Patrick Keefe, Jean McConville And The Radio That May Have Killed Her

Patrick Radden Keefe, the American author of ‘Say Nothing’, a new book about the IRA’s disappearance of Jean McConville, failed to report documented evidence showing that ten months before her murder, handheld radios of a sort the IRA claimed to have found in McConville’s Divis Flats apartment had been issued to units of the British Army in Northern Ireland.

Instead Keefe cited a former RUC Special Branch officer claiming that such radios were not in use by the security forces at this time.

The ignored evidence said that the radios, called Stornophones, were used by British soldiers in Derry at the time of the Bloody Sunday shootings of January 30th, 1972 because they were more effective than conventional military radios in built up areas like the Bogside. This was nearly a year before Jean McConville was killed and disappeared by the IRA.

The use and distribution of Stornophones was recorded in the report of the Saville Tribunal’s inquiry into the deaths of 13 Derry civilians at the hands of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment during an anti-internment march in the city.

Separate evidence, in the form of a memoir of a tour of duty in Belfast by a former British Army officer published earlier this year, which appears to have been missed by Keefe, shows that by July 1972, Stornophones were issued widely to British units serving in Northern Ireland. This was four months or more before Jean McConville’s disappearance.

I brought the section of the Saville report dealing with Stornophone radios to Keefe’s attention while he was writing and researching the Belfast widow’s death but it failed to make it into his book.

Keefe instead quoted Trevor Campbell, a former RUC Special Branch officer, who maintained that hand-held radios were not in use by the security forces at the time of Jean McConville’s death, least of all to contact informants.

A radio allegedly used by Jean McConville to communicate with her British Army handlers has played a central part in the controversy over whether or not the IRA had evidence suggesting she was spying against the organisation.

In his interviews with Boston College interviewer Anthony McIntyre – published in part in Voices From The Grave – and in confidential interviews with myself for ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘, former IRA Belfast commander, Brendan Hughes claimed that a radio was found in her Divis Flats apartment, and that Jean McConville admitted it was used to communicate with her handler.

Jean

Jean McConville – A British Army radio is at the centre of IRA allegations that she was a spy

The IRA decided to let her go with a warning, Hughes said, because of her domestic circumstances, viz. the fact that she was a widow with ten children to look after. Later the IRA changed its mind and she was sentenced to death. She was ferried across the Border, shot dead and buried in a secret grave on the Co Louth coast.

Whether such a radio was in military service in 1972 is thus pivotal to the Jean McConville narrative.

Keefe

New Yorker writer Patrick Keefe – his book, ‘Say Nothing’, fails to mention evidence in the Bloody Sunday tribunal report that small, hand-held radios were issued to some military units nearly a year before the McConville murder.

If the British Army did not have such a radio in service in 1972 then Jean McConville could not have used one to contact her alleged handler; in such circumstances it is likely the IRA invented the charge against her. But if such a radio was in service, and was suitable in size, weight and ease of use, then it is possible the IRA was telling the truth.

So what are the known facts?

When the British Army first arrived in Northern Ireland in August 1969, it had two radio systems, neither of which were suitable for agent use, especially in a place so heavily built up and lacking in privacy as Divis Flats. Both radio systems were heavy and cumbersome.

One system was made by Pye, an electronics manufacturer based in Cambridge, England which was eventually taken over by the Dutch multinational, Philips. The military radio made by Pye was a hefty, bulky machine which was usually placed in a permanent location, where it was powered from the mains, or on a vehicle.

A smaller version existed but this was the size of ‘a clunky briefcase’. Neither version of the Pye radio would have been suitable for agent use, so they can be dismissed as candidates for Jean McConville’s radio.

The other transmitter used by the British Army was the Larkspur and for many years it was a common sight on the streets of Belfast. The lightest version weighed between 38 and 45 pounds, and was strapped to the back of the unfortunate squaddie assigned the task. A telephone-type transmitter enabled the patrol commander to speak to his base.

The Larkspur needed a lengthy aerial to operate effectively in Belfast because it was really designed for battlefield use in wide, open spaces, meaning it would be hard to hide in a place like Divis. The built up streets of the Bogside in Derry or Divis Flats in Belfast were less than suitable terrain for the Larkspur. A lighter version weighing ten pounds was available but it had a shorter range.

Between its weight and limited capability both versions of the Larkspur can also be ruled out as a candidate for the radio in the Jean McConville case. (All information on these radios was derived from the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday, paragraphs 181.8 to 181.12)

The soldier in the foreground is carrying a Larkspur radio on his back

Thanks to research done by James Kinchin-White and first published on this blog, we were able to show that it was possible that Jean McConville could have had access to a radio small and efficient enough to communicate with someone like an agent handler.

Kinchin-White located a photograph of a member of the Gloucester regiment using a Stornophone radio, a small, hand-held, two-way radio that could easily fit into someone’s pocket. The photograph was found on the Gloucester regimental website and it shows a soldier using the transmitter in Divis Flats in 1971/1972. The Gloucesters were based in the lower Falls Road between December 1971 and April 1972.

A soldier in the Gloucester regiment uses a Stornophone radio in one of the corridors of Divis Flats

But was the Stornophone in regular use by the British Army in Belfast in 1972?

According to a recently published memoir, the answer is yes. Titled ‘Down Among The Weeds‘, Harry Beaves’ memoir partly covers his time as a junior officer in the Royal Artillery based in Casement Park GAA ground in the aftermath of Operation Motorman in July 1972. His book was published at the end of January 2018, some nine months before ‘Say Nothing‘ appeared on the shelves.

Beaves has two sections dealing with use of the Stornophone radio by the military. Here is the first (these extracts are from a Kindle copy and so page numbers cannot be cited):

The delight of Northern Ireland was that we were able to use Stornophone handsets similar to those used by the emergency services. The set was small enough to fit into the breast pocket of a combat jacket and had fixed frequencies that required no tuning, so that each (patrol) commander was able to carry his own radio without the need for a dedicated signaller.

And the second:

We had three means of communication: Stornophone down to each rifle section and up to Regimental Ops, GPO telephone lines (as it was then), and the standard Larkspur military radio sets.

So, by the summer of 1972, months before Jean McConville was abducted, the Stornophone radio was standard British Army issue in Belfast and thanks to the set, patrols were able to communicate directly with their operation rooms at headquarters.

The Stornophone radio

But by late 1972, according to military sources, the Stornophone was phased out and replaced by the Pye Pocketphone, a small radio attached to the soldier’s jacket which was regarded as much more secure from interception than the Stornophone.

The Stornophone operated on fixed frequencies which could be accessed by pressing buttons. Anyone could operate it and if one fell into the IRA’s hands it could be used to listen into British Army communications.

So by late 1972, the military had switched to the much more secure Pye Pocketphone and the Stornophone had ceased to be standard  military issue. This meant that if Jean McConville was using a Stornophone and it was recovered by the IRA, the wider threat to British Army communications would be non-existent. In that sense the Stornophone was an ideal instrument to use to contact an agent by radio.

In ‘Say Nothing‘, Patrick Keefe appears to have been unaware of Harry Beaves’ recollections, even though his book was published months before his own.

Here is some of what Keefe writes about this matter, in a short chapter titled ‘The Mystery Radio’, which quotes a former RUC Special Branch source as denying that Stornophone-type radios were used at the time by the North’s security forces:

There was also a mystery relating to the detail of the radio itself. Some former police officers like Trevor Campbell, maintained that neither the army nor the police were using hand-held radios to communicate in those days, much less to communicate with informants.

Two pieces of evidence exist to contradict Trevor Campbell. One was the photograph unearthed by James Kinchin-White, which Keefe was aware of and wrote about. The second is Harry Beaves’ memoir which appears to have escaped Keefe’s attention, even though it was published some nine months before ‘Say Nothing‘ appeared.

But there is a third, and it comes from an irreproachable source. It appears in paragraph 181.13 of the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday and reads as follows:

We should also record that there is evidence that before Bloody Sunday some of the resident battalions were, at platoon level only, using Stornophone radios in place of Larkspur radios. A number of former soldiers serving in Londonderry recalled having Stornophone radios available on 30th January, 1972. Often nicknamed ‘Stornos’, these radios, like the Pye radios discussed above, were a commercially produced system purchased by the Army. There is little doubt that the use of Stornophone radios was a consequence of the fallibility of Larkspur radios in built-up areas.

To summarise: Saville says the Stornophones were in use by some British Army units in January 1972; James Kinchin-White’s photo shows a regiment in Divis Flats using a Stornophone some time between December 1971 and April 1972; and Harry Beaves’ memoir says Stornophones were standard military issue in July 1972.

In any hierarchy of evidence, most people would put Saville at the top of this list, partly because of the status of the source and partly because it is the earliest confirmation that Stornophones were available to the British military for use in areas where the IRA was active.

There is, however, no mention of Saville in Keefe’s book. But it is not as though he did not know about what the report had to say about Stornophone radios because I brought it to his attention many months before his book was finished.

Not only did I tell Patrick Keefe about this extract from the Saville report, I sent him an email, citing the paragraph number.

Here it is (addresses and non-relevant material have been redacted):

But it never appeared in ‘Say Nothing’.

7 responses to “Patrick Keefe, Jean McConville And The Radio That May Have Killed Her

  1. this has been proven incorrect previously, it’s just disinformation spread by the PIRA to give a cover story for a brutal sectarian murder.

    1st – radio transmitter was found in her flat, 1 identified wasn’t used by any army as a prototype was being used by the US maufacturer.

    2nd – she was seen coming out of a british security base, not proven & we would give it up if true

    now – she used hand held radio – again not in use at the time

    i suppose if you throw enough mud at her, something will stick

    • You’re are entitled to your opinion but not the denial of provable facts – the radio was in use at this time. the saville report says so and so does the memoir of former artillery lieutenant harry beaves.

  2. “this has been proven incorrect previously, it’s just disinformation spread by the PIRA to give a cover story for a brutal sectarian murder.”

    Evidence please?

    “1st – radio transmitter was found in her flat, 1 identified wasn’t used by any army as a prototype was being used by the US maufacturer.”

    Brendan Hughes didn’t identify what it was, he just said transmitter which was often used interchangeably with radio. Something you’re ignoring.

    “2nd – she was seen coming out of a british security base, not proven & we would give it up if true”

    Wrong. She was spotted identifying IRA members at a police line up.

    “i suppose if you throw enough mud at her, something will stick”

    Much like your modus operandi, which also involves repeating something so many times that someone might believe it. Jim Garrison tried the same tactic, and look where it got him.

  3. Considering the disinformation and downright lies the IRA have told about this case over the years it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to believe a single word the say about it.

    As far as I am aware there have been no recorded reports the British army issuing such devices to informers and agents. Methods of contact were unlisted telephones numbers were the those dialling it would ask to speak to someone identified only by their first name.

    I can recall as a child being able to pick up both military and RUC messages on a bog standard FM radio if both groups were in a certain range. I doubt if the residents of Divis weren’t doing the same.

    And as a final thought if the IRA had discovered such a clandestine method of communicating with military agent handlers don’t you think they would have put it to some use i.e. setting up agent handler meetings for ambush or release recordings for propaganda use. They played the long game with the Four Square Laundry when an undercover operation fell into their lap so why not do the same here?

    • I suspect that once brendan hughes decided to let her go, any attempt to turn the operation against the british, whether for military or propaganda purposes, would not have worked and therefore wouldn’t be attempted since her handlers would have known her cover was blown….incidentally, you and others keep saying that I got this story from the IRA, i.e. from their publicity people. in other words I was peddling their propaganda. I did not get the story from that source. The story came from several ex-IRA people NOT authorised to tell me the story. another point: but for my work on the disappeared, much of what is now known about this sordid chapter of the Troubles would still be secret. There is no way the Adams organisation would have wanted what I have written to be in the public domain.

  4. If this is the case, that Hughes decided to let her go and the handlers realised that the operation was exposed, then why did they (handlers) let it continue? After all what is the value of information from an exposed agent?

    There are just way too many variables in this case. No one is undermining or doubting the work you did on The Disappeared, but just as you have question the narrative over the years, you in turn should surly expect that anything you unearth will be questioned and examined.

    • My thinking on this has evolved as more facts become known. The gap between the Hughes incident and her abduction was a short one, we now think, and coincided with a changeover in the British battalion responsible for Divis (the Queens Lancs Regt took over from the Royal Anglian on Dec 4, 1972) and it is possible that in the confusion she fell through a gap. Or, more likely, that she didn’t tell her handler since that would likely end her relationship, and income. It may be a mistake, as I originally thought, to think that the handler knew what was going on; the relationship between handler and agent is often a very complex one, in which the full truth is not always told by either. I do not mind people questioning what I have written; people have a right to disagree. But what they do not have a right to do is to fling insults in my direction, as so many of them do, or to question my reporting bona fides……

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