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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Disappeared and Disapproved
In the history of our Troubles there can be no more despicable act than the abduction, murder and casual disposal of the body of Jean McConville and the subsequent plight of her ten children. It is our most shameful example of the moral corruption and degradation that violence generates. - Msgr Thomas Toner
Anthony McIntyre • 6.11.03

It was a strange coincidence to be reading about the 1980s disappearances of ETA activists Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala, perpetrated by members of the Spanish security services with government approval, just as Jean McConville was being buried for the last time. On this occasion it was not in the preferred manner of totalitarianism determined to do its dirty work in the dark. The West Belfast turn out for her funeral procession was remarkably small by comparison with that of Tom Williams a couple of years ago, whose body, like that of Mrs McConville, had been exhumed from an unmarked grave. His funeral was organised by republicans. Given their skill in such matters it is hardly surprising that a substantial turnout ensued as a mark of respect for the young Kashmir Road IRA volunteer hanged by the Unionist government.

A report from the time in An Phoblacht/Republican News conveys the atmosphere of the time:

By 11am, the chapel was full to capacity, many people standing along the aisles, filling every available space and still the crowd spilled out into the street and beyond. And everyone was there. Family, friends, and comrades, young and old. Contemporaries of Tom Williams, now in their 60s and 70s years, a poignant reminder of the passage of time between Tom's execution and this day's funeral mass. Joe Cahill, Tom's cell mate and John Oliver, sentenced to death with Tom but later reprieved. Madge McConville, who had been arrested with Tom, Greta McGlone, Billy McKee, Eddie Keenan and perhaps least known, Nell Morgan, Tom's girlfriend at the time of his death.

Members of Belfast's National Graves Association, who campaigned so long and hard for Tom Williams' remains to be released from Crumlin Road jail, attended - Liam Shannon, Tony Curry, Ann Murray and Frank Glenholmes. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was accompanied by senior members of the party and local Councillors Tom Hartley, Ita Grey, Michael Brown, Michael Ferguson and Belfast Deputy Mayor Marie Moore.

Nationalists and republicans, too young to know Tom personally but who have grown up with the story of Tom Williams on their lips. School children who interrupted their studies to pay tribute to a brave Irish patriot and younger still, a woman comforts a crying toddler, beyond understanding now but one day she will listen to her mother recount this moment.

Republicans' ability to organise only goes so far in explaining such a public display of emotion for the return of Tom Williams. On occasion when Sinn Fein have tried to mobilise bodies against the suspension of elections or the Stormont Assembly, few people bothered themselves coming out. There was a strong emotional sentiment attached to Tom Williams which would have brought people out independent of organisation. Unfortunately, this was absent for Jean McConville. There was no visible campaigning by republicans aimed at pressurising people not to attend. West Belfast simply and regrettably passed its own judgement and voted with its feet.

What makes a protest movement that claims to be progressive engage in war crimes? If it just comes with the turf that war moves combatants onto then the chasm that demarcates the legitimate force of those seeking justice from the illegitimate violence of those denying the same, is narrowed. Ends and means become decoupled in a process that blurs the necessary distinctions between the opposing camps that allow us to consider waging a just war to begin with. Suppression of the truth becomes an imperative as the public are manipulated into blind support or passive acquiescence. US General William Westmoreland explained the logic: 'without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.' And there was censorship in the case of the secret graves - republicans simply suppressed the truth about their existence.

Nor is it completely persuasive to put war crimes down to the ruthless malevolence of the person in charge, whatever their ambition, penchant for vileness and dark arts or admiration for the tactics of Pinochet, Viola and Gonzales. There must exist a wider culture of tolerance toward such activity both within the organisation responsible and in the broader community in which it is situated, or at least a lack of reflection which allows such crimes to go by default. Why else did West Belfast embrace Tom Williams and maintain its distance from Jean McConville?

Fear of retribution from on high for refusing to participate in war crimes explains little also. The experience of Wermacht troops on the Eastern Front during World War Two produces not one example of a soldier being disciplined for refusing to perform the hideous. Yet enough did. And the IRA was never the type of organisation which forced its volunteers to kill, even in circumstances where the leadership could stand over its operations. Because a leadership may lead, it does not negate the complicity of those who either consciously or blindly follow.

Sitting in the dock of Belfast Crown Court during a supergrass trial in 1983, ignoring the boring legal waffle that all present are expected to endure, myself and one of those in the dock alongside me were discussing - not unreasonably given that one had us up in court - the question of what sanctions to employ against informers. Despite having been wrenched from his home and family life on the basis of the uncorroborated word of a 'paid perjurer' as we were robotically expected to call them or 'converted terrorist' as the authorities would ridiculously have us to believe, he was very flexible in his thinking measured against my rigidity. He felt 'executing' them was basically brutal and amounted to little other than punishing people for human weakness. I was dismissive, insisting that none should be spared. How else could we protect the organisation of which we were a part unless we instilled massive fear in anyone considering compromising it by agreeing to work for the other side? It was not as if they did not know the score or the consequences.

Some time later, perhaps sparked off as a result of a body being discovered which had been disappeared a number of years earlier, myself and a senior IRA figure in the H-Blocks debated the merits of disappearing people. I felt it was legitimate on the grounds that the uncertainty of an informer's fate would act as a powerful deterrent in the mind of anyone thinking of becoming one. It was as if my previous reading about Argentina or Chile had bounced off my consciousness. War crimes were something committed by others but not by us. There was no consideration for the turmoil families are put through. Perhaps it takes us to have children ourselves before we come to fully contemplate the devastating void that await those who lose one. For his part, the senior IRA member totally opposed the practice, feeling, amongst other things, that for any deterring effect to come into being people had to be fully aware of what the deterrent actually was instead of being allowed to hold out the possibility that the guilty person had merely gone abroad as indeed some of the disappeared were rumoured to have done. After listening to him, coupled with much reflection, I changed my mind and came to the conclusion that the secret grave was an abhorrent practice that ran freedom struggle dangerously close to being on a par with those intent on maintaining the status quo. Within the prison, during the normal run of the mill discussion with friends, I expressed the view that the IRA should disclose the whereabouts of the disappeared. The only objection I met came in the form of 'if we knew where they were'.

Change may come but slowly, although that hardly absolves me from having approved of the practice to begin with. It was as much a war crime when I favoured it as it was one after I had changed course on the issue. So there is no Chinese wall that ethically segregates us from those leaders who ordered such obscenities. In terms of culpability we differ from them only by degree not kind. The type of tolerance or approval that I displayed was one less constraining finger on the shoulder of leaders blinded or indifferent to the moral swamp they were sinking into.

Yesterday Martin McGuinness claimed that there was an IRA code of honour that he wished to respect and was not prepared to violate. A valid point. But it is a strange code that cannot find it within itself to preclude war crimes. 'Men of Honour' have a history of performing the most dishonourable of things. Kevin Myers invariably rubs republicans up the wrong way with his caustic comments. But on this occasion his is a pill we should swallow unaided by sweeteners. For him, the secret grave fate of Jean McConville ‘was a uniquely abominable crime, abominable in its intent, abominable in its planning, abominable in its outcome, in all its squalid detail: all as planned, all as intended.’ Just like Bloody Sunday - although Kevin Myers didn’t say that.

There are some republicans who continue not to see the killing of Jean McConville as a war crime, perhaps a majority. It is their belief that the legitimacy of the cause automatically extends to the measures used to advance it. When asked if rape during war - somewhat less a violation than the secret grave - could not then be justified on similar grounds they gravitate towards ellipitical reasoning: for some it was a mistake made as part of a learning curve. There is still a tendency to think that only the other side can do wrong; that the architect of Jean McConville’s secret grave occupies a moral plateau well above that on which perches Augusto Pinochet.

Such thinking might find it worthwhile to absorb the words of Ignacio Gordillo, a Spanish prosecutor who told the families of Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala that ‘justice acts equally for everyone: for those that killed your brothers and for those that may have died through the actions of your brothers.’ When the state is involved in murder justice rarely works out like that. But why should republicans, through dubious logic and moral glaucoma, aid it in frustrating just outcomes?




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Ted Honderich Interview
Mark Hayes


Disappeared and Disapproved

Anthony McIntyre


HMP Maghaberry: First Flames from a Tinderbox
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Housebreaking Ulster Style
Brian Mór


United Irishmen
Davy Carlin


From A Granny
Kathleen Donnelly


An Enemy of the Republic
Liam O Comain


Some Count, Some Don't
Michael Youlton


If Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Made Illegal!
Sean Matthews


Hackneyed Views of Cuba
Douglas Hamilton


Colombian Trade Unionist in Belfast: Meeting
Sean Smyth


2 November 2003


A Memo to Adams: Remember That Every Political Career Ends in Failure
Tom Luby



Anthony McIntyre


Ballot Papers and Elysium
Eamon Sweeney


Republican Prisoners and their Families Put at Risk due to Prison Strike
Martin Mulholland


Trust Without Honesty in the Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


The Letters Page has been updated.




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