By Ed Moloney and James Kinchin White
One of the genuinely puzzling aspects about the IRA’s claim that Divis Flats widow and mother-of-ten, Jean McConville was an informer for the British Army is what use she could be, other than perhaps identifying some local IRA members or republican sympathisers.
Wouldn’t the Army’s time have been better spent trying to turn IRA members and by that route seriously infiltrate and damage their enemy rather than endanger the life of widowed mother who was in important ways an outsider in Divis?
Well, one answer to that conundrum can be found in a British Army document, recently unearthed by James Kinchin White, outlining reasons to launch what would become known as Operation Motorman, the military occupation of Republican areas in Derry and West Belfast.
Marked ‘Top Secret’ – and limited to those with Top Secret clearance, hence the tag ‘Perimeter’ – the document argues that the mood in Catholic areas in the wake of the disastrous bombings of Bloody Friday, on July 21st, was sufficiently critical or cool towards the IRA that there would be little resistance if the British Army occupied so-called no go areas in Derry and West Belfast.
The plan was approved at the highest political and military levels and just ten days after Bloody Friday – on July 31st – the British Army, employing heavy armour, duly occupied previously strong IRA redoubts in both cities, setting up forts from which to launch military operations against the Provisionals.
But the real significance of the document is that it reveals that a dearth of intelligence on the IRA was a major, if not the major reason for launching Motorman.
Describing military operations in the wake of Bloody Friday, the document paints a picture of a British Army that had virtually no contemporary intelligence on the IRA:
The Army’s search operations (in the wake of Bloody Friday) have been based on old or almost non-existent intelligence. Their success has been exaggerated for political or PR reasons. Such yields as have been obtained were principally due to chance. Continuation at the present level cannot be expected to produce any better results and is likely in fact to produce diminishing returns. The degree of antagonism these operations are likely to arouse will probably increase as the memory of July 21st fades and the Army’s searches are seen to be random and resulting in searches of houses and arrests of individuals with no direct connection with the hard-line Provisional IRA.
So, was it in such circumstances that the British Army, desperate for any intelligence on the IRA, turned to a widow and mother-of-ten for help?