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Digging up the past

 

 

“My belief is that he’s here, it’s just a matter of where,” says Jon Hill of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR). “It isn’t like searching for a needle in a haystack, it’s like searching for a needle in a field full of haystacks.” Hill is a seasoned investigator who spent more than 30 years working on serious crimes for the Metropolitan Police, and his current role takes all the 70-year-old’s grit and determination. As the ICLVR’s lead investigator he is responsible for locating and recovering the remains of ‘the disappeared’ – the colloquial name given to victims who were kidnapped, killed and secretly buried by the IRA and other paramilitary groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

The remote, peaty, water-logged site of his current search, Bragan Bog, just a couple of miles across Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland in County Monaghan is among the most difficult he’s ever worked in. There are forests and bracken, harsh weather conditions, and layers of different types of soil, silt, peat and blue clay to dig through. “There’s just a huge amount to contend with here,” Hill tells me. “We have to think about drainage and flooding. We have to think about earth removal – because moving soil also changes the geography of the area. And, of course, there’s the rain, which is pretty much the default here. If there’s a downpour, then boards become slippery and we can’t run the heavy machinery over them anymore, so then it’s not possible to work safely. We had to pause the search in November [2022] for several months because of the weather.”

By the time I visit in late May 2023 the conditions have eased, and the search has resumed. Large orange excavators hum and whirr as they scoop mounds of dirt out of the ground. Hill’s search of Bragan Bog is the sixth to be undertaken since 1999. I talk with him in the ICLVR’s makeshift on-site office, a small shipping container. He shows me a printout of a gridded map. Areas that have been definitively investigated are crossed out in red. Sometimes, he explains, because of the changing landscape and human error it’s not always clear exactly where was checked in previous searches. “If I’m not sure then we go over it again – I want to make sure that we’re thorough, that we check every inch,” he says. “Then, if we don’t find him, we can say for certain that he’s not here.”

As well as battling the elements, Hill’s team are also in a race against time. “We’re talking about things that happened a long time ago. People who have information are growing older. And that’s a tricky combination, trying to identify a location in a shifting landscape using fading memories…” As we talk, Hill glances up at an image tacked to the wall above a box of fluorescent orange workers’ jackets and a spare pair of wellies. The black and white photo shows a young man in a waistcoat and bow tie. He looks quizzically up at the camera, his hand tipping his top hat to one side. It’s one of the last taken of 19-year-old Columba McVeigh, who went missing on 1st November 1975, and is the person Hill believes with some certainty to be buried somewhere close by. “My aim is to bring Columba home to his family so they can bury him and have peace,” says Hill. “And then, who knows, maybe I’ll feel like I can retire in peace too. It takes a toll on you, this work.”

Columba McVeigh grew up with his two siblings, Oliver and Dympna, in Donaghmore, a small village about 50 miles west of Belfast. “Columba was the apple of my mother’s eye, absolutely the golden boy. In her eyes he could do no wrong; she wore rose-tinted glasses when it came to him,” Dympna, who now goes by her married name of Kerr, tells me. But when they were growing up Kerr had to look out for her brother. “I was always getting into playground fights because of him. He’d start them, but he couldn’t finish them, so I’d have to. Columba was… how to put it? He was a naïve young man, too trusting. These days we would say he had learning difficulties. He was very impressionable. And he always wanted to impress the wrong people.”

Dympna Kerr lights a torch in memory of her brother, Columba McVeigh, at a ceremony marking International Day of the Disappeared, 30th August 2023

Dympna Kerr lights a torch in memory of her brother, Columba McVeigh, at a ceremony marking International Day of the Disappeared, 30th August 2023.

As Columba and Dympna entered their teenage years, Northern Ireland was descending into turmoil. It was the late 1960s. Inspired by the US civil rights movement, a generation of young Catholics took to the streets to protest over high unemployment and poor housing in their communities as well as discriminatory voting rules imposed by successive governments. Their grievances reflected divisions between Protestants and Catholics in the region dating back centuries, but whose modern chapter began in 1921. After a two year guerilla war Ireland had won its independence but the British kept Northern Ireland, leading to partition. In the north Protestants, who were in the clear majority, controlled almost every arm of the state. Catholics, many of whom favoured reunification, felt marginalised, leading to unrest. Heavy-handed police crackdowns on the demonstrations led to riots and in 1969, the British government deployed troops in what it said was a “limited operation” to restore law and order in Northern Ireland. It turned out to be the start of a three-decade sectarian conflict, involving paramilitaries on both sides, known euphemistically as ‘the Troubles’.

“I never saw Columba again, he’d just disappeared into thin air”

“The conflict was a normal thing for us growing up,” says Kerr. “On my way home from a dance on a Friday night I’d pass soldiers lurking in the dark.” The McVeigh family home and others in their majority-Catholic village were regularly raided by British troops – a tactic the local population say was used to intimidate them. After searching the house, Kerr recalls, the soldiers would always take Columba away with them, allegedly for questioning. It was during these interviews that Kerr believes British soldiers persuaded her impressionable teenage brother to take part in a sting operation. The target was a local Catholic priest that British intelligence believed was helping wanted IRA members flee across the border into Ireland. “We’d come home and find Columba sitting in a Jeep on the driveway with [British] soldiers, smoking cigarettes and chatting. We told him he couldn’t do that because we’re Catholics. We told him it would cause trouble for us all.”

The plan, Kerr believes, was for the British army to ‘discover’ bullets planted in her brother’s room during one of the raids. He would then go on the run and seek shelter with the priest. But the plot quickly unravelled when the priest refused to help him. Instead, Columba turned himself in at a police station in a neighbouring town, where officers knew nothing about the clandestine plan. He ended up serving a short prison sentence for the bullets.

On his release, Columba’s parents decided it was best for his own safety that he didn’t return to live in Donaghmore. “My mother told me to get him shoes, socks, trousers – anything he might need. So, I took him shopping and then I walked him to the bus station, and I put him on that bus to Dublin. I gave him a kiss and he got on and went away,” Kerr tells me. At first everything seemed to be going to plan. Columba settled into life in Dublin. “He met a girl and moved in with her. He seemed happy, as far as we knew,” Kerr tells me. That is until late 1975, when her mother received a call from the woman Columba was living with. On Halloween night, the woman said, Columba had left their Dublin flat to buy a pack of cigarettes but hadn’t come back. At first the McVeigh family weren’t too alarmed. Columba would show up, they thought. Maybe he’d gone out drinking, or on a road trip with friends. But days became weeks and weeks became months and months stretched into years. He simply never returned. “And that was that. I never saw Columba again, he’d just disappeared into thin air,” says Kerr.

For a long time, the McVeigh family held out hope that Columba would return. Kerr’s mother kept her youngest son’s belongings in a wardrobe in a spare bedroom. Every birthday and Christmas she would add a small gift to the pile of Columba’s things, waiting for him to come home and open them. One time Kerr thought she’d seen him at mass at a church in a nearby town. Her mother told her: “Get back to that mass next week at the same time and watch for him. Don’t leave that door. Stand by it and wait for him to come out.” But when Kerr returned there was no sign of her little brother.

“That’s the worst part of someone being missing. It means that you keep hoping, keep looking. You’re always scanning faces when you walk down the street, in case you spot them somewhere,” Kerr tells me. “My mother became a different person after Columba vanished. I could count on one hand the number of times she visited me and her grandchildren [in England]. She never came with my dad. Somebody had to be in the [family] home at all times. My mother worried that Columba might come when they were out and think they had moved. It spoiled their lives, really.”

“The longer time goes by the more you know that they probably won’t come back,” Kerr says. “But you can’t give up hope. You tell yourself stories. My mother would always say: ‘He’s gone and married some wee Protestant woman. She’s divorced and she’s got a few kids and he doesn’t want me to know. But I’d love those children as much as I’d love any of my grandchildren. So, I wish he would just come home.’”

It was a story that Kerr let her mother believe. In 1990, Kerr’s brother, Oliver, stumbled across a passage in Irish journalist Martin Dillon’s book The Dirty War. In it an IRA source detailed what had happened to Columba. According to the source, while in prison, the “woolly-headed 17-year-old” had been beaten by Provisional IRA members into confessing his involvement with British security forces. After Columba was released, the IRA tracked the teenager down to Dublin where “he was executed and buried secretly in the Irish countryside… to spare his family ‘public embarrassment’.” Tears fill Kerr’s eyes as she recounts the book’s revelation. “Well, we decided not to tell mummy; maybe that was selfish, but we wanted to spare her the pain. And what could we do anyway? It’s not like the IRA were going to confess to us that they killed our Columba in cold blood… So, mum kept going to mass and lighting a candle for him and hoping he might come back.”

In April 1998, more than two decades after Columba vanished from his Dublin flat, the Troubles were ended, at least officially, by the Good Friday Agreement. The deal had been decades in the making. Since the 1970s, multiple rounds of talks and ceasefires had collapsed. Up until the final moment, the negotiations hung in the balance. Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) at the time and a central figure in the negotiations, took a helicopter back to Belfast from Dublin just hours after his mother’s funeral to take part in critical talks. Political representatives struggled to keep hardliner paramilitary leaders in line and hold their place at the negotiating table. A supposed ‘final’ midnight deadline of 9th April was missed as a marathon meeting between representatives of the different factions stretched into a sixteenth hour.

The deal, signed by both the Irish and British governments plus most of the major parties in Northern Ireland, was finally announced at around 5pm on 10th April 1998. “Today I hope the burden of history can be lifted from our shoulders,” Tony Blair, the then-British prime minister, said at a press conference announcing the accord. Among the Good Friday Agreement’s core provisions was the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly based on power-sharing between nationalists and unionists and the early release of paramilitary prisoners who had already served two years in prison. Crucially, both sides agreed to disarm their paramilitaries and the British agreed to a gradual withdrawal of their troops. Two referendums held simultaneously north and south of the border sealed the deal, with an overwhelming 71.1 and 94.4 percent voting in favour of the agreement respectively.

However, there was a lot that the deal didn’t cover or left deliberately vague. The use of constructive ambiguity allowed all parties to retain their ideological positions while reaching agreement on how to bring an end to the conflict. “I don’t want to downplay the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, but it just didn’t address what to do about victims or justice,” says Sandra Peake, chief executive officer of the Wave Trauma Centre. “In hindsight perhaps that was a mistake, but also I think it was just too controversial at the time.” The result, she says, has been a patchwork approach to initiatives and inquiries. “It’s been a kind of ‘make it up as you go along’ situation, and a lot has depended on victims and their relatives pressuring for something to be done about their case.”

Peake is a petite, charismatic woman with sharp blue eyes, high cheekbones and seemingly boundless reserves of energy. We talk in the garden of the Belfast Wave Trauma Centre, an oasis of plants and trees that seems far removed from the busy city streets beyond the gates. Established in 1991, Wave started out as a grassroots network run by eight women who had all lost their partners in the Troubles – Wave originally stood for Widows Against Violence Empower. But by the time Peake, who previously worked as a surgery nurse, joined in 1995 it had expanded its remit beyond widows to provide support to all those bereaved, traumatised or injured during the conflict, regardless of their political or religious affiliations.

“The threat was ever present… But Mags said ‘Enough is enough’”

“That was a very courageous move in Northern Ireland at that time because the conflict was ongoing and no other services like this with a total open-door policy existed,” explains Peake. “But what these women realised is that there were many other women out there who were also suffering in silence. They’d lost husbands, sons, and brothers but didn’t want their sons to join a paramilitary in revenge. Despite everything that was happening, that was something they had in common, and it would be wrong to exclude someone who needed support, who was grieving, because of their religious or political beliefs.”

It was through Wave that Peake met Margaret McKinney, known as ‘Mags’, and learned about the disappeared. “Mags was just an incredibly strong woman, a real force,” Peake tells me. In 1994, McKinney broke the silence surrounding these missing victims in an interview with the Irish Times. She spoke about how her son Brian – who was 22 years old and like Columba had learning difficulties – had been kidnapped and probably killed by the IRA. It was the first time anyone had spoken out publicly about the topic. At that time, speaking out against the IRA was not only taboo, it was also dangerous. Relatives of the disappeared were often threatened by local paramilitary forces. In other cases, families would receive reports of sightings of the missing person overseas or postcards supposedly from them. The IRA also used tactical smear campaigns against the disappeared, implying they had run away to join a lover and abandon a spouse or because they were informers, in order to shame families into silence.

Margaret McKinney photographed beside the grave of her son, Brian. Despite facing threats, McKinney broke the silence surrounding ‘the disappeared’

Margaret McKinney photographed beside the grave of her son, Brian. Despite facing threats, McKinney broke the silence surrounding ‘the disappeared’.

“The threat was ever present. You just didn’t speak out. But Mags said: ‘Enough is enough. I need my son home. I need to give him a proper burial’. She wasn’t going to be quiet,” says Peake. “She had this scrapbook, and it was filled with photos of Brian and yellowing news cuttings. She’d bring it everywhere with her and show everyone she could.” The bravery showed by McKinney, who died in 2017 at the age of 85, gave others courage to come forward. Slowly, a small band of mothers and wives came together to campaign for information about what had become of their loved ones.

A breakthrough came in May 1998 when McKinney was invited to attend a meeting with then-US president Bill Clinton. She went clutching her scrapbook tightly in her hand. Despite the Good Friday Agreement having been reached the previous month, there had been no public discussion of ‘ the disappeared’ by political leaders of any stripe. “He [Clinton] spent a long time with Margaret and he promised her that he would get her son’s body back. Of course, we were sceptical, because at this time the IRA were denying there was even such a thing as the disappeared,” says Peake.

But Clinton made good on his word. Just a few weeks after McKinney’s meeting with him, the IRA published the names of ten people it admitted to having abducted and killed in the 1970s and 1980s. One was Brian McKinney. Another was Columba McVeigh.

“A man approached my brother, Oliver, after mass one Sunday. He told him his rank in the IRA and said that a list would be published, and Columba’s name would be on it. But we weren’t to talk to the press, and we could only tell immediate family,” recalls Kerr. “So, then Oliver had to go and tell mum. He says it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do in his life. She was distraught, beside herself. And then she pulled herself together and just said: ‘The bastards. They didn’t even have the balls to come and tell me themselves’. But I’m glad they didn’t because there’s no telling what she would have done to them and what the consequences would have been.”

In April 1999, a treaty between the British and Irish governments established the ICLVR. It has a purely humanitarian remit. All information provided to the commission is strictly confidential and cannot be shared with police or other law enforcement agencies. “It’s a trade-off, and it’s one I can live with to bring these people home to their families,” says Hill. To date, the ICLVR have located the remains of 14 out of the 17 cases they have on their books. Information provided by the IRA led to the discovery of Brian McKinney’s body in June 1999. He was found buried in a double grave with his friend John McClory who had disappeared at the same time.

The disappeared represent only a tiny fraction of the victims of the Troubles. During the three decades of conflict more than 3,700 people were killed and nearly 50,000 injured. Yet the struggle to establish the fate of the disappeared is emblematic of a broader problem.

Gleann Doherty shows me the spot where his father was shot, just along the road from his family’s home on the Bogside estate in Derry/Londonderry, a border city in the north-west of Northern Ireland. It was 1972. Tensions had reached a boiling point amid a series of bombings, riots and shootings. A few months earlier, the authorities had reintroduced a measure from the 1922 Special Powers Act that allowed for indefinite internment without trial. The measure was overwhelmingly used to imprison Catholic nationalists. On 30th January 1972, around 15,000 people gathered in Derry to protest the law. They planned to march to the city centre but were blocked by British army barricades and pushed back towards the Free Derry Corner in the Bogside estate – a working class, nationalist area and a bastion of civil rights activism. A series of skirmishes ensued between youths and the British army. Just after 4pm British paratroopers opened fire, killing 13 protesters. Among the dead was 31-year-old Patrick Doherty, a father of six.

“You can’t replace a boy’s father. You can’t bring him back from the dead”

An investigation into the massacre, known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, was ordered by the British parliament two days later. But the Widgery Inquiry’s findings, published after just ten weeks, were universally decried by Bogside residents as a whitewash. Its conclusions largely agreed with the narrative of the British army that its troops had returned fire at gunmen and bomb-throwers among the crowd. The blame for the shootings was laid at the door of the protesters for holding an “illegal march” that created a “highly dangerous situation”.

“Widgery was a farce, it was blatant lies. It was the British government approving these soldiers to get away with murder,” says Doherty. At the time of his father’s murder, Gleann was just seven months old. “I can’t remember my dad at all. Not having him was extremely hard on the whole family. My mum had to raise six kids on her own. That was tough on her, very tough. We were a handful, especially without our father around to keep us in line,” he tells me. “You can’t replace a boy’s father. You can’t bring him back from the dead. There’s nothing that can be done about that. But what could be done, what we did do, was fight for justice for my father, for all the innocent [people] that were killed that day.”

In 1992, victims’ relatives, including Doherty, began lobbying for a new inquest under the banner of the ‘Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign’. The group organised marches and collected a petition with more than 40,000 signatures. But it wasn’t until six years later, in January 1998, that British prime minister Tony Blair announced that a second public inquiry would be held. The resulting Saville Inquiry heard more than 900 witnesses over 400 days. The process wasn’t always plain sailing. Among those interviewed were paratroopers present on Bloody Sunday. Several answered questions only with the repetitive refrain: “I can’t remember”. Costs soared to nearly £200 million. Some of the victims’ relatives did not live the 12 years it took to complete the investigation.

Demonstrators run from tear gas on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972

Demonstrators run from tear gas on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972.

But for those that did, the wait and the years of campaigning were justified. The Saville report, which was finally published in 2010 and ran to over 20 million words, completely exonerated the victims and delivered a damning account of the paratroopers who shot more than 100 rounds into the crowd, “none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers”. David Cameron, prime minister at the time of the report’s release, publicly apologised, calling the events on Bloody Sunday “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

For Bloody Sunday victims’ groups, however, the inquiry’s findings were still only a first step towards their ultimate goal: holding those responsible for the killings accountable in court. “It took nearly four decades to get the British government to admit the truth, to apologise,” says Doherty. “It was a big victory of course. But I wouldn’t call it justice. The man who shot my father is still a free man.”

Following the publication of the Saville report, a murder investigation was opened into the Bloody Sunday killings. A case against a 66-year-old former member of the British Parachute Regiment known only as ‘Soldier F’ (all soldiers who gave evidence to the inquiry were granted anonymity) for the murder of two victims on Bloody Sunday was opened in 2019 by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service, but then dropped in 2021. It was re-opened a year later following a court-ordered judicial review at the request of one of the victim’s families.

The to-and-fro is largely a result of broader legal complexities that have dogged prosecutions against British veterans for Troubles-era crimes. Shortly before the case against ‘Soldier F’ was dropped, two other trials against former soldiers for a Troubles-era murder had collapsed after crucial evidence was ruled inadmissible by the court. Not only do criminal cases require a much higher burden of proof – beyond reasonable doubt – than truth-seeking inquiries, but prosecutors also have less evidence available to them because of admissibility rules on things like hearsay. Moreover, in truth-seeking inquiries, such as the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, witnesses are often given guarantees that their testimony cannot be used in criminal proceedings against them.

Members of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign march with banners depicting the victims of the shootings on their way to the Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry to hear the findings of the Saville Report on 15th June 2010

Members of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign march with banners depicting the victims of the shootings on their way to the Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry to hear the findings of the Saville Report on 15th June 2010.

The difficulties in prosecuting the Bloody Sunday killings are not unique. Attempts to prosecute Troubles-era crimes in Northern Ireland have been mired in controversy, politics and legal setbacks across the board. In 2005, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was established to handle 3,269 ‘legacy’ cases – the name given to unsolved Troubles-era murders. Although the HET completed 1,600 reviews, it was closed in 2014 due to budget cuts and claims that it had failed to investigate cases involving state involvement with sufficient rigour. Its replacement, the Historical Investigations Unit, agreed as part of the multilateral Stormont House Agreement in 2014, was never established due to political squabbling over funding for the unit.

It may never begin work. In 2022, the British government introduced a controversial piece of legislation to parliament to bring an end to all inquiries and prosecutions, both criminal and civil, into Troubles-era crimes. If it is passed, which looks likely, the legacy bill will also extend a ‘conditional’ amnesty to accused people who cooperate with a proposed Truth Recovery Commission.

“The absence of conflict isn’t the same as peace”

Proponents of the bill have argued that it will draw a much-needed line under politicised investigations (and re-investigations) of crimes that occurred decades ago and are increasingly unlikely to be solved. “What the government has done is try to make a realistic assessment of what can be delivered for victims and survivors and families of those who’ve lost loved ones during the Troubles. Bearing in mind we’re now a quarter of a century after the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement… and well over 50 years since the outbreak of the Troubles themselves,” Lord Caine, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for Northern Ireland told the BBC, “it’s a realistic assessment of what can be delivered in circumstances where, frankly, the prospect of prosecutions is going to be vanishingly rare.”

“The message of the legacy bill is that you will get away with murder”

Victims’ groups, however, have roundly opposed the legacy bill. Among those campaigning against it is Linda Molloy, whose 17-year-old son, John Molloy, was beaten to death by a loyalist paramilitary group in 1996 when walking home alone from a night out with friends in Belfast. “My son’s murder was a hate crime. He was killed because he was a Catholic. That’s it, plain and simple,” she tells me. “It’s no different from someone being beaten to death by a group of thugs in Liverpool for being gay or black. But the British government wants to tell me that my boy’s murder doesn’t warrant a proper investigation. The legacy bill undermines the rule of law.”

Sandra Peake of the Wave Trauma Centre says that while prosecutions may be becoming increasingly unlikely, criminal investigations should continue to be run in parallel to truth-seeking mechanisms, such as the ICLVR and the Saville Inquiry. “There’s no reason not to have both,” she tells me. “The message of the legacy bill is that you will get away with murder. And the impact of that’s not just an abstract thing. The intimacy of violence in Northern Ireland is such that many families live near those who killed their loved ones. They know who they are, they pass them in the street. And those people who committed these crimes, they continue to jeer and sneer at families and let them know that they’re still there. That has a ripple effect. The legacy bill sends a powerful message to these individuals, and to paramilitaries that are still active in our society, that they are above the law.”

“The absence of conflict isn’t the same as peace,” says Liam Kennedy, a history professor at Belfast Queen’s University and the author of Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? “Or perhaps the best way to explain it is we had three decades of hot conflict which ended in 1998, but at the level of politics, culture and society the conflict is still very much continuing.”

Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is undeniably still sharply divided in almost every sphere of life. Only around one in ten marriages are mixed Catholic-Protestant. More than 90 percent of children attend segregated schools. Around eight in ten people still vote along partisan lines – Protestants overwhelmingly opt for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party while Catholics tend to choose Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and the Labour party.

The power-sharing agreement, enshrined in the Good Friday peace deal, is widely seen as exacerbating these divides. The arrangement provides for a first and deputy first minister, one from the largest nationalist party and the other from the largest unionist party. Both have equal power and cannot govern without the other. But while the intention was to ensure that neither side would have political dominance, the set-up allows politicians to paralyse politics by refusing to take part in governing. As a result, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been out of operation for around 40 percent of the time since its creation in 1998.

Indeed, the assembly is currently shut and has been for over a year. In May 2022, the DUP announced that it would boycott the power-sharing executive after Sinn Féin became the region’s largest party for the first time – a unionist party has held the most seats since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921. The DUP has said it will not return to the assembly until changes are made to contentious post-Brexit trade arrangements, namely the Northern Ireland Protocol, which creates a sea border between the UK and Northern Ireland and means that goods arriving in the region are subject to checks and controls.

Nowhere are Northern Ireland’s divides more evident than in the 21 miles of ‘peace walls’ that carve up parts of east and west Belfast. Mostly erected during the 1960s and 1970s at ‘interface areas’ – where nationalist and unionist residential areas meet – the barriers were supposed to be a temporary measure to separate warring communities. Today, however, most remain firmly in place – despite a target set by the Stormont executive to take down all the walls by May 2023, only 18 have been dismantled in the last decade while over 100 have remained. In 2019 a survey was conducted by the Northern Ireland Department for Justice of residents living close to peace walls. It  found that 79 percent of respondents believed the removal of the walls from their area would lead to inter-community violence or antisocial acts. Forty percent could not imagine a time where the peace walls could come down.

“There’d be riots if these walls weren’t here, kids throwing petrol bombs, all kinds of chaos,” says Barry Williams, a former soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment of the British army. These days he’s a guide on the ‘Conflicting Stories’ tour. At 13 metres high, the segment of wall we’re standing by is three times the height of the Berlin Wall and has been in place twice as long.

Williams’ counterpart, Shaun O’Connor, a former IRA gunman who served eight years in prison, has already shown us the other side of the wall along Falls Road. The peace walls are among Belfast’s top attractions for visitors. Tourists take photos of the memorial garden for fallen IRA fighters and snap selfies next to a mural of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who died on hunger strike while protesting for political prisoner status. But for O’Connor and Williams the walls are not just a touristic gimmick. “As a former soldier I don’t cross into the Catholic area. I don’t drink in their pubs or eat in their restaurants – I’m not welcome,” says Williams. “And your guide on the other side of the wall, he won’t come here. It’s not safe. If I go over there and someone recognises me, I could be killed.”

A tour group gathers in front of the Bobby Sands mural in the Falls Road area of Belfast. Sands was the first Republican prisoner to die in a 1981 hunger strike

A tour group gathers in front of the Bobby Sands mural in the Falls Road area of Belfast. Sands was the first Republican prisoner to die in a 1981 hunger strike.

We’re handed over from one guide to the other via one of the peace wall’s gates. Both pedestrians and vehicles can cross between areas here, but only during the day. At 7pm sharp the gates close. “If your Uber Eats delivery guy takes a wrong turn, well then you’re going to have a cold dinner because he’ll have to drive all the way back around,” jokes Williams. “But seriously, I’d rather have a cold chip dinner than a bullet between my eyes. That’s the reality of the situation.” A woman in our tour group suggests the two guides shake one another’s hand. Both decline.

For the final section of the tour, Williams walks us down the Shankill Road, which is festooned with British union flags as well as flags of Ulster (an alternative name for Northern Ireland traditionally used by Unionists). A placard strapped to a lamppost reads: “Welcome to the loyalist village: We will never accept a border in the North Sea.” We make a stop at a memorial with a collage of photos of victims killed by the IRA – in 1993 ten people, including two children, were killed when the IRA detonated a bomb in a fish shop on the Shankill Road. Across the street, on the end of a row of terraced houses, a mural has been painted of King Charles III to celebrate his recent coronation. Another depicts Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary members toting assault rifles and submachine guns. Williams draws our attention to the dates on the mural: ‘UVF: 1969 to 2022’. “Paramilitaries are active here on both sides. They’re still here, they’re still organised, and they can arm their members just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “This mural was painted last year. It’s not a thing of the past.”

The Good Friday Agreement may have officially ended the conflict, but paramilitaries remain a pervasive part of life in Northern Ireland, particularly in working class areas. In December 2022, the annual report of the Independent Reporting Commission – a body which monitors paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland – found that the groups “remain embedded in these communities” and represent a “clear and present danger”. Loyalist paramilitaries are estimated to have around 12,500 members. Although much of their operations now centre on organised crime, from racketeering to drug smuggling, tensions over Brexit and the legacy bill have raised fears of a resurgence of political violence.

In March 2023, MI5 raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ – meaning an attack is now deemed “highly likely”. The reassessed risk-level followed a horrific attack on an off-duty police officer by the New IRA, a dissident splinter group that rejects the Good Friday Agreement. Two gunmen fired ten shots at point-blank range at off-duty detective chief inspector John Caldwell in front of a youth football team he’d been coaching, which included his two young sons. Caldwell survived but has suffered life-changing injuries. The same group also admitted responsibility for the death of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. McKee, a vocal critic of sectarianism, was standing next to a police van when she was shot in the head while covering riots on the Creggan estate in Derry. In a statement issued to the Irish News the New IRA said: “Lyra McKee was tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces. The IRA offer our full and sincere apologies.”

As those born after the Good Friday Agreement – known as ‘peace babies’ – become adults, Northern Ireland is grappling with how to remember the past. “Can there be a backslide?” asks Professor Liam Kennedy. “I can’t say it’s not possible because all the ingredients are still there – and if it does the consequences, as we’ve seen [during the Troubles], are so serious.” In 2022, the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that around 50 percent of people under the age of 35 still identify as either nationalist or unionist. “We now have a cohort of young people who don’t remember the terrible violence of the Troubles but who have grown up around partisan interpretations of the conflict that, in some cases, glorify it,” says Kennedy.

“We want young people to move on [from the Troubles]. But for them to do that we do need to talk honestly with them about what happened,” says Eilís Gill. In 1988, Gill was sitting at home feeding her newborn baby when she heard a knock at the door. Her husband went to answer. “I heard raised voices, so I went to see what was going on,” she tells me. In the hallway she found four masked men arguing with her husband. “I began to scream and then one of them pulled out a gun.” The men, Gill believes, were IRA fighters who wanted to use the family home for an attack against the British military. It was the start of a horrific ordeal in which Gill, her husband and their five children were locked in a walk-in cupboard and repeatedly threatened at gunpoint. “I can still remember the atrocious smell in that cupboard, because everyone had soiled [themselves],” she says. “My children were looking at me, so I was trying to stay calm, but I was just out of my mind with fear.”

“I’ve accepted I’ll never get justice. So, I’ll settle for peace inside of myself”

Gill is now one of Wave’s citizen educators. She visits schools to talk to young people about the Troubles and its long-lasting traumatic impact. The attack on her family and home had a severe effect on Gill’s mental health. “I wasn’t a person; I was a thing. I was paranoid, I would think people were following me in the street or watching the house. My children didn’t have a mother, I was in survival mode, I couldn’t be the loving mother they needed. I was irrationally angry. I’m not proud to say it, but I would scream at them. I would throw plates at the wall. It affected every facet of my married life. I attempted suicide.” It was only after the birth of her grandchild that Gill realised that she needed help. Through Wave she accessed therapy and support groups. “It’s given me back the life I should have had, but it took me three decades to reach that point. Two of my children don’t speak to me any more because of the anger they hold towards me for how their childhoods were. I lost 32 years of my life. And that’s why I believe so strongly that it’s important to talk about these things, to educate our young people about what happened to end the cycle of trauma.”

Passing on trauma to her daughter is something that Dympna Kerr fears. As she gets older, she’s considering the possibility that her brother might not be found in her lifetime. “I find myself saying the same thing to my daughter that my mother said to me: ‘Daughter, when I’m no longer here, promise me that you’ll keep looking for him’,” she tells me. “How sad is it that I’d be the happiest woman on this earth to have his funeral – no one should be happy [about] a funeral.”

I ask Kerr whether finding Columba’s remains will be enough for her. “The question is: What is justice?” she replies. “I’ve thought about it a lot. I mean, you’ll see it on the news that someone has been found guilty of a murder and the victim’s family stand on the steps of the court and say: ‘Today, justice has been done’. But that’s not justice to me. Justice is to take the bullet out the back of Columba’s head and let him walk the earth again. But I’ve accepted I’ll never get that justice. So, I’ll settle for peace inside of myself. And, for me, that’s finding Columba’s remains so that we can take him to Donaghmore and carry him into the chapel, have a service for him and lower him into that grave that’s waiting for him beside our mum and dad. That’s where he belongs. For me that would be enough, others can decide what justice or peace means to them or whatever they need to move forward. I don’t care anymore who’s done it, or why or anything else. That’s all gone.”

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