful, bitter and lonely one requiring repentance and restitution. Sean O’Callaghan took that second course in 1976 when he resigned from the IRA in which he had been an active “volunteer” for a decade, contacted the Irish authorities, and for two long periods worked inside the IRA as an informer for the Dublin and London governments, betraying several major terrorist plans and saving countless lives. That did not calm his guilt sufficiently for the two murders—of Eva Martin, a teacher and part-time volunteer soldier, and Peter Flanagan, a Catholic senior officer in the RUC Special Branch—he had committed while in the Provos. He went into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to their murders, was convicted on his own evidence, and sentenced to jail. After his release and the gradual end of the Troubles, he became an adviser to governments on terrorism, the author of an autobiography, The Informer, and a journalist. One of his last articles appeared in Quadrant in April last year.
Sean died of a heart attack in October last year while visiting his daughter in the West Indies. In March this year he was the subject of a remarkable service of celebration and thanksgiving at St Martin in the Fields—a festival of reconciliation that brought together people from both sides of politics and both sides of the Irish Sea. Familiar hymns were sung. Prayers were said for Sean—and also for Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. There were readings by Sean’s family, by young prison offenders whom the later Sean had mentored, and by friends like historian Ruth Dudley Edwards and writer Douglas Murray. Lord Salisbury, a cabinet minister at the time when Sean was in prison, revealed that, strictly against the rules, they used to have regular telephone calls to discuss how to handle the IRA in negotiations. On one occasion Sean had asked if British intelligence listened in.
“I certainly hope so,” replied Lord Salisbury, “because they’ll get a far higher quality of strategic advice than they usually do.”
Let Sean have the last word. His son, Rory Hanrahan, read a poem written by his father about an IRA arms smuggling operation that he had helped to foil:
I see seven tons of American
Guns and bullets
Towed into Queenstown or Cobh,
As we call it now.
My Guinness and my secrets satisfy.
Seventy-six thousand bullets
Will not shatter one limb,
Or spatter brain on a pub floor.
I finish my pint and walk
The forty yards home.
The Furies had gone elsewhere.