The DisapPeared: Searching for the IRA's Lost victims / Telegraph Magazine
It looks like land being prepared for a housing estate: acres of bare earth, mechanical diggers removing topsoil, workers in orange fluorescent jackets. Except that this is bogland, miles from any town, in the remote heart of Ireland’s County Meath. And beside the excavations there is, on this gentle autumn day, a woman dressed in her Sunday best, lighting a candle and praying.
Maria Linskey is a retired hairdresser from Belfast. The Coghalstown bog is where she believes her uncle, Joe Linskey, was buried after the IRA executed him 43 years ago. He was a former monk who became an IRA intelligence officer and tried to kill his lover’s husband – a fellow ‘Provo’.
As the diggers scrape away the dense black peat, inches at a time, she prays for ‘closure’ – for an end to four decades of having nowhere to mourn, of knowing her uncle never had a Christian burial, of fighting to ensure he was not forgotten.
She finds it hard to visit the site. She struggles to avoid imagining her uncle being pushed across it one night in 1972, ordered to kneel beside a freshlydug hole and then shot in the back of his head. Had he been tortured? Did he know he was about to be executed? ‘It’s too horrible to think of,’ she says. The sheer scale of the search – nearly 10 acres – depresses her further. ‘Look how big it is,’ she says. ‘Where do you start? Where do you finish? How do you find anyone in this?’
But there is hope. A large rock marks the spot where, in June, the diggers found the remains of two other men abducted from republican West Belfast in 1972 – their bones tanned so dark by the peat that they resembled tree roots. Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee, who was only 16, were alleged informers. They were doubtless brought here because Sean MacStiofain, the former IRA chief of staff, lived down the road. Last year the remains of Brendan Megraw, another young man taken from his Belfast home (in 1978), were disinterred from a bog the other side of MacStiofain’s old home.
Linskey, McKee, Wright, Megraw – they are four of a group known collectively as the ‘Disappeared’: 15 men and one woman abducted, executed and secretly buried by republican paramilitaries in the 1970s and early 1980s. Almost all were Catholics. Their alleged offences ranged from informing to theft. The best known was Jean McConville, a 38yearold widow who was dragged away from her 10 screaming children. They also included three young men who had learning difficulties, two with pregnant wives and a 54-year-old father of five.
These victims were not left dead beside a road in the IRA’s usual fashion. They vanished without trace. Their families were told nothing. Local republicans denied any knowledge of them. It was as if they had never existed.
For decades their mothers, wives and children lived in a sort of purgatory, unable to grieve or move on. They could not go to the police, who were seen as the enemy and scarcely operated in republican areas in those days. They were warned not to speak out or ask questions. They suffered ill health, depression, even madness. Some mothers died without ever discovering what happened to their sons, and had their offspring’s names inscribed on their own gravestones so they would be memorialised by more than a few fading black-and-white photos.
‘It was a grievous injustice. The families were put through a living hell,’ says Sandra Peake, head of Wave, a victims’ counselling organisation in Belfast that now supports them. ‘There were thousands of victims of the Troubles, but in the pantheon of suffering, theirs was as bad as anyone’s.’
Their anguish is not over yet. Sixteen years have passed since, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA finally acknowledged the Disappeared and promised to find their remains. Four have still not been recovered.
Even the families of those that have been found enjoy only partial ‘closure’. They have received no apology for the murders of their loved ones, no account of what happened to them, no opportunity to clear their names and certainly no justice. Indeed, the price for recovering their loved ones is a de facto amnesty for their executioners.
In the tortuous moral labyrinth that is Northern Ireland, the killers have quite literally got away with murder.
Jean McConville was seized by about 10 men and women, some masked, from West Belfast’s Divis flats in 1972 and accused of passing information to the British Army. Her son, Michael, now 53 and living in rural County Antrim, believes her real crime was being a Protestant who married a Catholic and who once helped a wounded British soldier she found in the stairwell.
Michael, then aged 11, was beaten and told to keep silent. The IRA spread rumours that his mother had run off with a British soldier or loyalist paramilitary. For weeks her 10 children fended for themselves, outcasts spurned by their neighbours and ignored even by the local priest. Welfare officers intervened only after Michael was caught stealing food. The siblings were split up, sent to different orphanages and grew up strangers.
‘It wrecked my life,’ says McConville, who still has nightmares. ‘When my father died I thought nothing as bad as that could ever happen to me again. Little did I know that 11 months later my mother would be killed by the IRA and seven weeks after that I would end up with no brothers and sisters.’ He would see his mother’s abductors on the streets. He once took a taxi down the Falls Road and found one of them driving it.
Charlie Armstrong, a father of five from the republican stronghold of Crossmaglen in South Armagh, disappeared when he went to collect an old woman for Mass one Sunday in 1981. The IRA put it about that the unemployed labourer had run off, perhaps with another woman.
Armstrong’s daughter, Anna McShane, 54, believes he was taken simply because he saw something he should not have seen. His family put up posters far and wide, scoured ditches, hired divers to search lakes, stuck his picture on milk cartons and even employed diviners. ‘We were constantly, constantly looking for him. There was nothing we didn’t try,’ McShane says. For years his wife left the key in the front door, believing he would come home, but he never did. ‘You couldn’t move on. You couldn’t talk to people, even to neighbours, because nobody wanted to get involved,’ McShane says.
Kevin McKee, the teenager found in Coghalstown bog, was abducted after being recruited by British intelligence. Weeks later he called his mother and asked her to bring clothes to a house in Monaghan, across the border. She arrived to be told that he had left, and to take the clothes back home to Belfast.
McKee’s sister, Phil, now 52, said her mother turned to prescription drugs to black out the pain. At night she would wake her five remaining children and take them on to the streets to stop cars and check their boots. She knocked on strangers’ doors, asking for Kevin. She left meals for him in the airing cupboard. She went in and out of mental hospitals. ‘We had no childhood at all,’ says McKee, who had to look after her younger siblings. ‘The day they took my brother they took my mother too. Cruel is not the word for it.’
Vera McVeigh was another mother who never recovered from the loss of her son. Columba was 19 and had learning difficulties. In 1977 he fled to Dublin from his home in Donaghmore, County Tyrone, after British intelligence clumsily sought to use him to infiltrate the IRA. Months later he vanished. Vera persuaded herself he had gone to England or America. For years she bought him birthday presents, wrote him Christmas cards and kept his clothes in a wardrobe. She cried whenever she played Galway Bay on a music box he had given her. For the rest of her life she went to Mass every day to pray for him, paying £1 for a candle each time.
In 1990 Columba McVeigh’s brother, Oliver, now 54 and a sports photographer, read in Martin Dillon’s book The Dirty War that Columba had been executed and secretly buried in the Irish countryside. ‘They shot and buried him like a dog,’ he says. He chose not to tell his ageing parents. ‘It was agonising. I thought, what benefit is it for me to tell them? I wanted to protect my mother and father.’ Equally agonising, he often encounters a local IRA boss whom he knows was involved in Columba’s abduction. ‘He may not have been there, but he would have been fully aware. The information would have come from him and through him.’
Margaret McKinney’s son, Brian, also had learning difficulties. In 1978, aged 22, he helped rob an IRArun bar in West Belfast, was beaten by way of punishment, and paid back his £50 share of the proceeds. Days later he and a 17-year-old accomplice, John McClory, disappeared. An IRA man said they had been ‘put out of the country’, but Margaret McKinney, beside herself with grief, would rise before dawn to search building sites and ditches. She slept in Brian’s bed, and wrapped herself in his coat. ‘I sat crying from morning to night. I thought blood was coming out of my eyes,’ she says. In an act of supreme cruelty, someone sent her a Christmas card each year – purportedly from her missing son. But in the end McKinney, a small but gutsy former school cleaner who is now 84, became the scourge of the IRA. She, as much as anyone, forced it to admit its barbarity.
In 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire. McKinney started visiting the Wave trauma centre, and with its encouragement began speaking out on the previously taboo issue of the Disappeared. Other families followed her lead and launched a concerted campaign to get their loved ones back. The fear that had muzzled them for decades evaporated. The culture of silence was finally broken.
A month after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement McKinney and other Troubles victims met President Clinton in the White House. She told her story. Clinton was appalled. He had not heard of the Disappeared. ‘I promise you I will help you find your son,’ he told her. ‘It’s time to let families be whole again,’ he declared. Within a year, under pressure, the IRA admitted executing nine people and causing ‘incalculable pain and distress’ to their families. The Irish National Liberation Army acknowledged a tenth, Seamus Ruddy, who had vanished in France.
Simultaneously, the British and Irish governments created the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR) to receive confidential information on the burial places of the Disappeared. Neither the information, nor evidence acquired from the graves, could be used in criminal prosecutions. Within days the remains of Eamon Molloy, an alleged informer, were left in a new coffin beneath a sacred tree in a rural cemetery in County Louth. Weeks later the remains of Brian McKinney and John McClory were recovered from a bog in County Monaghan, allowing Brian’s mother to give him a proper Christian burial in West Belfast’s Milltown cemetery 21 years after his death.
Expectations soared. The Irish police launched numerous searches based on confidential information, often relayed through priests. The families mounted vigils at the sites, holding prayer services and leaving rosaries and flowers. They prepared their homes for wakes, painting rooms. The IRA had omitted Armstrong from its list, either from shame at his utterly unwarranted abduction or because it had not been sanctioned by the leadership, but even his family gained hope after his widow was sent – anonymously – a hand-drawn map of his supposed burial site in a bog just across the border.
But the discoveries petered out. In 2003 Jean McConville’s remains were found on a beach near Carlingford – apparently by a man walking his dog – after the Irish police had spent 71 fruitless days excavating another nearby beach, but that was all. ‘It was very disheartening,’ McShane, Armstrong’s daughter, recalls. ‘You were built up, then slapped down again. It was hard to live with.’ In 2005 the commission employed Geoff Knupfer, a former detective chief inspector from Manchester who had led a successful search for the Moors murder victims, and Jon Hill, a retired detective inspector from London’s Met, to reinvigorate the hunt.
They introduced proactive and scientific methods. They reached out to possible informants. They used old maps and aerial photographs to see how sites had changed, and deployed sniffer dogs, ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry to detect anomalies in the earth. They have divided search sites into blocks of 20 square metres (215 square feet), which mechanical diggers excavate to a depth of five or six feet. Forensic archaeologists stand beside the diggers, looking for telltale changes in the colour of the soil.
It is painstaking work fraught with problems. Decades have passed. People have died. Informants misremember places and distances. Terrains change – trees grow, buildings are demolished, tracks disappear. Not all republicans want to help.
Despite that, Knupfer’s team has recovered seven more sets of remains, including Armstrong’s after his widow was anonymously mailed two more maps – each more detailed than the last. In the more alkaline bogs, clothes and shoes have survived almost intact. In Armstrong’s case even his pencils, and a religious medallion sewn into the waistline of his trousers, were recovered. Telling a family their loved one’s remains have been found is a bittersweet moment, Hill says. ‘You are bringing them the worst news, but it’s also the news they desperately want.’
But four searches for Columba McVeigh’s remains in a County Monaghan bog have been unsuccessful. ‘We’re still in limbo. We’re stuck in a time warp. We can’t move on till I’ve fulfilled my mother’s wish and put him in the family grave with a Christian burial,’ says Oliver McVeigh, who promised his mother never to give up. ‘The IRA aren’t trying hard enough.’
And shortly after the Telegraph’s visit to the bog in County Meath the search for Joe Linskey’s remains was called off, to the disappointment of his niece and the searchers. Hill suggests people are still withholding information. ‘There’s one person in this area who knows about this and and won’t speak to us.’
The IRA has never admitted responsibility for Linskey’s death. His name was added to the list only in 2010 after the posthumous publication of an interview with Brendan Hughes, an IRA commander in Belfast who died in 2008. Hughes alleged that Linskey was killed by a unit called the ‘Unknowns’ that answered to Gerry Adams, then head of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade.
Another convicted IRA terrorist, Dolours Price, admitted before her death in 2013 that she had been one of the Unknowns. She said she had collected Linskey – a friend – from his sister’s house, saying he was wanted at a meeting in the Republic. As they drove south she realised he knew he was being taken to his execution, and urged him to escape. When she handed him over in County Monaghan he simply hugged her, told her not to worry and walked calmly to his death.
From beyond the grave, Brendan Hughes implicated Gerry Adams in Jean McConville’s killing. ‘There’s only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed. That f—ing man is now head of Sinn Fein,’ he said, adding that Adams later had the gall to visit the McConville family and promise to investigate her disappearance. ‘Now tell me the morality in that?’ Hughes protested. Price also blamed Adams for McConville’s disappearance, but Adams has repeatedly denied involvement, claiming both Hughes and Price wanted to discredit him because they opposed the peace process.
The families of Columba McVeigh and Joe Linskey still yearn for ‘closure’, and Hill says the searches will continue until there is no longer any prospect of success. The remains of Seamus Ruddy and Robert Nairac, a British Army captain seized from a South Armagh pub while working undercover, have also still not been found. Sandra Peake says three more families have recently told Wave that their sons were ‘disappeared’ by paramilitaries in the 1970s, but have not gone public.
But even among those families who have recovered their loved ones there is still pain. They have had no apologies. They have had no chance to clear the names of their sons and husbands, though Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, has declared that Jean McConville was not an informant. They have never been told exactly how or when the Disappeared met their deaths, whether they were tortured, or if they were allowed to see priests before they died.
‘I know Brian’s in heaven. That’s the main thing,’ McKinney says. ‘But I wonder about his last moments. Was he crying out for me?’ Some even find themselves feeling grateful to the informants, even though they may also have been the executioners.
Above all, the families have been denied justice. Postmortems showed that many of the Disappeared were shot in the head. Half of Charlie Armstrong’s skull was missing. But prosecutions are virtually impossible because forensic evidence obtained from the crime scene is inadmissible when a grave has been found through confidential tips to the commission. It is a distasteful arrangement, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, one of the two commissioners, acknowledges. But, he adds, ‘Which is more important – to relieve the grief of the families, or bring someone to book for it?’ Most of the families accept the tacit deal. ‘There’s no point in prolonging the torture. Their judgment will come when they go to their death beds,’ says Phil McKee, who can at least now visit her brother’s grave every Sunday.
A few are less forgiving. Michael McConville wants those responsible for his mother’s death prosecuted. And because her remains were not retrieved through information given to the commission, that is possible, especially given the incriminating statements of Hughes and Price. In April 2014 the police detained and questioned Adams for four days about Jean McConville’s murder, but in September Northern Ireland’s public prosecution service dropped the case because it saw little prospect of a conviction.
What does it say about a society that people are abducted, murdered and secretly buried and their killers are never found, Michael McConville asks. As he says, ‘What happened to the Disappeared should be treated as war crimes.’