Gerry Adams will not appreciate Hollywood’s plan to tell the story of tragic widow, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published: 11 March 2019
One of my abiding hopes, and I am an optimist, is that Nemesis will yet catch up with Gerry Adams, that poster boy for Teflon. Last week my spirits lifted at the news that two of the producers of American Crime Story – a true crime series that has already successfully screened The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination Of Gianni Versace – have taken out an option on Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland, about what happened to widowed mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972.
Options mostly come to nothing, but the producers seem very committed to this.
One of them said: “On some level it’s a crime thriller, an espionage thriller, but it’s also about something more deep and resonant.”
Mostly, when I read about Hollywood taking an interest in the Troubles my heart sinks.
I haven’t forgotten the photographs of actors fawning on Adams when in 1998 he first spoke at a Sinn Fein fundraising dinner in Los Angeles.
Among those making donations was megastar Martin Sheen, a credulous ignoramus who has been photographed walking on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown with three of those most responsible for stirring up tribal violence over Drumcree – Adams, Martin McGuinness and Breandan MacCionnaith.
I tend to avoid movies about Ireland, not least because inevitably most of them succumb to the familiar republican narrative featuring romantic rebels, comely colleens and brutal, ugly oppressors.
Ireland has too much history for its own good, outsiders inevitably want a simple narrative, and republicans are much better storytellers than their opponents.
But Keefe’s empathetic book is nuanced and profound.
The author is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, and despite the odd place where I thought he had got some of the context wrong, I was very impressed.
He has taken a terrible story and turned it into an absorbing quest for the truth.
More than that, he has looked at it in the round.
It’s not just poor Jean McConville and the family she left behind that no one helped who evoke sympathy, but two of the perpetrators – Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, both of whom would die after years tortured by guilt over their terrorist crimes.
“What the f*** was it for?” Adams’s estranged and demoralised friend Hughes would ask as he contemplated the Good Friday Agreement and drank himself to death.
“The lives he had taken, the young volunteers he had sent to die: his understanding of those sacrifices had always been that they would ultimately be justified by the emergence of a united Ireland.”
Troubled Price, one of the Old Bailey bombers, brainwashed as a child by relatives who were all in favour of her dying for Ireland, also ended her life drinking to block out guilt and anger.
Keefe’s research extended to many trips to Ireland and interviews with anyone he could find who could cast light on what had happened to Mrs McConville.
His discoveries and conclusions about the key roles of, among others, Adams, Hughes and the Price sisters (Marian is alive and unrepentant) make a powerful story.
He gives Adams, who refused to meet him, great credit as a strategist in peace-making, though I’d like to see him address the cynicism of his relentless stoking up of tribal hatreds in the culture and legal wars we have endured.
Adams is, says Keefe, a man with a “sociopathic instinct for self-preservation”, who never seems to cast “so much as a backward glance” at the suffering colleagues he left behind him as he sailed off to a world of politics and celebrity.
In 2017, at the funeral of 50-year-old Billy McConville, who had been six when his mother disappeared and who had had a miserable childhood in abusive institutions, a priest said: “The whole world knows the name of a simple Belfast mother who loved her children and who was cruelly abducted, murdered and secretly buried in December 1972.”
What an extraordinary end to that terrible story it would be if Hollywood helped make Jean McConville the Nemesis not just of Adams, but of the shockingly brutal culture that he eulogises to this day.