Four decades after her mother was abducted and murdered by the IRA, Helen McKendry is still seeking justice
Elizabeth DayThe Guardian
6 July 2014Helen McKendry, daughter of Jean McConville: 'We knew the IRA had taken her, but being 15 you don't think they're going to kill her.' Helen holds the only photograph the family has of their mother. (Photo from Independent.ie.) The year 1972 was the worst of Helen McKendry's life. It started with the death of her father, Arthur McConville, from a brain tumour in January. It ended with the brutal abduction and murder of her mother, Jean, by the Provisional IRA just before Christmas.
Jean McConville was 38 at the time and the mother of 10 children. On the evening of 7 December a mob of four women and eight men stormed into the family's home in the Divis Tower in Belfast, a high-rise block of flats that looms over the intersection between the Falls and Shankill roads.
The 15-year-old McKendry had gone out to get fish and chips for tea. She left behind her six younger siblings, ranging in age from 11 to six-year-old twins. They witnessed their mother being hauled out of the flat at gunpoint and bundled into the back of a van, struggling for her life.
"When I came back, the kids were all screaming and shouting, 'They've taken our mother!'" McKendry recalls. "I was out of the house for 20 minutes. When I came back, she was gone. That was the time it took to take her."
She never saw her mother again. For a long time, the orphaned McConville children never knew what had happened to her. They were mystified as to why she had been targeted. There were rumours, in the aftermath, that their mother had been passing information to the British forces because her husband, Arthur, had been a soldier in the British army, like his father before him. There were whispers, too, that she had abandoned her family to pursue a love affair with a British soldier or that she had gone to live with a loyalist paramilitary and that she'd had more children with him.
"I'd like to know how, given she had a hysterectomy after the twins," McKendry says now with a short, bitter laugh.
McConville was taken at the height of the Troubles, at a time when the long-running conflict between unionists and republicans had escalated into regular bomb attacks and terrifying sprees of violence. It was a nightmarish era when bad things just happened and no one wanted to ask questions as to why they were happening for fear of swift and brutal reprisal. For years, no one spoke out. The police did not investigate properly. The children were split up and went into care.
In 1999, the IRA finally admitted responsibility for the murder. Jean McConville's body was not recovered until 2003, when it was found by walkers on Shelling Hill beach in Co Louth, across the border in the Irish Republic. In the intervening years, a fragile peace had broken out, cemented by the 1998 Good Friday agreement and the eventual disarmament of the IRA.The sons of Jean McConville carry her remains to St Pauls church, in October 2003, past Divis Tower, from where she was abducted. (Photograph: Getty Images)
More than four decades have passed since the night of her mother's abduction but McKendry still remembers every detail with horrible clarity. She remembers that her mother was wearing black trousers, a white blouse and a purple cardigan. She remembers that her mother had been running a bath. She remembers, too, the last thing Jean ever said to her: "Don't be stopping for a sneaky smoke. Get straight back."
McKendry chuckles as she repeats the words. She is sitting on a garden chair on the open terrace of the house near Strangford Lough she shares with her husband, Seamus. The house has wooden shutters and flowerbeds filled with mature roses, and overlooks a stretch of fields. The beauty and peace of the setting sit oddly with the story McKendry is recounting. But the deep lines on her 56-year-old face tell a different tale: of endurance, pain and survival. She takes a final long drag on a cigarette, stubbing it out in an ashtray already littered with butts.
"I'm back on the cigarettes, which I was off for the last year," McKendry says. "And then, come April, when Mr Adams was arrested, the first thing I did was reach for a cigarette."
Just over two months ago, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, was arrested by Northern Ireland police in connection with the Jean McConville murder. His name had been cited by two former republicans, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, in a series of interviews with ex-paramilitaries conducted by Boston College in America as part of an oral history project on the Troubles. The tapes were made on the proviso that no material would be released until after the participants' death.
But the Police Service of Northern Ireland launched a legal battle in 2011 to gain access to the transcripts and they were eventually handed over. Both Price and Hughes, who viewed Adams as a traitor for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, had claimed that he was involved in McConville's murder and that McConville was an informer to the British army. Hughes, a former hunger striker, alleged that Adams, as a fellow IRA commander, had ordered McConville's killing and her secret burial so that her death could not be blamed on the organisation.
When Adams presented himself at a police station on the evening of 30 April for questioning, he dismissed the case against him as "malicious allegations". Sinn Féin said the arrest was politically motivated, coming as it did just a few weeks before the European elections. He was released after four days of questioning.
But McKendry believes that Adams was involved. She is waiting to see whether there is enough evidence for the Public Prosecution Service to proceed. If not, she is considering mounting a civil action against him.
Have the McKendrys ever confronted Adams with what they claim to know?
"We had a meeting with him years ago, in early 1995," says Seamus. "He arrived at our front door on a Sunday with bodyguards…"
"…like he was a celebrity," Helen interjects.
"It was all the usual bullshit," Seamus continues. "[He said] 'Sinn Féin can say categorically they aren't involved.' He wouldn't look Helen in the eye."
"He wouldn't use my mother's name," she says. "He just referred to her as 'she' and 'her'."
At some point during the meeting, Helen started listing the names of the people she believed to have been involved in the abduction of her mother.
"Each name, he'd say: 'Och, I know her. She's a great girl. There's no way she'd do anything like that,'" says Seamus, shaking his head.
Despite seven arrests, the only suspect charged to date in relation to the McConville case is veteran republican Ivor Bell. The 77-year-old former IRA negotiator with the British government has been charged with aiding and abetting the murder, which he denies. Even if he is found guilty, the other members of the mob who broke into the McConville flat that winter's night in 1972 are still at large.
Today, the McKendrys insist they are ready to cooperate with the police. "I will name names," says Helen. "I'm not scared of dying. If I die, I know I have five children who will carry on the campaign." Helen is convinced she knows who kidnapped and killed her mother, terrorising six small children in the process and dramatically changing the course of her own life. She says she sees some of them in the street. Once, she ran into one of them in McDonald's in Belfast when she was with her 15-year-old daughter and the woman in question started shouting at McKendry to stop "harassing" her.
Whoever the perpetrators might be, there is little doubt that there has been a conspiracy of silence around the McConville killing. For years she was categorised simply as one of the "disappeared" – one of the lost people abducted, killed and buried at secret locations by the IRA whose ghosts were never quite laid to rest.
Even now that her body has been found, feelings still run high. On the drive out to the McKendrys' house there is a red-brick wall on the outskirts of Belfast scrawled with graffiti denouncing Jean McConville as a "tout" (local slang for an informer).
It is an accusation McKendry has no time for – and indeed a police ombudsman investigation found no evidence to support the charge that she was an informer. "My mother brought us up to respect law and order," she says. "Any sign of trouble at all, she made sure we were all in the house. If she heard my brothers were picking up stones to throw, she'd have been mental, like."
But in the Lower Falls district, it was Jean McConville's misfortune to stand out. She had been born a Protestant, had married a British soldier and had no family roots in the area. She had once been seen helping a wounded British soldier in the street outside her home. Her card was marked.
When, in the autumn of 1972 the Provo leadership in Belfast was concerned about information being passed to British soldiers by local women attending discos in the army barracks at Mulhouse Street, it seems they decided to make an example of someone. They chose Jean McConville.
There are those who believe the McKendrys should let sleeping dogs lie, that by continuing their fight for justice they are raking over the past and doing more harm than good. They point out that if Adams is put on trial, it has the potential to derail Northern Ireland's fragile peace.
"Those who say that have never really been harmed by what went on in this country," Helen insists. "It's easy for them to say. I just want them to tell the truth. That's all."
The McKendrys are used to threats – in 2000, their neighbour's barn was set on fire in an attack the police believe was meant for them. Until three years ago, they had security cameras surrounding the house and a direct line to the police station.
"We took everything down," says Helen. "I didn't want my grandchildren being around it. That's not a way to live. I spent my life being afraid of those people and I refuse to do it any longer."
Isn't she scared?
"No," she says. "Not at all. Because if I give up fighting, they've won."Jean McConville's children being interviewed on TV in 1973, after their mother had been abducted.
It took a long time for Helen McKendry to fight. In the immediate aftermath of her mother's disappearance, she was left in charge of her younger siblings. Her older brother and sister went to live at their grandmother's. Her eldest brother, Robert, had been interned as soon as he turned 17, after the authorities deemed him a terror suspect. So at the age of 15, McKendry found herself in loco parentis. She had no money and no one she trusted to call on for help. For a week she roamed the local streets, looking for her mother.
"We knew the IRA had taken her," McKendry says now. "But being 15, you don't think they're going to kill her."
For six long weeks, she battled to keep everyone's head above water. Clothes went unwashed because she had no money to go to the launderette. She had to beg neighbours for bread and butter. On Christmas Eve, a community worker turned up and took her to the local shop where a shopkeeper handed over a bag of toys.
"He told me my mother had been paying those toys off for weeks," says McKendry. "That Christmas morning, no one wanted to know. And the Christmas before, we'd had to take the decorations down because my father was expected to die on Christmas Day."
In January, a man appeared at the door and handed over Jean McConville's purse, which contained 52p and three of her rings. Still, McKendry refused to believe her mother was dead: "I thought they'd found it somewhere."
Eventually, McKendry cracked. The younger children were "going a little bit wild. I think it was to draw attention to ourselves so that someone would help, but no one did… I just couldn't take it any more so I asked welfare to take us into care. We were all split into different homes."
She talks neutrally, in an even tone. There is no visible emotion as she recounts this horrifying period of her young life. Her entire demeanour suggests a kind of forced acceptance, as though terror and trauma were simply things you had to live with and get through as best you could. Because Belfast in the 1970s was a place where you got used to mayhem.
The McConvilles had already been "hit from every side" during the course of the Troubles. Jean, born a Protestant, had converted to Catholicism to marry her husband. In 1969, the family were dragged out of their house in a loyalist area and made to leave. When they ended up in Divis Tower, their home was raided "every other night" by the IRA.
"You just lived with it," McKendry explains. "You spent half your time outdoors because there was a bomb indoors. We didn't have normal teenage years. You hadn't really much of a life."
Nor was this the first time Jean McConville had been kidnapped. McKendry says that the night before her death, the IRA had bundled her into a van and taken her to a derelict building but she had managed to escape and was later found by soldiers wandering the streets barefoot and bedraggled.
"I had to go to the barracks and bring her home," says McKendry. "She didn't want to go to bed. She barricaded up the front door. I begged her to go to her mother in east Belfast, but she wouldn't do it."
Her decision to stay with her family would prove to be a fatal one. And it would have lasting consequences on the lives of all her children.
When the children were taken into care, Helen ended up in Nazareth Lodge, a children's home run by nuns on Belfast's Ravenhill Road. She hated it. The nuns were strict and subjected their charges to physical punishments.
"We weren't shown any love or affection or anything," Helen recalls.
"They ran it like a stalag," says Seamus.
It was at Nazareth Lodge that the couple first met. Seamus had been working in the home as an apprentice joiner for his uncle and he remembers Helen catching his eye in the canteen. Two years later, they met again at a working men's club where Helen was waitressing. They married at 18.
From the beginning Seamus, who describes himself as "a serving republican", was committed to finding out the truth of what had happened to Jean McConville. But he told his young wife that if he ever discovered she had indeed been an informer, he would walk away.
"As a friend said to me: 'You must be the only man in Ireland going out looking for his mother-in-law.'" He laughs.
Tentatively, the couple began putting out feelers – asking the odd discreet question here and there and seeking out people who might be able to tell them what happened. But it wasn't until Helen's eldest sister, Agnes, died in 1992 at the age of 39 that she realised she had to go further. Agnes had suffered a brain injury as a baby and lived a life in and out of institutions.
"The coffin came into the house and I looked inside and she looked so like my mother – so like her," Helen says. "I made a promise to my sister that she would be the last one to go to her grave without knowing what had happened to my mother.
"Before the campaign I suffered an awful lot with depression. I was drinking. I relied on drink to get me to sleep at night and I didn't want to be an alcoholic. The only thing to do was get off my arse and do something about it."
By the early 1990s, Northern Ireland was changing. There was open talk of a ceasefire. On the 22nd anniversary of Jean McConville's disappearance, Helen gave an interview to a local radio show demanding that the Provisional IRA admit responsibility for the killing. For years, she had lived with the shameful feeling that no one believed her.
"The day the programme came out, the phone was ringing off the wall," she says. "Call after call after call of people saying 'We're so sorry, we never knew…'"
Her candour encouraged many other relatives of missing loved ones to come forward and the issue of the "disappeared" finally emerged from the silent shadows.
But it hasn't been easy. Her openness caused a rift with some of her siblings, who thought the best thing to do was to keep quiet. Her brother Michael had told his children their grandmother died of cancer. It seemed less painful that way.
It has taken a toll, too, on the McKendrys' marriage and their five children. There were occasions when they thought they wouldn't make it. They had blazing rows and Seamus would disappear for days at a time.
"It was pent-up anger," he says now. "Campaigning publicly gave us a release valve."Jean McConville (left) with three of her children before she vanished in 1972. (Photograph: Pa/PA Archive/Press Association Image)
At one point they thought about emigrating to Australia, but Helen couldn't leave with questions unanswered. She still can't.
She tells me she is not resentful about the past – there's no point: she was just unlucky to get caught up in the mayhem. In the end, all you could do in that mad, mad time was withstand. All you could do was keep on surviving. You couldn't try to understand it.
"It makes no sense," she says. "What should have been the best years of our lives were ruined. And for what?"
There is only one photograph of Jean McConville. It's black-and-white, a bit blurry. Over the years, Helen has got used to posing with it in her hands for television interviewers and newspaper photographers, but she doesn't think it does her mother justice. She was, Helen says, a good-looking woman – dark-haired and olive-skinned, what the Irish call a "Galway Spaniard". The photograph doesn't capture her, not entirely.
Helen prefers to remember her at a party, when both her parents were still alive.
"My mother didn't drink but somebody had given her a drink that night and she got up and started singing," Helen recalls. "My father was very embarrassed. He was saying 'We have to get you home.' She sang I'm Nobody's Child. She always loved that sort of country and western music."
McKendry lets the thought drift, like a wisp of smoke from the cigarettes she should have given up. It was the last song Jean McConville would ever sing: Nobody's Child, but somebody's mother to the end.