Ulster’s disappeared: Long search for the truth

Between 1972 and 1985, 17 people were abducted in Northern Ireland and never seen again.
Between 1972 and 1985, 17 people were abducted in Northern Ireland and never seen again.
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Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, the man in charge of the team searching for The Disappeared tells Sarah Freeman why the search for justice goes on.

“So go on, tell me where would you bury a body?”

University of Bradford's John McIlwaine

University of Bradford's John McIlwaine

John McIlwaine’s opener to an interview is certainly interesting.

“Err...well, I live in York, so maybe the river?” While I don’t want to look like it’s something I’ve thought too hard about, neither do I want to appear stupid in front of the Bradford University forensic archaeologist.

“Rivers are not bad because bodies can end up miles away from where they were dumped, but you know what, people tend to be very predictable. Someone who has committed a murder will tend to hide the body within a half-mile drive of the crime scene – even killers don’t like driving around with corpses in the back of their cars. And they are constrained by their size. For example, I could carry a body a lot further than you could and knowing what I know, the chances are you would get caught first.”

While there may be no such thing as a perfect murder, there are cases which routinely end in dead ends. None more so than The Disappeared. Between 1972 and 1985, when The Troubles were at their height in Northern Ireland, 17 people were abducted. Some were accused of being informers, selling IRA secrets to their enemies; others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The list of victims include a former monk, a teacher at a private school in Paris and a widowed mother of 10. It was the case of Jean McConville, who was dragged out of her Belfast home in December 1972, that recently brought the plight of The Disappeared back into the spotlight following the arrest of Gerry Adams earlier this month. After four days of questioning about McConville’s disappearance, the Sinn Fein leader, who has always denied involvement in any of the cases, was released without charge. He claimed the timing of his arrest, which happened in the middle of an election campaign, had been politically motivated. For McConville’s family it was just another painful episode in their 42-year search for justice.

John is acutely aware of the sensitivity which surrounds these cases. Growing up in a Protestant family in Portadown, not only did he see first hand the damage The Troubles did to the country, but for the last 15 years he has been part of a team helping to recover the remains of The Disappeared.

“I do think there’s a tendency to think that The Troubles ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but the truth is it is a very fragile peace. You only have to look at the violence which erupted over the decision to only fly the union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days a couple of years back to see how close to the surface those tensions are.

“For many families there are still a lot of unanswered questions and for many, their lives stopped on the day their loved ones were killed. The majority of The Disappeared are from Catholic families and for them a funeral is hugely important. They have been denied that right and as a result they have also been denied the chance to grieve properly.

“Of course not every search ends successfully. Each time we go out to Northern Ireland, a family’s hopes are raised. My colleagues constantly remind me that our job is to search for remains and once located, recover them and that no matter how good you are, you can’t find what isn’t there. They are right, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

The team at Bradford University work for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, which was set up in 1999 following the signing of The Good Friday Agreement. Its purpose is to obtain information which may lead to the location and recovery of The Disappeared often using priests and other intermediaries to persuade those with vital information to come forward. Crucially it is completely independent and any information it uncovers can’t be passed to any other agency or used in a court of law.

“The commission approached Geoff Knupfer, who as Chief Superintendent with Manchester Police had played a vital role in the investigations of the Moors Murders in the 1980s which recovered the body of Pauline Reid. It was Geoff who recommended that a specialist team be established, including experts in geophysics, forensic science and archaeology. “Bradford is where forensic archaeology started in the UK and we have a good track record of working with police, so it made sense that we were involved,” says John.

It’s the commission’s job to gather the evidence about where The Disappeared may be buried and once they are persuaded that they have a reliable lead, John gets a call. Whatever new information they may have, the searches in the peat bog landscape of Northern Ireland are never easy. The tannins in the peat not only discolour any material dumped in the bog, but its acidic nature means that any remains quickly deteriorate.

“There are some people in forensic archaeology who are in it for themselves, it’s all about them looking good,” says John. “I hope I have never forgotten that what we are dealing with are human beings. These searches are painstaking, far more so than a standard excavation. If you miss a piece of pottery or flint it’s unfortunate, but with forensic archaeology you are searching for vital pieces of evidence. If you miss them, then justice may not be done.”

To date the team have carried out searches across Northern Ireland and there have been a number of successes. In 2008, John and his team went out to Coutny Wicklow where they were faced with a potential search site which was as big as 20 football pitches and where the peat was up to two metres deep.

“It was a very exposed mountainside and the weather was horrendous, but that’s part of the job,” says John. “What people see is the forensic archaeology team digging and they believe it’s a bit like CSI, but the bulk of the work goes unseen. We can only do our job if people come forward with information and the work that has gone into that has been incredible.”

The Co Wicklow search successfully recovered the remains of Danny McIlhone who went missing from West Belfast in 1981. In 1999, the IRA said he had been killed after admitting to having stolen the organisation’s weapons for use in robberies.

“You see some unpleasant things in this job, but there is nothing to beat the sense of satisfaction when you know a family will finally get the chance to hold a funeral for their loved ones,” says John. “We will keep searching as long as the commission keeps getting new information, but we have to be realistic.

“A lot of those who knew what happened to The Disappeared have died themselves and as the years tick by the chances of anyone else coming forward with that vital piece of the jigsaw get slimmer and slimmer. The truth is that when it comes to unlocking the secrets of the past we are running out of time.”