The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The War Crime of Secret Graves

There can be no doubt at all that what happened to Jean McConville in 1972, and the other IRA victims who were shot and dumped in secret graves, was a war crime every bit as despicable and worthy of condemnation as the disappearances orchestrated in Iraq by Saddam Hussein or in Chile by General Pinochet
– Ed Moloney

Anthony McIntyre • September 1, 2003

The discovery only last week of what are believed to be the remains of Jean McConville, the Belfast widowed mother of ten shot dead and secretly buried by the IRA 31 years ago, has yet again highlighted a particularly sordid dimension to what in the eyes of many Provisional republicans was an otherwise just if brutal war. For no matter how murderously vile our opponents it is crass doublethink, as Kathleen and Bill Christison wrote in Counterpunch, ‘to see the actions of one murderous army justified by invoking the murderous tactics of another.’

Secret graves have long been the universal calling card of war criminals. Too numerous to mention in total they include in their number, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Roberto D’Aubisson, Roberto Viola and Augusto Pinochet. When such places of denial - resting place is too incongruous to be of any serious descriptive value - are mentioned a dreadful image sears into the consciousness – that of ‘Einsatzgruppen A’ commandant Franz Walther Stahlecker standing haughty and imperious, gazing across his corpse laden pits on Germany’s Eastern front. There are fewer examples of power more corrupt or malign than the war criminal mercilessly lording it over his powerless victims at their discretely prepared graveside where no markings were ever intended to record a trace of their presence. At that juncture the power disparity is as consummate as it is obliterating.

While we republicans, armed with our sense of legitimacy and moral superiority, may balk at it, the phenomenon of the disappeared is on a par with the war crimes of loyalism such as those inflicted by the Shankill butchers, and that of the British state when it perpetrated mass slaughter on an unarmed civilian population in Derry a matter of months before Jean McConville met her fate. Republicans have scripted themselves as the victims of brutal repression who reluctantly responded with what Ted Honderich once termed a form of ‘democratic violence’ aimed at redressing the democratic deficit. Nowhere in the script was it outlined that we would transgress the boundaries of our role and become the practitioners of war crimes ouselves. Consequently, for republicanism, the disappeared sweeps the feet from under its perspective of victimhood. A people who sees itself as oppressed and resorting to armed resistance as a matter of right, when forthrightly confronted with the hideous aberration of the unmarked grave, is left uncomfortable as its narrative is unpicked and ruptured. The experience of the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmann is most instructive: ‘I have felt the surge of self-righteousness that comes from being unfairly hurt. Anything we do, justified. Any criticism against us, dismissed.’

Because if we republicans are genuine about confronting injustice, subverting hierarchies of victims and defending the rights of those most vulnerable to infringement in our inegalitarian society, then there is a need to avoid the knee jerk response that seeks solace and refuge in the unpersuasive defence of ‘securocrats trying to undermine the peace process.’ Raw and rough reciprocity alone has the stinging power to cleanse the wounds that will eventually allow the ragged edges to knit together, even in spite of themselves, and close over.

The chief of staff of the Argentinean Army, Martin Balso, when confronted with the horrors inflicted by the forces he came to command in the aftermath of their atrocities advocated ‘initiating a painful dialogue about the past that was never sustained and which acts like a ghost within the collective consciousness of the country, always returning from the shadows from where it occasionally hides.’ If such a dialogue is to gain momentum here then it must be freed from the shackles of the peace process where truth has no substance, being a mere stratagem specifically employed by all for narrow political advantage through flagging up only the ‘truth’ about the ‘other side.’

Unionist and Fine Gael politicians have already bolted out of the traps with a gusto demanding a public inquiry into the disappeared. The target of their wrath is the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. One suspects had he been a brigadier in the British Army going by the name Gordon Kerr, caviar parties rather than public inquiries would be more the fashion. Evidence if any were needed that their eagerness to get to the finishing line with a preordained conclusion contrasts vividly with their tardiness to even approach the starting line when the spotlight begins to fall on the atrocities of their allies.

Nevertheless, the British, unionists and their fellow travellers are emerging with one clear advantage in this morbid dance for the moral high ground that lies at the end of this horrific saga. They can argue with some substance - even if we suspect much sleight of hand at play - that the past is the past and that they are prepared to draw a line under it. The disappearance of Armagh man Gareth O’ Connor, now widely believed to be a victim of Provisional republicans, means that any mea culpa on our part will be seen as a cynical exercise in one-upmanship, lending to our demands for truth the appearance of seeking to avoid it at all costs and being interested instead solely in inflicting our version of the truth on the rest of society. Are republicans to hide forever in the intellectual and ethical swamp that the establishment has so obligingly carved out for us as some sort of peace process theme park whose hall of mirrors allows us to fumble along anesthetized by distortion? Ourselves alone are fooled. Even Argentinean generals are going to leave us looking less contrite then they.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

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

1 September 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Latest Police Attacks on Press Freedoms
Mike Browne


We Haven't Gone Away, You Know
The Blanket Back Online


The War Crime of Secret Graves
Anthony McIntyre


Horses for Courses
Eamon Sweeney


Rwanda: Crushing Dissent
Liam O Ruairc


Terrorists, Their Friends and the Bogota 3
Toni Solo


Aznar: Spain's Super Lackey
Agustín Velloso


Orwell Centenary Talk

John O'Farrell


The Letters page has been updated.


22 August 2003


A Pathological Political Disorder
Anthony McIntyre


Letter to the Blanket

Michael McKevitt


Deeply Flawed

Douglas Hamilton


The Prison Population Binge
Daniel S. Murphy


Going Native
Kathleen O Halloran


The Hall and State of Illusions
Davy Carlin


Liam O Ruairc


Mazen Dana
Sean Noonan


Michael Moore in Belfast: Stupid White Men
Anthony McIntyre




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices