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Home News Finding the victims of the Troubles’ bodies has been compared to 45 years of torture

Finding the victims of the Troubles’ bodies has been compared to 45 years of torture

Photo by Mathijs de Koning on Unsplash

The British army checkpoints and patrols and watchtowers are gone, but when Geoff Knupfer surveys the fields and bogs of Ireland’s borderlands he sees a landscape still haunted by the Troubles.

The remains of people murdered and clandestinely buried by the IRA lie concealed in the soil, their locations swallowed by time and secrecy.

For two decades it was Knupfer’s job, as head of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, to find the “disappeared”. The former Manchester detective drew on his experience searching for the victims of the Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

From a list of 17 people abducted by paramilitaries in the 1970s and 1980s, 13 sets of remains were found. It provided some consolation to the families. But four remain unaccounted for. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Knupfer. “It’s unfinished business.”

In fact, there is unfinished Troubles business across Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Along with bodies yet to be found there are injuries and traumas yet to fully heal, even 25 years after the Good Friday agreement.

While politicians prepare to mark the 10 April anniversary, unresolved personal legacies play out in the lives of people for whom the conflict never really ended. Some try to not think about it. Some still hope for justice. Others just want answers.

For the families of the disappeared there can be no closure without the bodies of their loved ones. “I’ve learned not to get my hopes up too much but you’re on edge all the time,” said Oliver McVeigh. He was 14 when the IRA abducted his 19-year-old brother, Columba, in November 1975. Columba was shot dead and dumped. A search resumed at Bragan Bog, in County Monaghan, on 3 April.

“He was my big brother, and that’s what happened to him,” said Oliver. “Buried like a dog. Not being able to put him in a Christian grave, it’s like torture, 45 years of torture,” said Oliver. “We’re not even looking for justice, all we’re looking for is his body.”

The commission to locate victims’ remains stemmed from the Good Friday agreement – it was Bill Clinton’s idea. From 2005, Knupfer led a team of forensic investigators and archaeologists in multiple digs in border counties. Sinn Féin and the IRA cooperated with the commission, which kept information confidential.

Locating remains relied on a dwindling number of people with good knowledge and memories, said Knupfer, who retired at the end of March. “It’s not straightforward. Terrains change, bogs change, some are used for agriculture.” Eventually 13 bodies were recovered, a largely unheralded success. That of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 abducted in 1972, was found by accident.

The remaining four disappeared are McVeigh, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Maguire and the British army captain Robert Nairac. The commission team searched for McVeigh in a remote patch of county Monaghan six times. A seventh attempt began a week ago.

Dympna Kerr, McVeigh’s sister, was at the search. She said the resumption of the search brought both hope and anxiety.

“It’s 25 years since the Good Friday agreement, that was to bring in a new beginning, a new dawn of hope and for many – including us – it did,” she said. “But there is still a dark, thick cloud that hasn’t lifted for our family and the other families who are still waiting to bring him home.”

Oliver McVeigh hopes the US president, Joe Biden, who is to visit Northern Ireland, will lobby Sinn Féin to supply more information about the disappeared. “We can’t rest till the bodies are found. How can you stop, how can you rest? You’re in limbo.”

Most of the 3,500 killings during the Troubles are unsolved, leaving a backlog of “legacy” cases that have bedevilled politics and policing in Northern Ireland. A government bill to grant conditional amnesty to perpetrators and permanently close cases, has triggered condemnation. It is widely seen as an attempt to shield army veterans from investigation for torture, killings and collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

More than a thousand people each year seek help from Wave, a trauma centre and victims’ rights group with branches across Northern Ireland. “The conflict is still there. It resonates in the lives of many families,” said Sandra Peake, who heads the organisation.

The Good Friday agreement had no South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission, leaving families with trauma that in some cases passed down generations, said Peake, who cited high rates of suicide and mental health problems. “There was an intimacy to the violence here. People still talk about the Troubles in the present tense.”

A “garden of hope” at Wave’s Belfast headquarters has hundreds of messages pinned to trees. One from Columba McVeigh’s mother, Vera, reads: “Another year has passed and you’re still not back home but I know your soul is in heaven with Mum and Dad.” Vera died in 2007, aged 82.

James Leatherbarrow, 56, a former soldier from Merseyside who served in Northern Ireland, will mark two anniversaries this year. It will be 35 years since an IRA bomb shredded his regiment’s bus at Ballygawley, County Tyrone, killing eight soldiers; and 25 years since his first marriage ended in divorce. Both are linked.

The attack left Leatherbarrow, 21 at the time, injured and with post-traumatic stress. Back in England, newly married, he could not cope. “I started drinking a lot, doing stupid, silly things. I didn’t know what was happening. I was verbally and mentally abusive to my first wife. I lost a lot of friends. I tried to commit suicide a few times.”

Leatherbarrow recovered, remarried, raised three children and found solace in revisiting the site of the bombing. He will do so again in August for the 35th anniversary. The carnage remains a vivid memory. “I still think of it every day. I’m not taking medication. I go fishing. I just sit by a lovely lakeside.”

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