Children of Belfast woman shot by IRA hope Sinn Fein chief charged with crime

For most of her life, Helen McKendry has demanded that Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams come clean about his alleged leadership role in the Irish Republican Army — and about the outlawed group’s abduction, slaying and secret burial of her mother in 1972.

BELFAST — For most of her life, Helen McKendry has demanded that Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams come clean about his alleged leadership role in the Irish Republican Army — and about the outlawed group’s abduction, slaying and secret burial of her mother in 1972.

As Adams spends a second day being interrogated by detectives over the unsolved crime, McKendry fears her day of justice will never come. She was one of 10 children left orphaned by her widowed 37-year-old mother’s slaying.

“I’m hoping against hope that he doesn’t walk out free,” McKendry told The Associated Press. “Everybody, the dogs in the street, knew he was the top IRA man in Belfast at that time.”

Northern Ireland has met news of Adams’ arrest with a mixture of world-weary resignation and cynicism. Adams’ fans and foes alike agree on this much: He’s too important a figure in the peace process to go to jail, and he’s never going to talk honestly about his past command positions in the Provisional IRA. The underground army killed nearly 1,800 people — including scores of Catholic civilians and IRA members branded spies and informers — before calling a 1997 cease-fire so Sinn Fein could pursue peace with Britain and Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority.

McKendry, alongside her husband Seamus, launched an often-lonely protest campaign in 1995 against Adams’ denial of IRA involvement in her mother’s murder. On Thursday, the 56-year-old said she found it hard to believe he was finally in custody and facing police questions.

Under British anti-terror law, the 65-year-old Adams must be charged or freed by Friday night, unless police seek a judicial extension to his interrogation.

Two decades ago, Adams initially insisted in his first brief face-to-face meetings with the McKendrys that the IRA was not involved. Finally in 1999, under White House pressure, the IRA admitted responsibility for the slaying of Jean McConville and offered to pinpoint her unmarked grave on a beach 60 miles (100 kilometres) south of Belfast in the Republic of Ireland. That effort failed despite extensive digging. Then in 2003, a dog walker stumbled across her skeletal remains, with its bullet-shattered skull, protruding from a bluff above a different beach.

That was the bitterest of victories for the McConville children, whose lives were indelibly scarred by her disappearance. At the time, they were between 6 to 17 years old; McKendry was 15. Since their father had already died of cancer in 1971, authorities placed them into different foster homes, so the children grew up strangers to each other.

Some of the children became IRA supporters themselves and believed the IRA’s depiction of their mother as a British Army scout armed with a walkie-talkie who passed along sightings of IRA gunmen in her neighbourhood. That IRA claim was discredited in a 2006 investigation by Northern Ireland’s independent police complaints watchdog.

Some were relieved that finally they had a mother to bury.

But McKendry has kept pressing to get the IRA members allegedly behind her mother’s disappearance convicted of murder, particularly Adams, who according to former IRA members commanded the unit responsible for making targeted Belfast civilians vanish in the early 1970s.

If criminal prosecutions fail, she plans to sue Adams for civil damages.

“I couldn’t get to the end of my life not knowing what happened to my mother. I had to take a stand, to tell the world what happened,” she said. “But Adams is never going to admit anything. He’s never even going to admit he was in the IRA.”

The police investigation of Adams appears based, at least in part, on audiotapes of several IRA veterans who discussed their paramilitary careers in a Boston College-commissioned history project. The taped interviews were supposed to remain secret until their deaths, but the Northern Ireland police successfully sued in U.S. courts to obtain all tapes that mention the McConville killing. One tape’s contents have already been published because the IRA man concerned, Brendan Hughes, has died — and in his account he accused Adams of ordering McConville’s killing and secret burial.

The arrest of Adams has revealed the disturbing fault line running through Northern Ireland’s peace process: Irish Catholics and British Protestants are supposed to be uniting under one power-sharing government after nearly 45 years of bloodshed, but a chasm of mistrust remains.

Sinn Fein, the major Irish-backed party in Northern Ireland, has accused Protestant leaders of pressuring police to arrest Adams now to undermine Sinn Fein before elections across Ireland this month.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander and the senior Sinn Fein figure in Northern Ireland’s 7-year-old coalition government, blamed what he called “the dark side of policing” for pursuing an anti-Adams agenda.

But First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant who leads Northern Ireland’s government alongside McGuinness, called Adams’ arrest an overdue act of political accountability. He suggested McGuinness should face the same criminal scrutiny.

“I cannot say if Mr. Adams will be charged or released; whether he will be held for a further period, whether, even if he is charged, he will be convicted,” Robinson said. “What I can say it that it strengthens our political process in Northern Ireland for people to know that no one is above the law.”

Robinson appealed to McConville’s children to tell police the identities of the IRA members who stormed into their home in the Divis Flats welfare housing project just before Christmas 1972. He said Sinn Fein should encourage them to come forward, free from fear of IRA retaliation.

McKendry was out of the house when the IRA abducted her mother.

“I wish I’d been there and seen them. I’d tell the police what I know,” she said, noting this would not be the popular view among her estranged brothers and sisters.

Her younger brother Michael, who was 11 at the time, recalled screaming children clinging to their mother’s legs as IRA members pulled her, tearful and wailing in fear, out the door.

He said unmasked IRA members calmed the children by calling them each by their first names and asked one of his older brothers to come with their mother outside. Once at the stairwell, he said, one IRA member stuck a gun to that boy’s head and told him to get lost.

To this day, Michael McConville said, he sees some of these IRA veterans walking down the street in Belfast. And to this day, he fears testifying against them.

“I do know the names of the people. I wouldn’t tell the police,” he told the AP on Thursday at a victims’ support centre in Belfast. “I knew the ones that hadn’t got masks on, they were neighbours from the area. My older brother Archie probably recognized more of them. My older sister Agnes probably recognized more of them as well. But everybody tells you the IRA’s gone away. They haven’t. They’re still our neighbours, and we’re still afraid of them.”

When asked whether he would accept a Sinn Fein guarantee that no IRA member would shoot him, his wife or his children, he said he couldn’t trust them.

“There’s different ways of killing people. You could be crossing the road and get knocked down,” he said. “They weren’t accountable when they killed my mother. They could kill me, or one of my loved ones, and never admit it all over again.”