DUBLIN, Ireland — For 37 years the little beach beneath the sandstone cliffs at Waterfoot in the Glens of Antrim held a terrible secret. Buried beneath the reddish sand lay the skeleton of a man abducted, murdered and secretly dumped there by the Irish Republican Army.
The bones were those of Peter Wilson, age 21 when he went missing from his Belfast home in 1973.
Wilson was one of the "disappeared," 16 people who at different times during the Northern Ireland "Troubles" were killed and buried secretly, 11 of them by the IRA. Wilson’s sister Anne Connolly said the news was doubly distressing because her mother, who died three years ago, often sat on the beach during warm summer days.
Wilson's body was located and exhumed Nov. 3 after a tip-off was received by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, a body established by the British and Irish governments a decade ago in the wake of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement.
The search for the bodies of the "disappeared" has become one of the most heart-wrenching legacies of the violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades, and has raised questions about the role of one of the most prominent figures in Irish politics, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Last month Ireland’s main television channel, RTE, broadcast claims by former IRA commander Brendan Hughes that Adams was involved in ordering the murder of one woman on the disappeared list, Jean McConville of Belfast.
McConville, a mother of 10, went missing from her home in 1972. She was taken across the Irish border, shot as an informer, and buried on a beach in County Louth. Adams, whose Sinn Fein party was linked with the IRA and which shares power with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has denied that he was involved.
“I reject absolutely any accusation that I had any hand, act, or part in the killing and disappearing of Jean McConville,” he told Ulster Television.
Hughes’ claim was made in a tape recording in 2008 shortly before he died, and first published in journalist Ed Moloney’s book "Voices from the Grave" in March. Hughes, formerly a close friend of Adams, alleged that a British Army transmitter was twice found in McConville’s apartment in the nationalist Divis Flats in west Belfast, and that she was murdered by a secret IRA unit dubbed “The Unknowns,” which he said was controlled by Gerry Adams. The McConville children have always denied that their mother was an informer.
Nine of the 16 disappeared have now been located, most under the supervision of the commission’s senior investigator, Geoff Knupfer, a former forensic scientist with the Greater Manchester police, whose has worked on missing persons since his involvement in the notorious Moors Murders case in northern England in the 1960s, when several children were killed by murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
The commission relies on tip-offs from former militants, many of whom have died or cannot remember exact locations. Last month the investigators found the remains of Gerard Evans of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, who was 24 when he was kidnapped and killed in 1979 by unknown gunmen.
The most prominent of the seven victims still missing is Robert Nairac, a British army intelligence officer shot dead in 1977, the only soldier whose remains have never been recovered. Nairac was one of the most controversial figures in the Troubles for his alleged complicity with loyalist murder gangs. He was taken by IRA members from a bar close to the border, where he had been posing as an IRA sympathizer, and shot in a field.
Of the six other victims whose bodies are still missing, five were shot by the IRA: Joseph Lynskey, an IRA volunteer from Belfast in 1972, for “breaches of standing orders”; Seamus Wright of Belfast and Kevin McKee from Armagh in 1972 and Columba McVeigh from Donaghmore in 1975 as informers; and Brendan Megraw of Belfast in 1978 as a suspected “agent provocateur.” The sixth, Seamus Ruddy, an associate of a small and extremely violent anti-British group, the Irish National Liberation Army, was murdered in Paris in 1985 in an internal dispute over arms smuggling.