It is a practice more normally associated with right-wing military regimes in countries like Chile, Argentina or Brazil, but ‘disappearing’ victims was a surprisingly commonplace occurrence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Some sixteen people were taken away by paramilitary groups, killed and buried in secret graves between 1972 and 1985. By far the most responsible agency was the Provisional IRA which ‘disappeared’ fifteen of the sixteen victims; the small republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) ‘disappeared’ the sixteenth victim, one of their former leaders.
A seventeenth victim, Lisa Dorrian, is not listed by any of the official agencies responsible for monitoring the practice. It is suspected that a Loyalist paramilitary splinter group was behind her murder.
Aside from Lisa Dorrian, one other woman, widowed mother-of-ten Jean McConville, was ‘disappeared’. Like many of the other victims she was accused of being a British informer. Others who were ‘disappeared’ were accused of having crossed the IRA in one way or another. Only one victim, Captain Robert Nairac was a member of the British security forces.
But for a campaign by relatives of some of the ‘disappeared’ it is likely that the world might never have learned of the practice, much less have seen it addressed.
The relatives’ campaign coincided with the burgeoning peace process in the early 1990’s and after the intervention of US President Bill Clinton, the IRA finally admitted that it had killed a number of victims in this way.
An international body, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) was set up and charged with locating and recovering the missing bodies. At the time of writing all the remains of but four victims have been recovered, three of them IRA victims and one woman, Lisa Dorrian, killed by Loyalists.
There is a temptation to regard the ‘disappearance’ phenomenon as being unique to the recent Troubles. That would be a mistake. Recent research by an Irish academic historian suggests that the practice was quite commonplace during the 1919-1921 War of Independence, after which most of Ireland won its independence from Britain.
According to Co. Clare-born academic historian, Padraig Og O Ruairc, the IRA ‘disappeared’ twenty-five people, mostly suspected informers, between 1919 and 1921. That is some eight per cent of the 196 alleged informers shot or otherwise killed by the IRA during that time. ‘Disappearances’, then, appear to have been a regular feature of irish revolutionary warfare.
The Irish authorities have, as far as is known, never acknowledged that this happened nor has any attempt ever been made to retrieve the victims’ bodies, identify them and return them to their families. Irish politicians have, however, been free in their criticism of the practice North of the Border during the recent Troubles.
The Provisional IRA began to ‘disappear’ people in 1972, and that year four people – three of them alleged British informers – were taken to secret locations across the Irish Border where they were shot dead and their remains consigned to unmarked graves. Three were members of the IRA and one, Jean McConville, a civilian. Three have been recovered and given a proper burial but one, IRA member Joe Lynskey, has not, at the time of writing, been found.
Sometime before April 1972, the IRA in Belfast created a special intelligence unit which, because its membership was supposed to be secret, was dubbed ‘the Unknowns’. Under the command of Belfast Brigade Intelligence chief, Pat McClure the Unknowns was at the disposal of the overall Belfast commander for special operations.
There were two sections of ‘the Unknowns’. One was centred in West Belfast, the other in North Belfast. McClure took charge of the west Belfast section; Larry Marley, who in later years masterminded the mass escape of over 30 prisoners from the Maze prison, commanded the North Belfast section.
Dolours Price was recruited to the West Belfast section and was given the task of driving the first four ‘disappearance’ victims across the Border to their deaths.
She has always maintained that the orders in each case came from Gerry Adams, then the Belfast Brigade commander. Adams has denied both this and the allegation that he was an IRA member.