I was 11 in December 1972 when Jean McConville was taken from her home down the road from where I lived in West Belfast. It was not until 1999 that the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for her killing and informed the authorities where the body was buried.
You would hardly know it from the current media coverage of McConville’s killing, following the arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in connection with it this week, but McConville’s disappearance was not the stand-out event of 1972. There was a lot going on in West Belfast. Just a few years before McConville disappeared, the British state had sent the Army into Northern Ireland to occupy our streets and quell the growing civil-rights uprising. In 1971, the British had introduced internment without trial for those same civil-rights activists who were defying bans on demonstrations. And in the same year as McConville’s disappearance, on Bloody Sunday, the Army shot dead 14 unarmed people who had taken to the streets with thousands of others to protest against internment. And there was more. About 500 people died on all sides in the Irish war in 1972 and, in the weeks running up to McConville’s disappearance, 11 people were shot dead by British paratroops in the streets around Ballymurphy where I lived. There were also numerous republicans and Catholic civilians assassinated by British soldiers acting on information from touts (informants). Indeed, the IRA killed McConville because they believed she was a tout.
I would apologise for the quick history lesson were it not for the fact that Adams’ arrest seems to have prompted a rather more selective retelling of that period, with journalists and commentators presenting this event as a uniquely brutal and heinous crime carried out by cold-blooded murderers. It was not; it was part of a war.
The reason you will not hear anyone else present this wider context is that in Northern Ireland today a social and political history of the Irish war has been replaced by a victims’ history of that war. We now rarely talk about the fundamental conflict at the heart of this long war – the struggle of Irish nationalists for a united Ireland against the British state determined to maintain the union with Britain. So fundamental was this political principle that people on both sides were willing to kill and be killed for it. Both the IRA and the British Army continued to fight for many years knowing full well that innocents would die, that normal peacetime values would be perverted, and that things never tolerated in peacetime would be justified by both sides. The IRA stated clearly that informers were legitimate targets; in 1981, the then UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, allowed 10 men to die on hunger strike rather than concede the principle that they were political prisoners.
But today, few are prepared to provide the context, or to explain the wartime backdrop against which the killings and the bombings took place. Instead, we talk about the legacy of pain and hurt left by individual deaths. We talk of the need for closure and catharsis, and of the rights of victims. Therapeutic politics has usurped politics proper, and anyone daring to suggest we should leave the past behind and ‘move on’ is lambasted by Northern Ireland’s victims’ commissioner. Our political news programmes, like Today and Newsnight, replace political actors with family members and the spokespeople for victims’ groups. And when politicians do appear, they talk about victims’ rights rather than politics.