Tuesday 16 September at 8pm on ABC
For the rest of the world, the 1998 peace process signalled a new beginning for Northern Ireland – but for many people who lived through over 30 years of bitter sectarian conflict, there’s no escaping the past.
During the worst years of the violence, 16 people – one woman and 15 men – were grabbed, taken away and murdered, all because it was believed they were informers.
This group of victims is known as The Disappeared – and they simply vanished one day without a trace.
“I believe their idea was to take away not just their life but their identity you know, no trace of you left. You’re eliminated. There’s no trace of you left. There’s no burial. There’s no grave to go to. You’ve disappeared.” – SEAN MEGRAW, brother of a victim
The first news many families had of what had happened to their loved ones was in 1999 when the IRA finally came clean about 9 of the – admitting the role the organisation had played in their murders. In response, a special commission was formed to help to find the remains, but not the murderers. In return for information, it provided partial immunity from prosecution and complete confidentiality.
The story of The Disappeared was catapulted into the global spotlight when earlier this year one of Ireland’s most high profile politicians, Gerry Adams, the leader of the Republican party Sinn Fein, was linked directly with the abduction, torture and murder of one of The Disappeared – Jean McConville, widow and mother of 10. He was accused in a confidential interview recorded by former high ranking IRA man, Brendan Hughes, which was made public when he died.
“A special squad was brought into the operation then called the Unknowns, you know, and anyone that needed to be taken away, they normally done it. I had no control over this squad, Gerry had control over this particular squad.” – BRENDAN HUGHES, ex IRA
The recording is one of a number of secret interviews that were given by former IRA members on the understanding they would not be published until after the deaths of the interviewees.
Brendan Hughes’ naming of Gerry Adams – and the fact that Jean McConville’s body was found by a passerby, and not from a tip off to the commission – led to his arrest and questioning. The case remains with the Northern Irish prosecutors – he has denied all knowledge or involvement.
The McConville family – the children left behind when their mother was grabbed from their arms back in 1972 – say they don’t believe him.
The problem for Adams, who has always denied membership of the IRA – and others who are named on the secret tapes – is that there are now attempts by the law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland to get access to all the other interviews, and there are 46 in all.
Lisa Millar meets some of the families who are fighting to find their loved ones. They want to locate their bodies and give them a proper burial. She also talks to former IRA man Anthony McIntyre, who conducted the interviews with the republicans involved in the secret interviews. He takes her inside the mind of a boy who joined the IRA at the age of 16.
Millar - "If they’d asked you to disappear people, would you have done that?"
McIntyre - "Yes I would have done without question, wrongly so. I felt at the time these people are informers and the more we target those who inform the better. You know it was a totally wrong position to hold but I would have done it.”
McIntyre spent 17 years in jail for killing a soldier. After he got out, and following the peace agreement, he thought it was important that people understand the history of the IRA. He now wants the tapes destroyed, because the promised confidentiality has been breached. But he also doubts Gerry Adams’ claims of innocence, telling Millar: “I believe that Mr Adams was the architect of The Disappeared.”
It’s a heart-rending tale of families destroyed and lives broken. It’s also a story of incredible irony. Sixteen people were murdered, allegedly for informing. Now their killers could themselves be facing punishment – for informing on themselves.