On anniversary of Irish peace accords, an exhumation of a tragic past

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Boston Globe on April 9, 2023

COUNTY MONAGHAN, Ireland — A cold rain fell across the vast blanket of peat that straddles a desolate stretch of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

A team of forensic archeologists was at the Bragan Bog last week restarting a painstaking excavation, layer by layer, of the soaked black earth, searching for the body of a 19-year-old victim of The Troubles who was killed by the IRA in 1975 and secretly buried somewhere here..

The quiet of this wind-swept hillside is far from the urban warrens of Belfast’s deeply divided neighborhoods with 20-foot high barriers, known as “peace walls,” that separate the republican, and predominantly Catholic, areas from the unionist and loyalist districts, which are historically Protestant. The Troubles, as the 30 years of sectarian conflict are called here, came to an end with the signing of the historic 1998 agreement 25 years ago to the day.

But as Northern Ireland today marks the anniversary of the so-called Good Friday Agreement, and President Biden prepares to travel here this week to mark the milestone and visit his ancestral homeland of Ireland, it is clear that even though the killing has stopped, few would say there is peace. Bitter sectarian divides remain, and the power-sharing government has broken down over the issue of Brexit; both Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists find the new order disturbing, though for different reasons.

For the families still trying to locate remains and for the many still trying to find justice for loved ones who were killed, there is a welcome end to violence — a major stride toward peace — but certainly no peace of mind.

Oliver McVeigh, 61, who was only 14 when his older brother Columba McVeigh, 19 at the time, went missing, drove the winding country roads from the family’s small home town near Dungannon, Northern Ireland, and up the muddy tracks that lead to the Bragan Bog to observe the forensic team and three large backhoes scraping at a carefully mapped out grid. McVeigh held a framed black-and-white photograph of his brother, whom he described as a “vulnerable and fun-loving” youth who somehow got tangled up with local IRA members and then was recruited by a local British military intelligence operative.

“Colomba was chewed up by the British, and spit out by the IRA,” as Oliver put it, explaining that the family believes he was gullible and did not understand the seriousness of what was unfolding around him.

Amid all the turmoil and tension caused by the fraught entanglements Columba found himself in, he went on the run in 1975, at the height of The Troubles, and then ended up among “The Disappeared,” the colloquial name given to those victims of sectarian violence whose bodies have never been recovered.

“We need to find my brother and give him a proper burial and funeral Mass. We need this for some sense of justice, and some hope for closure and moving on,” said McVeigh.

McVeigh said he wanted to highlight the plight of his family and at least four other families who have never recovered the remains of loved ones killed in the sectarian violence that took 3,720 lives from 1968, when Catholics began protesting discrimination under British rule in Northern Ireland, to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which provides a framework for peace and power sharing.

“It’s important to remember on this 25th anniversary that there are those of us who still live with the loss every day. We don’t even have a grave to go to. That’s really all we are asking for,” he said.

He added that his mother, who recently passed away, had reserved a grave plot for her son to be buried next to her and her husband. They both died before they had any closure on the loss of their son. They always hoped for and needed the consolation of a Catholic funeral Mass, he said.

“Because of President Biden’s faith as a Catholic, we believe he would understand why we need to find our brother and understand the spiritual side of this for us,” said McVeigh.

The excavation at the Bragan Bog has been underway intermittently since 1999, when the list of The Disappeared was first released. At the outset, it was local police digging with shovels across an area that covered 23 acres. It went nowhere and soon was abandoned. But the McVeigh family again stepped up its call for information last fall as to where Columba was buried, and their efforts yielded a tip. That led the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains to restart the digging, which shut down in November due to the condition of the bog but which began again last Monday.

The commission was formally established by the Irish and British governments in 2005 as part of the work of the Good Friday agreement and as a way to professionalize the approach to excavating the bodies. To encourage tips, information passed to the commission is treated in confidence and cannot be used for any purpose other than recovering remains. It is not admissible in court. A reward of $60,000 is offered for information that successfully leads to the recovery of remains.

Jon Hill, the head of the commission’s excavation team and a retired police detective from Scotland Yard, explained the process of delicately scraping 4-inch layers of earth in approximately 200-square-foot sections of a grid that covers more than 2 acres, where they are searching for signs of a grave. He discussed the extraordinary challenges of doing the work armed only with information provided to the commission by those who have come forward to confess to something they did a half century ago.

Asked if he thought the excavation would result in finding the body of Columba McVeigh, Hill said, “I am hopeful. If he is there, we will find his body.”

Forensic archeologists examined soaked black earth at the Bragan Bog last week, searching for the body of Columba McVeigh. (Photo by Seamus Murphy/The Boston Globe)

The Bragan Bog lies in a storied area where the IRA is believed to have trained its guerrilla fighters along a porous stretch where they could travel through a forest from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and back as needed. Sandra Peake, the CEO of the Belfast-based WAVE Trauma Center, Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community support group for victims and survivors, said the work of the forensic archeologists is daunting, but necessary for the families of those who’ve lived for so long without justice or closure. There are 19 known cases of The Disappeared in Northern Ireland, she said, and all but six sets of remains have been found.

Reconciliation and closure have come slowly for Ireland, too, down the long, bloody road from the era of violence that claimed McVeigh and so many others to the fragile negotiated peace agreement reached 25 years ago. Close to 90 percent of the 3,270 murders during the Troubles have never been solved.

The accords are named, of course, for a critical day on the Christian calendar that falls on the Friday before Easter Sunday and marks the day when, the faithful believe, Jesus walked the “Way of Sorrow” in Jerusalem before he was crucified, died, and then rose again.

The way of sorrow has been traveled here as well. In Belfast Friday, at exactly high noon — the hour when it is believed Jesus was nailed to the cross — a group of peace activists from several faith communities gathered on Northumberland Street, an infamous stretch of road that connects the Catholic Falls Road with the Protestant Shankill Road. There, a towering “peace wall” made of brick and steel and topped with razor wire divides the two communities. The wall is covered in political graffiti that glorifies the martyrs and sacrifices of The Troubles, but also seems to be the place where more hopeful messages on peace can be displayed, including a mural with a long collage of images from both sides of the conflict and the word “Imagine” at the center.

Jonathan McKee, a Protestant pastor of the New Life City Church who grew up in a heavily loyalist area of North Belfast, said he identifies as “Christian, not loyalist.” During a brief sermon over a roadside loudspeaker, he offered these words to the crowd, “An absence of conflict does not mean peace. We pray and ask for your blessings to find true peace.”

Asked after the service what he meant and where he thought Northern Ireland was in the peace process, he said, “Here we are standing by gates that close every night and walls that reinforce division. We need to move forward.”

McKee and John Kyle, a Protestant political leader who was attending the gathering, agreed on this point.

A councilor for East Belfast, Kyle said, “The agreement has delivered a cessation of political violence. It has provided housing and jobs and fostered people coming together from different communities without feeling threatened. It is historic and it has changed this city.

“But our political institutions are not working. The stop-start nature of the power-sharing government is a structural problem, and it is one we have to solve if we are going to move forward,” he added, pointing out that the executive government of Northern Ireland is at a political standstill over the issue of Brexit.

Belfast residents joined a Good Friday event where both sides of the community came together at a notorious intersection between the Protestant Shankhill and Catholic Falls roads. (Photo by Seamus Murphy/The Boston Globe)

Since a May election last year, there has been no functioning government as the Democratic Unionist Party is refusing to restore power-sharing unless trade concerns are alleviated and the sea border created by the Brexit deal is removed.

In this political vacuum, sectarian tensions still simmer.

Over the weekend, security officials in Britain and Northern Ireland increased the risk assessment for violence from “substantial” to “severe.” On the Monday after Easter, Catholic republicans have traditionally marked the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion against British rule. In response to potential threats, police are stepping up their presence at a parade planned for Derry.

In Belfast, Good Friday was observed here in a more familiar ritual.

A traditional “stations of the cross” service was observed at the Clonard Monastery, atop a hillside overlooking the working class neighborhoods on both sides of the divide. The imposing 19th century church has always been at the epicenter of The Troubles, a crossroads for violent clashes but also a meeting place and sanctuary for the two sides to come together. It is sometimes referred to as “the cradle of the peace process.”

At exactly 3 p.m., the time when Catholic tradition holds that Jesus died on the cross, the church fell silent. And after the service, a group of religious leaders gathered, not only Catholic but also denominations such as Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, and Evangelical for a procession through the community.

Ed Petersen, an American layman, is the coordinator of the peace ministry at the Clonard Monastery. He has organized the Good Friday walk for 20 years, always processing with a wooden cross from the front gates of the church down the Catholic Falls Road across the so-called “peace line” that cordons off the Protestant Shankill Road.

Petersen, who has been actively involved in cross-communal peace-making work since 1999, said, “We hope the walk will highlight the unity we have in the teachings of Jesus … but also (be) a reminder that peace and reconciliation requires sacrifice. … We are challenging everyone across our community to take this journey together.”