We really do need, all of us, to have a long hard think about Jean McConville. Here, in the forum provided by a Catholic newspaper, it is particularly appropriate that we should think about Mrs McConville. She has been dead since 1972 – kidnapped, murdered, then secretly buried by the IRA – but her death represents important unfinished business.
The facts of Mrs McConville’s case are by now quite well known. They featured heavily in a sombre but brilliant documentary on the BBC by Darragh MacIntyre, which generated a lot of interest in Ireland, and some interest on this side of the Irish Sea as well. The programme is still available online. Those unsure of the details can put themselves in the picture by reading this concise account on Wikipedia.
Why is the case of Jean McConville important? After all, many were the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. True, she was a woman, a widow, a mother of ten, and her death meant effective ruin for the children she left behind. There was the added grief of her body not being found for decades, as well as the gnawing uncertainty that as one of the ‘disappeared’ she could not be definitively counted as dead. If this were not enough, there is the continuing lack of information about the circumstances of her disappearance: where was she held? How long for? And above all, why? Who claimed she was a police informant? And again, why? Forty years on, not all the facts have come to light. Yet someone knows. Perhaps several people know. And yet these people are refusing to talk.
Somebody must know the truth, and all the evidence points to that somebody being Gerry Adams. MacIntyre’s programme assembled sturdy evidence that Adams was the man who gave the order for Mrs McConville’s killing. The idea that he knew nothing about it, then or now, seems incredible. His denials in the interview he gives to MacIntyre in the programme hardly seem convincing.
The truth about Mrs McConville is something that transcends politics. At this late stage it does not seem to me that an admission of guilt would destroy someone’s political career, or their political respectability, or be used as a political weapon against them. The Troubles are over forever – or so we hope. But the idea of a public figure denying the truth – that remains a live issue. It is most unlikely that anyone will ever be sent down for Jean McConville’s murder, for too much time has passed. But while the question of a court case may have had its day, the question of truth-telling has not. That has no statute of limitations on it.
So, why does the case of Jean McConville matter still? The answer is because truth matters, and truth always matters. If truth does not matter, then nothing else matters.
Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about Gerry Adams. In some ways, I admire him: he is a shrewd and accomplished politician. If he had been born elsewhere, he might have been a great statesman. But now he needs to grasp this issue and rise to the challenge. Truth hurts, which is certainly true in this case; but the lack of truth hurts even more. If we can know the truth, then, in the scriptural phrase, the truth shall set us free.