From Ed Moloney and James Kinchin-White
Almost from the get-go, the case of the IRA’s disappearance and murder of widowed mother-of-ten Jean McConville in December 1972 has been dominated by the IRA’s claim – first made by former Belfast Brigade commander Brendan Hughes – that the evidence that she was spying for the British Army was a radio the Divis Flats widow allegedly used to communicate with her British Army handlers.
In interviews with Ed Moloney, Hughes, a one time confidante of Gerry Adams, could not recall the name of the radio but said that an IRA patrol, alerted by remarks allegedly made by one of her children, searched her Divis Flats apartment where they found and confiscated the device. In Hughes’ account, she then admitted working for the British but because of her family situation – she had recently been widowed and had eight of her ten children to raise at home – he let her go with a stern warning.
However, according to Dolours Price, a member of a secret IRA unit called ‘the unknowns’, Jean McConville later returned to her spying ways and was identified as the person behind a blanket as IRA suspects were paraded in front of her in Hasting St police/army barracks in Divis Street. What gave her away, Price later told reporters, were her distinctive carpet slippers which she wore day and night and which had been visible because the blanket had not fully covered her feet.
In December 1972, the IRA took her away from her children, and spirited her across the Border to Co Louth where she was shot dead and her remains buried on the beach at Carlingford Lough. The operation was handled by ‘the unknowns’, a secret unit set up by then Belfast IRA commander Gerry Adams which reported back to him.
Despite the claims from former IRA members about Jean McConville’s secret life, little in the way of independent evidence has emerged subsequently to substantiate the organisation’s claim that the widowed mother could have been furnished with a radio to help keep her in touch with her handlers.
Until now, that is.
The War Diary of the 1st Battalion, The Gloucester Regiment for the period December 7th, 1971 to April 13, 1972 was recently accessed at the British National Archives at Kew. The Gloucesters were stationed during that time in the lower Falls Road area, which took in the Divis Flats complex, where on January 5th, 1972 two sections of the regiment’s ‘A’ Company were deployed after an IRA suspect, whose name is blanked in the report, was spotted in the area. Parts of the Diary have been blacked out and a review of their possible release not scheduled until 2059.
IRA snipers opened up as the British troops approached Divis Tower, the tallest building in the complex, killing Pte Keith Bryan but his colleagues pressed on, searching an apartment at 14 Massarene Walk and a bar called the Glen Geen.
In the apartment, soldiers discovered a sawn off shotgun and over 400 rounds of ammunition. The Glen Geen hid more weapons and ammunition: a Thompson machine gun, two shotguns, a Webley revolver and a variety of ammunition magazines.
The War Diary also lists the following items among the IRA’s hidden armoury: over 800 rounds of assorted ammunition, three feet of Cordtex (a detonating cord) and a ‘stornaphone’ (slightly misspelt).
So, what was a stornophone doing in an IRA arms dump?
At this point in the Troubles, the stornophone was becoming the radio of choice for all sections of the North’s security apparatus; soldiers guarding the ‘Ulster ’71 Festival’, called to mark the 50th birthday of the Northern Ireland state in 1971 had been issued with the radio, it had been used by troops in Derry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, as was acknowledged in the Saville report, and there are multiple photographs available of troops with the radio during 1972. It was small and light, a vast improvement on the heavy, shoulder-borne radio carried by troops in the very early days of the Troubles and it was ideal for intelligence work, being small, simple to operate, easy to hide and effective. There is even one photo on the Gloucester’s own regimental website of a soldier using the radio in Divis Flats.
So, how did a Stornophone make its way into an IRA arms dump in Divis Flats? It is, of course, possible that one of the radios was acquired by the IRA in the same way it came by most of its war equipment, via arms dealers or foreign sympathisers, or perhaps a clumsy soldier dropped his and it made its way eventually to the IRA. But it is also just as possible that the Stornophone discovered in the Glen Geen bar was the same radio Brendan Hughes claimed was found by the IRA in Jean McConville’s flat.
Here are the relevant documents, first the page in the Gloucester’s War Diary and then a blow up of the important paragraphs: