Putting N. Ireland's 'Disappeared' to Rest

Families hope this month's peace referendums will lead the IRA to reveal where bodies are buried.

Brian McKinney's harmonica rests on a table in his bedroom in West Belfast. It has been 20 years since Brian was last in the upstairs room, but his mother, Margaret, still remembers the sound of her son playing a tune on the instrument.

In May 1978, Brian, then 22, was allegedly abducted and shot by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - but not for any political activities.

Days before his disappearance, Brian had been involved in a robbery. His parents were furious when they found out. Mrs. McKinney recalls going to senior IRA members in her community to repay the stolen money. "Brian apologized, we apologized, and I thought that was the end of it," she says.

But at that time, in addition to its violent struggle to end British rule in Northern Ireland, the IRA often acted as a type of local judge and jury. Brian vanished, and his body was never found. Three years ago, the McKinneys joined with other families with similar experiences to form Families of the Disappeared (FOTD).

Seamus McKendry was the driving force behind the group. His wife, Helen, saw her mother, a Protestant living in a mainly Catholic area, taken away in 1972. Soon after FOTD was established, Mr. McKendry was contacted by IRA members who admitted the group had killed the dozen or so missing people - but they were unwilling to say where the bodies were buried.

"I think they were just giving us the runaround," he says. Normal IRA policy is to claim responsibility for its actions. In these cases, however, it has remained publicly silent.

In other conflicts, the so-called "disappeared" have won widespread attention. But in Northern Ireland, their small number has often been overlooked amid sectarian violence that claimed 3,200 lives over 30 years. With the exception of a British undercover soldier, the victims were all uninvolved in the conflict. Several were Catholic teens involved in petty crime, while others were Protestants married to Catholics.

Eamon Phoenix of Queens University in Belfast believes the IRA is embarrassed. It "wishes the issue would just go away," he says. Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, urges "anyone who has any information about the whereabouts of these missing people to contact the families." But McKendry dismisses this call as "empty rhetoric."

With April's prospective peace agreement offering the chance of a lasting resolution, FOTD is hopeful the IRA may reveal where the remains are located. The group says it is not interested in securing convictions of those responsible for the killings. Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton has called on the IRA to release the information as a goodwill gesture ahead of the May 22 referendums on the peace deal. He says such a move "would foster genuine reconciliation."

That sentiment is shared by McKendry, who says the families only "want to give their loved ones a Christian burial."

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