By Ed Moloney & James Kinchin-White
There are three ways the late Jean McConville can be viewed, aside from the fact that her murder by the IRA and the forced orphaning of her children was unjustifiable by any standard.
One is that she was a complete innocent, picked on by the IRA in Divis Flats and framed as an informer because she was an outsider, an East Belfast Protestant whose Catholic husband was no longer alive to protect her. Someone who shouldn’t be allowed to live in Divis Flats. A victim of bigotry, essentially.
Another is that she was a low level informer who was in the pay of the British Army to pass on tittle tattle about her neighbours at a time when the appetite of the British intelligence machine for any scrap of information that could lead them to IRA activists, no matter how small, was insatiable.
There is a third view which is that Jean McConville is a commodity whose value to a range of people, from book publishers to propagandists, from politicians to prelates, depends largely upon which of the two explanations above the writer favours.
There can be no doubt that the first explanation of the Jean McConville killing helps to define Patrick Keefe’s best-selling, award winning account of the widow’s death. His book, ‘Say Nothing‘ dwells heavily on that version of her death; the foundation stone is that the widowed mother-of-ten was brutally murdered by the IRA for reasons not based on the truth of the informer charge.
It is no exaggeration to say that had Keefe accepted the IRA’s version, that she was an informer, no publisher would have bought the book, there would have been no plaudits, no glittering prizes, no praise. But he wrote the book that would not only be commercially successful but augment his standing among his peers at The New Yorker and in the profession at large.
There are nods in the book in the other direction, such as his use of a photograph – which co-author of this article James Kinchin-White discovered – of a British soldier on patrol in Divis Flats using a Stornophone radio, the exact type of phone which IRA sources, including the late commander of the IRA in the area, Brendan Hughes, told me was given to Jean McConville by her military handlers.
But he does not dwell on that, instead giving space to a former RUC Special Branch (political police) officer who denied that such radios were in military service in December 1972, when Jean McConville was abducted, killed and buried in a secret grave.
I provided him with documentary evidence to the contrary which he chose to ignore. The most significant piece of corroboration appeared in the published report of the British government inquiry, headed by Lord Saville, into the so-called Bloody Sunday massacre of civilian protesters by British paratroopers in Derry on a day in January 1972 that came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’:
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.
Another, equally compelling piece of evidence came in the form of a memoir written by a former British soldier, Harry Beaves, who was stationed in Casement Park in the summer of 1972, in the wake of Operation Motorman. The memoir was published nine months before ‘Say Nothing’ was published but was apparently missed by the author.
Beaves wrote, inter alia: 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.
But there is more. Diligent research by James Kinchin White has discovered a number of photographs of British soldiers using Stornophones or Stornophone-type radios months before Jean McConville was abducted. The case that small, hand-held radios were being used by the British Army at this time is overwhelming and undeniable.
Here are the photos: The first two, from the Alamy Database show the aftermath of a riot, apparently in 1971. Two young men have been arrested while a bespectacled soldier, possibly an officer, is using/holding a Stornophone-type radio.
This next photograph is of a member of the Royal Green Jackets, the British Army’s premier regiment and he is also clearly using a Stornophone radio. The location appears to be Rossville Flats in Derry and it is possible to date the photo to, at the latest, November 1972, the last occasion on which any of the three RGJ battalions served in either Derry or the lower Falls.
This next photo, which comes from the photographic site of the First Battalion Royal Green Jackets, can be dated, at the very latest, to the end of November 1972, although a caption dates it to 1971. The reason it can be dated to 1972 is because that was the year when the Stornophone was gradually phased out for military use and replaced by the Pye Pocketphone, a radio which was also used by the RUC. The soldier on the left is equipped with the Pye radio.
Finally, there is this potted history of the use of the Pye radio in Northern Ireland which can be found here, on the official site of the Royal Signals Regiment, which provides the British Army with communication systems. The Pye radio replaced the Stornophone, meaning not least that there was a stockpile of unused Stornophones in military bases throughout Northern Ireland which could be put to other uses. The argument that by 1971/72 the British Army was using small, hand-held radios of one sort or another is overwhelming.
So, there is an overwhelming abundance of evidence that small hand held radios, of the sort that IRA leaders such as Brendan Hughes maintained was found in Jean McConville’s Divis flat, had been issued to British troops serving in Northern Ireland in 1971 and 1972, before the mother-of-ten was abducted and disappeared by the IRA.
It was not difficult to find the evidence we have presented in this article, but Patrick Keefe was either unable or unwilling to find it and when proof that the radios were in use in 1972 was given to him by others he opted either for selective publication – for example his decision to ignore the Saville report’s reference to the use of Stornophones on Bloody Sunday by troops – and to give as much weight or more to sceptics, such as the former RUC Special Branch officer he was put in touch with who told him there were no such radios in Belfast at that time.
That former policeman must have known he was not telling the truth, so why did he do that? One inescapable motive was to register a win in the unending propaganda war between the IRA and the State, to undermine the IRA’s claim that Jean McConville was an informer and to establish that the widowed mother-of-ten was really an innocent whose life was taken because she was an outsider and a Protestant to boot, not because she worked for an agency not that different from his own Special Branch. Undermining the IRA’s claim that she used an Army radio to facilitate her informing activities suggests she was not an informer, that the IRA was lying.
Patrick Keefe implicitly presents the reader with a conclusion that ‘the radio may have existed but probably didn’t’. He calls it ‘The Mystery Radio’. But such radios were not ‘mysteries’ in the Belfast of 1972. In fact they appear to have been commonplace. His further claim that it would have been impossible to use such a radio without being overheard by neighbours, tells the reader that here is someone who has never experienced the incessant noise of working class developments like Divis, much less the huge Divis complex of the early 1970’s before much of it was demolished.
So, why did Keefe discount or ignore evidence that radios of the sort the IRA claimed was used were commonplace in 1972 when Jean McConville was abducted and then disappeared? The unavoidable answer is that it made for a better story, one in which evil triumphs over good but is eventually brought to book by a determined and skillful investigator. What followed were plaudits and prizes.