There can be few more grim and ghoulish jobs than sifting a wet and
mucky bog for a body.
Those who consigned Gerry Evans and others into the dark grime in
remote country areas intended that those bodies would never be found.
And the most benign interpretation of their failure now to give
precise location details is that they also buried their own guilty
Gerry Evans disappeared — or was ‘disappeared’ — over 30 years ago.
If his family has learnt anything since, it is patience.
I met Mary Evans, Gerry’s mother, in Crossmaglen last year and the
striking thing in our conversation was how she remembered specific
dates, like sacred anniversaries.
She last saw Gerry on the 25th of March 1979. He had left the house
after dinner to meet friends in Castleblaney and had not returned. On
the 18th of March 2008 someone put a map through the letterbox of
Gerry’s aunt’s house in Keady, with a note saying, ‘We believe this is
where Gerry is buried’.
Just this week, the digging began.
I also met Gerry’s brother Noel, who was only 11 years old at the time
of the disappearance and who admits to not having really grasped the
horror of it until he was older. ‘You couldn’t really work it into
your intelligence what had happened until you got older, and what a
bad situation you were in.’
And still, though anonymous people are apparently moved to be helpful,
Gerry Evans is in a different category than most of the disappeared,
for the IRA does not formally acknowledge any responsibility for him,
or for another Crossmaglen man, Charlie Armstrong, who disappeared
close to the same time.
In an area saturated with Republican sympathies, the Armstrongs and
the Evanses say they feel that they are the only people who understand
each other and the grief of living with unexplained loss. Mary Evans
says, ‘People don’t really understand. Me and Kathleen Armstrong
would meet going to mass; we could talk about it because we knew how
each other felt. Other than that it was all silent.’
Kathleen Armstrong says, ‘That longing is always on you to have a
grave to go to.’
All of the families of the disappeared have articulated a similar
sense that their experience cuts them off from the world, since those
who have never felt the need to recover a body for a funeral, don’t
really understand that perpetual ache.
One Irish government minister, meeting one of the families, is
reported by them to have callously said that they should ‘move on’.
The troubles were over, he said, ‘Everyone else has moved on, why
The families have, in fact, made a major concession in their
desperation for news. They have accepted that those who killed Gerry
and Charlie should not be punished or even shamed.
Noel Evans put it like this: ‘Now we have gone beyond justice and
we’ve said that. We don’t want people scared to contact the
confidential line or scared to contact us for fear of reprisals or
fear of justice being done to them. Those days are gone. We just want
They do not want to be perceived, in Crossmaglen, to be working for
the embarrassment of the IRA. They appeal only for something no
decency could refuse, a Christian funeral.
There are many around them who respect and even revere the IRA. There
may even be some who believe the IRA’s profession of ignorance of the
fate of the two men.
Probably, the practice of ‘disappearing’ their victims was adopted by
the IRA as an effort to retain respect in their communities after
orders that would have been hard for their neighbours to endorse.
The earliest disappearance that we know of is the most famous, that of
Jean McConville, a mother of ten children, living in the Divis Flats,
when, in December 1972, the Belfast IRA determined that she was an
informer and took her from her home and shot her. In the normal run of
things, at that time, an informer’s body might have been found in a
back alley. But 1972 had been a difficult year for the IRA. They had
come under the first real pressure from the Catholic community to end
their campaign, and had even conceded a two-week ceasefire that summer
and entered talks with the British government. Much of that pressure
had centred on their killing of Martha Crawford during a gun battle in
Romoan Gardens in March, though they tried to blame that on the army.
The IRA had hoped to preserve a reputation for honesty and plain
dealing with the Catholic community, but it had more lies to tell
before it would decide that Jean McConville’s body be buried 50 miles away on
a County Louth beach and that no claim of responsibility would be
They professed themselves mystified by the bombing of Claudy in July 1972 and the murder of eight people there.
When one of their bombs, in transit, killed eight people in Anderson
Street in the Short Strand, the IRA claimed that it had been planted
by Loyalist paramilitaries or the SAS. This was to be remembered for
years as one of the great atrocities against the Catholic community.
An IRA statement had said that the bombers had been seen entering the
street and that an active service unit had attempted to intercept
them. That was how they explained the deaths of IRA members at the
They also lied about the killing of eight year old Rosaleeen Gavin and
about their responsibility for the bombing of the Abercorn Bar. A
unifying feature of the actions they disowned before the murder of Mrs
McConville is that they all entailed the deaths of women or children.
So a pattern of lying to the Catholic community, which it professed to defend, was well established before the secret burial of Jean McConville, and one effect of this was to exaggerate the threat against that community from Loyalists and the British.
Most of us knew nothing of the secret burial of IRA victims until
after the ceasefire of 1994. Then Helen McKendry, Jean McConville’s
daughter, gave an astonishing interview to David Dunseith on the
Talkback programme on Radio Ulster. She described how, after her
mother had been taken from their home, she had, as a little girl,
looked after the other children in their flat and how, after several
weeks, social services took them into care and separated them.
Then other stories followed, with the families of Brian McKinney and
John McClory coming forward and a campaign getting underway.
Progress has always been slow. The Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams
pledged to help the families and visited Helen McKendry to hear her
story and assure her of his concern.
The breakthrough came in 1999, when the IRA formally admitted to the
disappearing of nine people.
The British and Irish governments agreed to the creation of a
Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, which would guarantee
immunity to any members of the IRA who came forward with information
about where they had buried people.
The first body to be given up was that of Eamon Molloy an Ardoyne man
whom the IRA had shot as an informer in 1975.
Brian McKinney and John McClory were discovered in 1999. The IRA had
shot them in 1978 after Brian McKinney had allegedly admitted stealing
It took another four years and an exhaustive search of a beach in
County Louth before Jean McConville was found. The search for her body
had closer media coverage, probably because it was easier for
broadcasters to marshal their cameras on a beautiful beach in fine
weather. Reporters watched a digger scoop and sift the sand, hour
after hour, day after day, looking for clothing or a few bones. The
searching seemed to unite the scattered McConville family, and they
erected a small shrine to their mother at the beach. The search itself
proved fruitless. The body was found at a separate beach. It then
became clear that Jean McConville had died of a single bullet wound to
There were two unsuccessful searches also for Danny McIlhone, in 1999
and 2000, before his remains were found last year in the Wicklow
Mountains. The story behind his death is that the IRA had been
questioning him about the theft of some of their weapons and that he
had been killed in a struggle to escape.
The IRA admits to having killed four other missing people, Kevin
McKee, Columba McVeigh, Brendan McGraw and Seamus Wright.
The families of the disappeared still meet formally twice a year, for
a mass on Palm Sunday and a small ceremony at Stormont on All Souls
The families of those whose bodies have been found continue to attend
these gatherings, being the only ones who really empathise with the
suffering of people like Mary Evans and Kathleen Armstrong.
This year there was a new family among them, that of Peter Wilson, of
the St James area of Belfast, who went missing in 1973.
The question of whether he rightly belongs on the list of those the
IRA killed and hoped we would never hear of again is a serious one. It
opens up the possibility that the IRA, which has pledged to being open
and helpful is still harbouring what secrets it can.
But for the family of Gerry Evans, hoping that his bones might emerge
from the bog and that their last realistic prospect of giving him a
funeral might be fulfilled, the broader politics of blame and guilt
They only want their boy.