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Why the ‘Disappeared’ is perhaps the most difficult Pandora’s box for Irish republicans – Kevin Hearty

Kevin HeartyKevin Hearty, from Warwick Law School, researches transitional justice, with a very specific focus on Northern Ireland.

He said: “It has been reported in the last day or two that the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR) has, following a protracted search for the bodies of the ‘Disappeared’ in Co Meath, located the remains of Joe Lynskey a former Cistercian monk and IRA member shot and secretly buried in 1972 by the IRA. The case of the ‘Disappeared’ is tied more fundamentally to the ‘dealing with the past’ quagmire that the North of Ireland faces as it goes through the prolonged and continued process of post-conflict transition. At the most base level the case of the ‘Disappeared’ reflects how when post-conflict societies attempt the arduous process of ‘dealing with the past’ individuals and collectives formerly engaged in prolonged episodes of intense political violence have to figuratively stare the skeletons in their closet squarely in the eye. Somewhat more macabrely, however, the case epitomises this process through the literal surfacing of skeletons long buried in the ground. When skeletons literally start coming out of the ground the post-conflict society cannot simply ignore the issue and the automatic recourse is to retrospectively critique the morality of killing and secretly burying those deemed to have transgressed communal norms by collaborating with the ‘enemy’.

“The case of Joe Lynskey in many ways encapsulates many of the difficulties that the legacy of the ‘Disappeared’ represents for post-conflict Northern Ireland and for Irish republicans in particular. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement very little was known of the ‘Disappeared’ either individually or collectively (the possible exception of SAS Captain Robert Nairac aside) beyond the confines of their immediate family. This communal amnesia of the ‘Disappeared’ reflects more generally the inward looking lens of victimisation that collectives ensnared in ethno-nationalist conflict adopt – instead of recognising the violence and wrongs inflicted by ‘us’ on ‘us’ we concentrate on the wrongs inflicted by ‘them’ on ‘us’. When conflict subsides ‘new’ voices invariably begin to be heard that break the prevailing communal norms where the victimisation of ‘us’ by ‘us’ is silenced out of loyalty, fear of ostracism etc. In fact it was only in the last few years that Joe Lynskey was even acknowledged by the IRA as being a victim of the practice. In terms of truth recovery, then, progress has been made in terms of recognition – acknowledgement that he was a victim of the policy – and in terms of retrieval – relocating his remains. The ICLVR has therefore provided both recognition and closure in cases like those of Joe Lynskey (potentially), Peter Wilson, Charlie Armstrong and Gerard Evans – all belatedly acknowledged by the IRA as ‘Disappeared’ before their remains were found and reburied by their families.

“The ‘Disappeared’ is perhaps the most difficult Pandora’s box for Irish republicans to confront in their own process of ‘dealing with the past’. The practice of disappearing people is, after all, a legally definable war crime and a significant blemish on the record of anyone engaged in what has been self-termed a war of national liberation. While not on a scale comparative to the practice seen in Francoist Spain, Chile during the Pinochet era or in Argentina, the ‘Disappeared’ is nonetheless one of the darkest episodes of its past that Irish republicanism has to effectively ‘deal with’. Collectively they have not been found wanting on the issue and have accepted ‘corporate responsibility’ for the ‘Disappeared’- the practice has been acknowledged, their role in it admitted (albeit with the general caveat that ‘bad things’ happen in war), the added grief inflicted on families acknowledged and those with information on yet to be retrieved remains encouraged to come forward to the ICLVR. At the individual level, however, the response has been less impressive with former senior members insisting that while the IRA did engage in the policy they personally were opposed to it- one can only question how the practice took root if all these senior leadership figures were against it. Accepting corporate guilt in the name of truth recovery does not therefore translate into accepting personal guilt.

“Perhaps more fundamentally the issue of corporate or collective guilt poses challenges for the wider Nationalist community. Post-conflict they must now retrospectively examine their own culpability in allowing communal amnesia of the ‘Disappeared’ to take root, effectively creating an intra-communal ‘hierarchy of victims’ where the ‘Disappeared’ were firmly ensconced at the bottom as lesser victims than those killed by the state and its proxy death squads. Accumulatively many of these issues will continue to arise as more victim remains are located, other victims previously unacknowledged surface and the trial of Ivor Bell (on trial in relation to the disappearance of Jean McConville) progresses. In working through these issues Irish republicans will have to wrestle with the difficulty of addressing past harms inflicted on their own community thus moving the examination beyond the more natural ‘us’ ‘them’ typology. This is by definition a unilateral process – Irish republicans addressing a legacy of violence inflicted on their ‘own’ - that has to be depoliticised from the ‘memory politics’ that has defined inter-communal debates on wrongdoing, victimhood and ‘dealing with the past’. While no doubt difficult the task on Irish republicans to effectively rise to the challenge is nonetheless necessary.”

Notes to Editors

Contact Lee Page, Communications Manager at The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255. Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email:


Lee Page

Communications Manager, University of Warwick

Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255

Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221