Gerry Adams has long denied being a member of the I.R.A. But his former compatriots claim that he authorized murder.
By Patrick Radden KeefeThe New Yorker
16 March 2015 Issue
**This is the first half of the article. Please see the next post for the last half.
Jean McConville had just taken a bath when the intruders knocked on the door. A small woman with a guarded smile, she was, at thirty-seven, a mother of ten. She was also a widow: her husband, Arthur, had died eleven months earlier, of cancer. The family continued to live in Divis Flats—a housing complex just off the Falls Road, in the heart of Catholic West Belfast—but had recently moved to a slightly larger apartment. The stove was not connected yet, so Jean’s daughter Helen, who was fifteen, had gone to a nearby chip shop to bring back dinner. “Don’t be stopping for a sneaky smoke,” Jean told her. It was December, 1972, and already dark at 6:30 P.M. When the children heard the knock, they assumed that it was Helen with the food.Clockwise from top right: Dolours Price; Gerry Adams; Jean McConville and three of her children; I.R.A. men at the funeral of Bobby Sands; Divis Flats, the Belfast housing project from which McConville was abducted. (Credit Clockwise from Top Right: Press Association via AP - Price; Peter Marlow / Magnum - Adams; Press Association via AP - McConville; David Caulkin / AP - IRA; Judah Passow - Divis Flats)
Four men and four women burst in; some wore balaclavas, others had covered their faces with nylon stockings that ghoulishly distorted their features. One brandished a gun. “Put your coat on,” they told Jean. She trembled violently as they tried to pull her out of the apartment. “Help me!” she shrieked.
“I can remember trying to grab my mother,” her son Michael told me recently. He was eleven at the time. “We were all crying. My mother was crying.” Billy and Jim, six-year-old twins, threw their arms around Jean’s legs and wailed. The intruders tried to calm the children by saying that they would bring their mother back: they just needed to talk to her, and she would be gone for only “a few hours.” Archie, who, at sixteen, was the oldest child at home, asked if he could accompany his mother, and the members of the gang agreed. Jean McConville put on a tweed overcoat and a head scarf as the younger children were herded into one of the bedrooms. The intruders called the children by name. A couple of the men were not wearing masks, and Michael realized, to his horror, that the people taking his mother away were not strangers—they were his neighbors.
Divis Flats had been constructed in the late nineteen-sixties, in one of those fits of architectural utopianism that yield dystopian results. A “slum clearance” program had razed a neighborhood of narrow, overcrowded nineteenth-century dwellings, replacing them with a hulking complex of eight hundred and fifty units. To Michael McConville, Divis’s warren of balconies and ramps seemed like “a maze for rats.” By 1972, it had become a stronghold for the Irish Republican Army, which was waging an escalating guerrilla battle against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist paramilitary groups. A nineteen-story tower stood on one edge of Divis. It was one of the tallest buildings in Belfast, and the British Army had established an operational post on the top two floors. Because this aerie was in the middle of enemy territory, there were times when the British could get to it only by helicopter. From the rooftop, British snipers traded fire with I.R.A. gunmen below. Michael and his siblings had grown accustomed to the reverberation of bombs and the percussion of gun battles. On bad nights, the children dragged their mattresses off the beds and away from the windows and slept on the floor.
The I.R.A. had disabled the elevators at Divis to hamper British patrols, so the masked gang hustled Jean and Archie McConville down a stairwell. When they reached the bottom, one of the men pointed a gun at Archie’s face, so close that he could feel the cold barrel on his skin, and said, “Fuck off.” Archie was just a boy, outnumbered and unarmed. He reluctantly ascended the stairs. On the second level, one of the walls was perforated with a series of vertical slats. Peering through the holes, Archie watched as his mother was bundled into a Volkswagen van and driven away.
The disappearance of Jean McConville was eventually recognized as one of the worst atrocities that occurred during the long conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. But at the time no one, except the McConville children, seemed especially concerned. When Helen returned home, she and Archie went out to look for Jean, but nobody could—or would—tell them anything about where she had been taken or when she might be back. Some weeks later, a social worker visited the apartment and noted, in a report, that the McConville children had been “looking after themselves.” Their neighbors in Divis Flats were aware of the kidnapping, as was a local parish priest, but, according to the report, they were “unsympathetic.”
Rumors circulated that McConville hadn’t been abducted at all—that she had abandoned her children and eloped with a British soldier. In Belfast, this was an incendiary allegation: Catholic women who consorted with the enemy were sometimes punished by being tied to a lamppost after having their heads shaved and their bodies tarred and feathered. The McConvilles were a “mixed” family; Jean was born Protestant and converted to Catholicism only after meeting her husband. The family had lived with Jean’s mother, in a predominantly Protestant neighborhood in East Belfast, until 1969, when they were driven out, as internecine tensions sharpened. They sought refuge in West Belfast, only to discover that they were outsiders there as well. Several weeks after the abduction, on January 17, 1973, a crew from the BBC visited the apartment and taped a segment. As the younger siblings huddled on the sofa—pale children with downcast eyes, looking shy and frightened—the reporters asked Helen if she had any idea why her mother had left. “No,” she said, shaking her head. Agnes McConville, who was thirteen, noted, hopefully, that her mother was wearing red slippers when she was taken away. She added, “We’ll keep our fingers crossed and pray hard for her to come back.”
But there was reason to believe that something terrible had happened to Jean McConville. About a week after she was kidnapped, a young man had come to the door and handed the children their mother’s purse and three rings that she had been wearing when she left: her engagement ring, her wedding ring, and an eternity ring that Arthur had given her. The children asked where Jean was. “I don’t know anything about your mother,” the man said. “I was just told to give you these.” When I spoke to Michael recently, he said, “I knew then, though I was only eleven years of age, that my mother was dead.”
His siblings were not so quickly convinced. The act of “disappearing” someone, which the International Criminal Court has classified as a crime against humanity, is so pernicious, in part, because it can leave the loved ones of the victim in a purgatory of uncertainty. “You cannot mourn someone who has not died,” the Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman once observed. Helen and Archie reported Jean’s abduction to the police, but in the files of the Royal Ulster Constabulary there is no record of any investigation at the time. McConville’s body did not turn up. And so some of the children held out hope for years that they had not been orphaned, and that their mother might suddenly reappear. Perhaps she had developed amnesia and was living in another country, unaware that she had left a whole life behind in Belfast. But, as decades passed without word, these fantasies became increasingly difficult to sustain. For all the gnawing irresolution, there was one clear explanation. Michael’s sister Susan, who was eight when Jean was taken, told me that she knew, eventually, that her mother was dead, because otherwise “she would have found her way back to us.”
After several months of fending for themselves, the McConville children were separated by the state, and the younger ones were dispersed to different orphanages. The older ones found jobs and places to live. The siblings saw each other infrequently and never spoke of what happened to their mother. One by-product of the Troubles was a culture of silence; with armed factions at war in the streets, making inquiries could be dangerous. At one point, a posse of boys from the youth wing of the I.R.A. beat Michael McConville and stabbed him in the leg with a penknife. They released him with a warning: Don’t talk about what happened to your mother. As the children grew older, they occasionally saw their former neighbors around Belfast, and recognized individuals who had come to the apartment that night. But, as Archie McConville told me, “you can’t do nothing. They walk past you like nothing happened.”
Then, in 1994, the I.R.A. declared a ceasefire. Gerry Adams, the bearded revolutionary who was the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Republican movement, had entered into peace negotiations with the British government, attempting to persuade the I.R.A. to abandon armed resistance and tolerate a continued British presence in Northern Ireland. As Tim Pat Coogan observes in the 2002 edition of his book “The I.R.A.,” a peace deal would be visionary, but also highly risky for Adams, because “his life would not be worth a cent should it be thought that he was selling out the ‘armed struggle.’ ” Through perseverance and political savvy, Adams succeeded, and in 1998 he helped create the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. As the peace process got under way, the I.R.A. agreed to help locate bodies that its members had buried in hidden graves during the seventies.
Though Adams is the most famous face of the Irish Republican movement, he has long denied having been a member of the I.R.A. He maintains that he never played any operational role in the violence of the Troubles, and that he confined himself to the leadership of Sinn Fein. As the chief Republican delegate involved in peace negotiations, however, he was obliged to confront the matter of forced disappearances, and he met on several occasions with the McConville children. Adams himself grew up in a family of ten children, and he conveyed his sympathies to the McConvilles. “There is no doubt the I.R.A. killed your mother,” he said. He told them that he did not know who had authorized the killing or carried it out, or where Jean McConville was buried. But he pledged to investigate.
Michael McConville told Adams that he wanted an apology. Adams parsed his words with precision. “For what it’s worth, I’ll apologize to you,” he said. “It was wrong for the Republican movement to do what they did to your mother.”
The first person to speak publicly about involvement in the disappearance of Jean McConville was a former I.R.A. terrorist named Dolours Price. In 2010, Price revealed in a series of interviews that she had been a member of a secret I.R.A. unit called the Unknowns, which conducted clandestine paramilitary work, including disappearances. Price did not participate in the raid on the McConville house, but she drove Jean McConville across the border into the Republic of Ireland, where she was executed. McConville, Price claimed, had been acting as an informer for the British Army, providing intelligence about I.R.A. activity in Divis Flats. The order to disappear her came from the Officer Commanding of the Belfast Brigade of the Provisional I.R.A.—the man who held ultimate authority over the Unknowns. According to Price, the Officer Commanding was Gerry Adams.
Dolours Price liked to tell people that Irish Republicanism was in her DNA. As a little girl in Belfast, she sat on the knee of her father, Albert, and listened to stories about how, as a teen-ager in the forties, he had taken part in an I.R.A. bombing campaign in England. Her aunt Bridie Dolan, who lived with the family, had been horribly disfigured at twenty-seven, after accidentally dropping a cache of gelignite in an I.R.A. explosives dump. The blast blew off both of her hands, and permanently blinded her. “It was never a case of ‘Poor Bridie,’ ” Dolours’s younger sister Marian told the journalist Suzanne Breen, in 2004. “We were just proud of her sacrifice. She came home from hospital to a wee house with an outside toilet, no social worker, no disability allowance, and no counselling. She just got on with it.” Bridie was a chain smoker, and Dolours and Marian would light cigarettes and insert them between her lips.
By the late sixties, Dolours was a striking and impetuous teen-ager, with a moon face, blue-green eyes, and dark-red hair. She and Marian attended teacher-training school, but she gravitated to radical politics, taking part in civil-rights demonstrations and travelling to Milan to give a talk on “British repression” at the headquarters of a Maoist political group. Tensions had persisted in Northern Ireland since 1920, when the Irish War of Independence led to the partition of the island, ultimately resulting in an independent republic of twenty-six counties in the south and continued British dominion over six counties in the north. The I.R.A. had its origins in that conflict, and after partition the organization devoted itself to trying to force the British to withdraw altogether. Catholics in the north were subjected to rampant discrimination in housing and jobs, and, with the advent of the Troubles, in 1969, these tensions exploded in violence. New paramilitary groups loyal to the British Crown were emerging, including the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association, and that January loyalist mobs attacked civil-rights protesters as they marched from Belfast to Derry. In August, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary fired a machine gun into Divis Flats, killing a nine-year-old Catholic boy, Patrick Rooney—the first child to die in the Troubles. The R.U.C. raided the Price house repeatedly during this period, suspicious of Albert Price’s I.R.A. connections. In 1971, the British reintroduced the controversial tactic of “internment”—imprisoning indefinitely, and without trial, anyone suspected of Republican activity. But the policy backfired, radicalizing a new generation of recruits to the Republican cause. The Provisional I.R.A., a more aggressive offshoot of the official I.R.A., began preparing for a sustained guerrilla campaign. Dolours Price set out to join the Provisionals.
Historically, women had enlisted in the I.R.A.’s female wing, known as the Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council). Dolours Price’s mother and grandmother had both been members of this group. But Dolours did not want to bandage men’s wounds, she said—she wanted to be “a fighting soldier.” The leadership of the Provisional I.R.A. convened a special meeting to consider her case, and, in August, 1971, Price became the first woman admitted to full membership in the I.R.A. She was twenty.
Marian soon joined her in the I.R.A. Dolours later said, “I should be ashamed to admit there was fun in it in those days.” People are often drawn to radicalism by a sense of community and shared purpose. In this case, there was also glory. I.R.A. members referred to themselves not as soldiers or terrorists but as “volunteers”—a signal that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause.
Educated, attractive young women had not been seen carrying guns on the rubble-strewn streets of Belfast before, and the Price sisters acquired an iconic glamour. “They were sassy girls,” Eamonn McCann, a longtime friend of the sisters, told me. “They weren’t cold-eyed dialecticians or fanatics on the surface. There was a smile about them.” One press account described them as “pretty girls who would finish their school work and then take to the streets armed, one or both hiding an Armalite rifle under their raincoat, to take part in gun battles with the British army.” The sisters became the subject of sexualized lore, with stories circulating about Marian, in a miniskirt, charming her way past a British Army checkpoint while driving a car full of explosives. At the time, there was a shopping center in Belfast called Crazy Prices, and, inevitably, the sisters became known as the Crazy Prices. Another friend of the sisters told me that Dolours was drawn to the I.R.A., in some measure, by “rebel chic.”
During this period, Dolours crossed paths with Gerry Adams. He was a former bartender from Ballymurphy, a lean young man with sharp cheekbones and black-framed eyeglasses. Like Dolours, he had grown up in a Belfast family deeply rooted in the I.R.A. It is believed that Adams joined the organization as a teen-ager, in the mid-sixties. Several former I.R.A. volunteers confirmed to me that Adams was a member of the group, and a photograph taken at a Belfast funeral in 1970 captures him wearing the black beret that was an unofficial uniform of the organization. In March, 1972, the British government interned Adams on the Maidstone, a British prison ship, but in June he was released so that he could represent an I.R.A. delegation in secret peace talks with the British. Dolours and Marian Price picked him up and drove him into Belfast to rejoin the Republican leadership. (The talks were unsuccessful.) A U.S. diplomatic cable in January, 1973, reported that Adams was “an active Belfast military commander.”
Nevertheless, Adams did not carry out operations. In a 2010 documentary, “Voices from the Grave,” Dolours Price recalls, “Gerry didn’t allow himself to be in the presence of guns, or in any situation that would put him at risk of arrest.” Instead, he deputized operational work to his close friend Brendan Hughes, a compact man with bushy black eyebrows and a shock of black hair. Hughes, who was known as the Dark, brought military cunning to the job, along with a measure of glee. He lived “from operation to operation,” he said later. “Robbing banks, robbing post offices, robbing trains, planting bombs, shooting Brits, trying to stay alive.” To Dolours Price, Hughes seemed like “a giant of a man.” He inspired fierce loyalty from his subordinates, because he fought alongside them and “asked no volunteer to do what he would not do himself.”
Hughes had been a merchant seaman before joining the I.R.A., and one day a sailor he knew showed him a brochure for a new assault rifle from America—the Armalite. “We all fell in love with this weapon,” Hughes recalled. The Armalite was ideal for urban warfare: lightweight and powerful, with a retractable stock that made it easy to conceal. According to Hughes, Adams dispatched him to New York to procure Armalites, using a network of sympathetic arms dealers. Hughes devised an ingenious plan to ship the guns back to Ireland. In 1969, the Queen Elizabeth 2 began making stately transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York. The ship had a crew of a thousand; many of them were Irish, and some secretly worked for Brendan Hughes. And so a ship named after the Queen of England was used to smuggle weapons to the I.R.A. On Belfast’s streets, graffiti heralded the guns’ arrival: “God made the Catholics, but the Armalite made them equal.”
For much of the sixties, the I.R.A. had just a few dozen members, and was therefore easy to track. Now there were hundreds of recruits; more sophisticated tactics, with the advent of the Provisional I.R.A.; and new leaders, like Adams. The British authorities were caught off guard. When Brendan Hughes became active in the I.R.A., his father destroyed the family’s photographs of him, so that British forces could not identify him by sight. Similarly, pictures of Adams were so rare that, for a time, the British authorities could not say for sure what he looked like. In Adams’s autobiography, “Before the Dawn,” he describes British troops capturing his dog, Shane, and taking him for a walk on a leash, in the hope that he might lead them to his owner. Adams and Hughes became targets of assassination, and they perpetually moved among safe houses, counting on support from the community in West Belfast. Armored personnel carriers roamed the Falls Road and helicopters hovered overhead; local residents removed street signs to disorient British patrols, and rattled the lids of trash bins to sound the alarm. While Hughes and his men were fleeing soldiers in a foot chase, a front door might suddenly open, allowing them to duck inside. When Adams moved around the city during this period, he later wrote, he “avoided streets where there were stretches without doors.”
In 1972, the British Army launched a clever operation. It set up a washing service called Four Square Laundry, issued coupons offering steep discounts, then sent a van into Catholic neighborhoods to pick up and drop off clothes. The coupons were color-coded, so the clothing could be subjected to forensic testing for traces of gunpowder or explosives, and then correlated with delivery addresses to identify houses that were being used by the I.R.A. The Four Square operation was exposed after the I.R.A. interrogated one of its members, Seamus Wright, and discovered that he had been working as a double agent for the British. Gunmen strafed the Four Square van, killing the driver; according to the I.R.A., they also killed two men who were hiding in a secret compartment under the roof. Dolours Price then drove Wright and one of his colleagues—a seventeen-year-old named Kevin McKee, who was also discovered to have been a traitor—into the Republic, where they were executed, and secretly buried, in the fall of 1972.
After I.R.A. leaders learned that the British were cultivating double agents, they established a unit to identify “touts”—informers—and other disloyal elements. Jean McConville moved to Divis Flats as this climate of paranoia was taking hold.
One day when Michael McConville was a young boy, his father brought home two pigeons. Michael was allowed to keep them in “a wee box” in his room, he told me, and his father fostered an interest in pigeon racing. After the family moved to West Belfast, Michael and his friends began stalking derelict houses where pigeons roosted. Whenever he found a bird, he peeled off his jacket and cast it like a net over the animal, then smuggled it home under his sweater, adding it to his burgeoning fleet. West Belfast was a hazardous place for an adventurous kid, but Michael had no fear, he told me: “Most boys didn’t, being brought up in a war zone.” On one occasion, he scaled the façade of an old mill only to discover a unit of British soldiers encamped inside. Startled, they trained their rifles on him and bellowed at him to climb back down.
“You had no respect for the law, because all’s you seen is brutality,” Michael recalled. “The soldiers getting men against the wall, kicking their legs spread-eagle. That’s what put the seed in a lot of kids’ heads to join the I.R.A.” He sighed. “I don’t think the British had much of a clue about what they were starting.”
Michael is fifty-three, slight and taciturn, with clipped gray hair, flushed cheeks, and his mother’s pursed mouth. When I visited him last summer, at the bright, modern house that he built in a rural area a short drive from Belfast, he showed me a framed photograph of his mother. It’s a famous image, the only surviving photo of Jean McConville: a grainy shot from the sixties taken outside the family’s old house, in East Belfast. Jean smiles tentatively at the camera, her dark hair pulled away from her face, her arms crossed. Three of her children are perched on a window ledge beside her, while Arthur crouches, grinning, in the foreground. Arthur was older than Jean; he had fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. When their first child, Anne, was born, in 1954, Jean was only seventeen.
After Arthur died, it was a struggle to feed ten children, even with his Army pension. “She just wasn’t coping,” Michael said, adding that she had a nervous breakdown. When I brought up the claim that his mother was an informer, Michael asked, with indignation, “When would she have had the time?” She was constantly on her feet, he said, cooking stews or washing clothes on a scrubbing board in the kitchen sink. After Arthur’s death, Jean’s attention to cleaning took on a compulsive intensity. Because one child or the other was forever losing a button or needing some other repair, she always had a large blue safety pin—a “nappy pin,” Michael calls it—fastened to her clothes. It was her defining accessory.
Not long before Jean McConville was taken away, she raised the suspicions of her neighbors. She and the children were home one night when they heard a man moaning in pain outside their front door. Jean cautiously opened the door and discovered a wounded British soldier sprawled on the landing. He had been shot. Jean tended to him, and brought him a pillow. “That’s just who my mother was,” Michael said. “She would have helped anyone.” The next day, someone painted the words “Brit Lover” on the front door. Jean had a brother, Tom, who sometimes visited from East Belfast. According to Susan and Archie, he occasionally came to Divis outfitted in an orange sash, the traditional Unionist symbol; to make such a provocation in a West Belfast Catholic neighborhood was an act of suicidal folly. Nevertheless, Jean had converted to Catholicism, and her children were Catholic. At the time of her abduction, her oldest son, Robert, was interned in prison for suspected activity in the official I.R.A.
Jean McConville’s one indulgence was a weekly outing to play bingo. One night, she was interrupted during the game by someone who told her that one of her children had been injured and that a car was waiting outside to take her to the local hospital. Several hours later, British soldiers discovered her wandering through the streets, barefoot and disoriented. Apparently, she had been detained by an armed group and then released. Her face was swollen and badly bruised—she had been beaten. When the soldiers brought her home, “she was talking in riddles,” Michael recalled. The children couldn’t figure out what had happened to her. They made her tea, and she smoked one cigarette after another.
When his mother was taken away the second time, and did not return, Michael said, “There was no one to look after us. I kept getting put in different homes, but each time I would run away.” He recalled an orphanage where monks walked through the dormitory at night with a roving flashlight, taking boys from their beds. Michael was not abused himself, but his younger brother Billy, who was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Kircubbin, recently told a panel investigating past abuses that he had been sexually molested. Michael eventually ended up at a facility that was surrounded by a ten-foot electrified fence. “It was the best home I ever had,” he told me. A kind nun took an interest in him, and he started to pull his life together. He met his wife, Angela, when he was sixteen. He has had a steady career installing tiles, and, unlike several of his siblings, has avoided the ravages of drugs and alcohol. He and Angela have four children, and he boasted about them a bit. “I’ve tried my best, given the life I had, to do well with the kids,” he said.
In South Africa, after the fall of apartheid, the government initiated a process of “truth and reconciliation.” So that a thorough record of past abuses might be compiled, perpetrators were offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for honest testimony. In Northern Ireland, where roughly thirty-six hundred people were murdered during the Troubles and some forty thousand wounded, there has been no comprehensive accounting. A recent report by Amnesty International criticizes the “piecemeal” investigations of historical abuses, and suggests that, “across the political spectrum, it is those in power who may fear that they have little politically to gain—and possibly much to lose—from any careful examination of Northern Ireland’s past.” In 1999, with the encouragement of Bill Clinton, the British and Irish governments established the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, and the I.R.A. agreed to identify the graves of nine people who had been murdered and secretly buried during the Troubles, but only after securing a promise that no criminal prosecutions would result. The I.R.A. declared that some of the disappeared had been informers, including Jean McConville. Michael and his siblings angrily rejected this characterization, yet they had little choice but to work with the I.R.A. to search for her remains.
Much of the Irish landscape is dominated by peat bogs; the anaerobic and acidic conditions in the densely packed earth mean that the past in Ireland can be subject to macabre resurrection. Peat cutters occasionally churn up ancient mandibles, clavicles, or entire cadavers that have been preserved for millennia. The bodies date as far back as the Bronze Age, and often show signs of ritual sacrifice and violent death. These victims, cast out of their communities and buried, have surfaced vividly intact, from their hair to their leathery skin. The poet Seamus Heaney, who harvested peat as a boy on his family’s farm, once described the bogs of Ireland as “a landscape that remembered everything that had happened in and to it.”
In the summer of 1999, Jean McConville’s daughter Helen learned, through two priests who were serving as intermediaries, that the I.R.A. had identified the place where her mother’s body could be found: a stretch of windswept coastline outside Carlingford, in County Louth, on the east coast of the Republic. As backhoes prepared to tear up the soil, Helen convened her siblings around a table. It was an awkward reunion. Many of them had not seen one another in years. Edgy and fractious, their grief still palpable, they were now in their thirties and forties but looked older; their faces were haggard, and the hands and forearms of the men were etched with blotchy, blue-black tattoos. When Jean’s children spoke of her, even to one another, they had a tendency to refer to her as “my mother.”
“Where are we going to bury her?” Michael asked.
“West Belfast,” Helen responded. (A 1999 documentary, “Disappeared,” captured the exchange.) “It’s going to hit them. They were the ones that killed her. They were the ones that robbed us of a mother.”
Some of her brothers had reservations. “We all live in Republican areas,” Jim said. “We don’t want no hassle from them.” He continued, “Them boys who done it, they’ll suffer for the rest of their lives. It is time to say forgive.”
Billy snapped, “I can’t forgive them bastards for what they done.”
For fifty days, the backhoes excavated, creating a crater the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The family’s sense of anticipation eventually gave way to despair: the I.R.A. had apparently been mistaken. “They made a laughingstock of us” when Jean was kidnapped, Agnes said, her mascara dissolving in tears. “They’re making another laughingstock of us now.” The search was called off, and the children returned to their homes. One of the men who had abducted Jean now drove a black taxi up and down the Falls Road. Occasionally, Michael hailed a cab and climbed inside only to discover this man behind the wheel. Michael never said anything—he couldn’t. He rode in silence, then handed the man his fare.
One afternoon in March, 1973, a woman answered the telephone at the headquarters of the London Times and heard a man reciting, in a soft brogue, the descriptions and locations of several cars that were parked in the city. “The bombs will go off in one hour,” he said.
It was two o’clock. Officials at the Times reported the call to the police while several reporters headed toward the closest bomb, which, according to the caller, was inside a green Ford Cortina parked outside London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. By two-thirty, police had arrived on the scene. A hundred-and-twenty-pound bomb lay underneath the car’s back seat. They called in the bomb squad and burst into an adjacent pub, The George, ordering the startled patrons to evacuate. A school bus had just deposited forty-nine children not far from the Cortina, and an inspector shouted at the teachers to get them out of the area.
Plans for a coördinated bombing of central London had originated several months earlier, at a secret meeting in Belfast. The I.R.A. had planted hundreds of bombs in Northern Ireland, but Dolours Price, remembering her father’s bombing campaign in Britain during the forties, had argued for a bolder operation. In a 2012 interview with the Telegraph, she recalled, “I was convinced that a short, sharp shock, an incursion into the heart of the empire, would be more effective than twenty car bombs in any part of the north of Ireland.” Dolours attended the strategy meeting, along with her sister Marian and Brendan Hughes. According to both Dolours Price and Hughes, the meeting was run by Gerry Adams. Generally, the I.R.A. issued warnings before its bomb blasts, in order to minimize civilian casualties. But sometimes these warnings did not allow sufficient time for escape: in July, 1972, twenty bombs were detonated in a single day in Belfast, killing nine people, an episode that became known as Bloody Friday.
“This could be a hanging job,” Adams told the group, explaining that if the perpetrators were caught they could be executed for treason. “If anyone doesn’t want to go, they should up and leave now.” Several people did so, but the Price sisters remained, and a team of ten was eventually selected to carry out the I.R.A.’s first bombing mission in England in thirty years. Although Dolours was only twenty-two, she was chosen to run the mission. She was, in her own words, the Officer Commanding “of the whole shebang.” The team was sent into the Republic for several weeks of weapons training. Cars were stolen at gunpoint, in Belfast, then repainted and sent to Dublin, where they were fitted with English license plates and shipped by ferry across the Irish Sea. Shortly before the day chosen for the attack, Price and her team filtered into London and checked into hotels.In 1972, Michael McConville witnessed his mother’s abduction by I.R.A. members. He still sees some of the kidnappers around Belfast. (Photograph by Pieter Ten Hoopen / Agence VU)2nd part of article is posted next.