Finding ‘The Disappeared’ will rely on even the fragmentary memories of the many witnesses to these burials

I don’t think that Susan McKay’s forensically detailed piece for the Irish Times on the search for the disappeared is absolutely the best piece published today, but it’s got to be pretty close. Her eye for telling detail is extraordinarily precise and in the process of throwing a powerful light on the long, painstaking and expensive task of recovering the bodies of the disappeared, she pulls no punches:

Knupfer, chief investigator with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, points out that back in 1975, when an IRA gang is believed to have buried the body of the 19-year-old Tyrone man here, the trees in this plantation – some of them now 30 metres tall and never thinned out – would have been small saplings. The ground, meanwhile, would have been easy to dig.

For Knupfer’s team, the dig is anything but easy and, whereas the IRA required no evidence whatsoever on which to base its choice of McVeigh for execution and Disappearance, the process of trying to recover his body is complex and intricate, relying on the expertise of forensic scientists, mappers, researchers, civil engineers, detectives, imagery analysts, forensic archaeologists, geophysicists and dog handlers. It starts with the taking of DNA samples from the closest surviving relatives of the victim.

By contrast:

The IRA needed a large team, too. People to set the victims up, to kidnap them, drive them across the Border into the Republic, provide a safe place in which to interrogate them, and someone to murder them.

It needed people to reconnoitre, select a burial place, dig the grave, bring the body, dump it, take the operatives away, destroy the evidence and intimidate those who might consider informing the authorities. Many of those involved will have been citizens of the Republic, where all but one of those known to have been Disappeared are presumed buried.

In other words, these murders took an awful lot of people to manage and achieve. Geoff Knupfer has some considerable experience experience in this highly specialised field. And in interview with McKay he notes just how important detail can be in recovering the bodies:

In the 1980s, Knupfer had worked on the aftermath of the Moors murders. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had been jailed for abducting and murdering six children and disposing of their bodies on the vast Yorkshire Moors.

“We were searching a peat bog and we realised that parts of it could be seen from a road, so I asked Hindley whether it was daytime or night time when they buried the body there,” says Knupfer. “She said, ‘It was dusk, I could see the outline of the hills across the valley.’ It was a classic case of a throwaway remark providing the breakthrough.

“We went back to the site and realised that there were only a few spots which had that view.” Shortly afterwards, they recovered the body of 16-year-old Pauline Reade.

“In one of our searches in Ireland, we were able to dramatically narrow down the area when a witness to a burial made a chance remark about where he was picked up afterwards,” says Knupfer. “We need to have sites that shout at us.” [Emphasis added]

And they take especial care to signal that the purpose of these investigations is recovery of the body, not criminal prosecution:

The area now being searched at Bragan Bog is, Knupfer says, “pristine”. Those searching it are dressed in high-visibility rainwear rather than white forensic suits. It is all part of the effort to drive home to those with information that they can give it to the commission without fear of exposure or prosecution.

“Our sole purpose is the recovery and repatriation of bodies. We are not looking for evidence. Nothing we hear, nothing we find will end up being used in a court case,” says Knupfer. “None of our records will end up in Boston College, either.”

Ouch! Knupler is clearly counting on the fact that not that there are a dwindling number of people who know about these murders, but that there are quite a few such witnesses south as well as north of the border who may have enough knowledge to find the key to exactly where the bodies buried.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty