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.

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  • It might be expected that people would remember burying a body, and the general circumstances around that event. Doubt if they cared about the families then, so what reason to care now?

  • It might be a fair assumption that the “authorities” in Tyrone, Derry, South Armagh and West Belfast had/have a fair idea of the names of many people involved. After all they had an agent in the “nutting” squad.
    While I take the previous point that those responsbe showed no compassion for the families then….it still seems an avenue of investigation.
    The other side of the coin is that if people were offered immunity up front, would they be more co-operative? Do they feel unable or unwilling to do so as it might involve questions about others rather than themselves? Or are they worried about forensics being used in respect of others?

    It might also be a good idea if those people who were in fact “informers” were named as such. While clearly they committed no “criminal act” themselves, it would further Truth and would remove any perceived stain on those who were not “informers”.
    It would also be interesting to a general “truth” exercise if any moneys…..lets say £10,000 was paid to any family member of any disappeared person.

  • Mick Fealty


    Since they are going to such trouble to signal any material given will have no further use beyond identifying the unmarked graves, I’m not sure where you are going with that.

  • Where I am going with it is……that I think even more assurances including overall amnesty might have to be given.
    And of course I made other points re identification of agents.

  • cynic2

    I know its hard but by “Witnesses” I assume you mean “murderers”?

    “they can give it to the commission without fear of exposure or prosecution”

    Absolutely right – its all prevented by legislation. Yet another example of the Blair Government’s shameful disregard for the Article 2 rights of victims and the rights of their families.

    Now, has NIHRC protested? Anyone heard from the Committee for the Administration of Justice or any of the myriad other Human Rights (TM) groups? Why not? Why are some dead worthy of lesser protection than others?

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s the language chosen by Mr Knupfer.

  • tacapall

    The truth is if anyone in the republican movement knew the locations of those disappeared they would have came forward long ago. Knupfer can be forgiven for assuming the logistics of how these things happened but the reality is that’s not always how it went. The more who knew about it then the more chance they could be caught, that small group who carried out those burials are in all likelyhood dead or the passage of time has changed the environment so much that its impossible to pinpoint the locations of the burial sites. Its in the republican movements best interests to locate the burial sites and if they could I believe they would but im afraid if any of those disappeared are found I believe it will be by pure chance.

  • Mick Fealty

    Let me guess Tac. You don’t really know, do you?

  • tacapall

    Mick I dont think anybody knows otherwise they would be found. It serves no purpose at this stage not revealing the locations as they’ve already admitted killing those people.

  • cynic2

    “That’s the language chosen by Mr Knupfer”

    I agree. And he is right within the law. I also fully understand that he is acting with the best motives and within the circumstances he finds himself in.

    But iIts those very circumstances that I object to. These people were murdered but the very system seems to infer that their murders were somehow justified .

  • Mick Fealty


    Go back and read the piece, where Knupfer talks about fragmentary memories be enough to trigger important detail. They’ve searched this site before, the reason they are going back is that theyve had a recent indication the body was buried inside the 75 planting.