Minister for Justice Simon Harris has pledged to families of Disappeared Troubles victims that they “will never be forgotten”, and painstaking work to find their loved ones’ remains “will not stop”.
During a visit to Bragan Bog in Co Monaghan on Monday as the sixth search resumed to find Columba McVeigh, Mr Harris spoke of how he’d had “the honour” of meeting the McVeigh family in recent weeks.
“There’s something about them, they’ve touched my heart,” he said.
Columba McVeigh, who was 19 years old and from Co Tyrone, was abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1975. His body has never been found, despite successive searches carried out in the vast bog between 1999 and 2019.
He is among 17 people known as the Disappeared who were killed and secretly buried by paramilitaries during the North’s Troubles. Four – Joe Lynskey, Robert Nairac, Seamus Maguire and Mr McVeigh – are still missing.
Flanked by relatives of Mr McVeigh and a niece of Joe Lynskey, Mr Harris told reporters he “wanted to bring Columba McVeigh home to his family” so they can be given “some element of closure” after almost 50 years: “I am acutely conscious of the fact that the families of the Disappeared have endured a singular cruelty, not only the loss and the brutal murder of a loved one, but then the depravity attached to not providing them with the opportunity to say goodbye.
“During my time as Minister for Justice, I have been really struck by the incredible resilience of the families of the Disappeared.
“From the Government’s point of view I wanted to be here today to make it absolutely crystal clear that these families will never be forgotten, that this work will not stop. I’m very conscious when you talk about the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, people talk about it in terms of looking forward and looking to the future. But I’m also conscious that this can cause anxiety in families, who think, ‘Hang on a second, will the drawbridge be drawn up, will our cases be consigned to the past?’
“Well, that’s not what’s going to happen. And for as long as it takes and whatever resources are required, the Government will stand shoulder to shoulder with the families of the Disappeared.”
Mr McVeigh’s brother, Oliver, has attended each search for his brother and singled out the “methodical” work of investigators from the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR).
“There are different thoughts every time you come, you’d be thinking of finding him and then thinking of what you’re going to do – and then you suddenly realise, we still haven’t found him,” he said.
“Some of the people involved in the search have been here since 1999, since the guards were here. Today is a glorious day but there’s been times the weather has been terrible. The team has covered acres and don’t give up. It’s very tedious work.
“My brother’s remains are in this bog but it’s which part of this bog. You just don’t know. Hopefully we’ll find him. It’s hope more than expectation now.”
A fresh search for Mr McVeigh’s remains began in Bragan Bog in October 2022. Operations were paused over the winter because ground conditions were too dangerous for contractors and archaeologists to continue their work.
Columba’s sister, Dympna Kerr, also thanked the ICLVR team. “We all know how important a wake is and a funeral. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here,” she said.
Ms Kerr referenced a recent tweet from former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in which he spoke about the importance of Irish wakes. “It’s as important for us as well,” she added.
Cabinet colleague Heather Humphreys, a TD for Cavan and Monaghan, also attended on Monday along with Senator Emer Currie. Ms Currie helped organise the event.
Mr Harris appealed for anyone with information on the location of the remains of the Disappeared to come forward. He said the success of the independent commission was “based on people coming forward with information” and he thanked the ICLVR for its “extraordinary work”.
He added: “But the work is not done. And it is the view of the commission that Columba is here in this bog behind us. And I know that the team here are doing everything they possibly can to find him and to bring him back to his family.”
The team searching for Columba McVeigh: ‘You couldn’t come here if you didn’t believe you were going to find something’
“It’s lonely working on top of a mountain,” Niamh McCullagh was overheard saying at the remote Bragan Bog site in Co Monaghan. The consultant forensic archaeologist is part of a team involved in the extensive search for Columba McVeigh’s remains – and believes they will be found.
To date, more than 20 acres have been covered by investigators from the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) in its search for the body of the 19-year-old Disappeared Troubles victim, who was abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1975.
Does the team know when it is getting close?
“No. There’s no lead-up to it at all,” says Dr McCullagh, who also led the forensic investigation team on behalf of the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation at Tuam, Sean Ross Abbey and Bessborough.
“If you’re on archaeology sites, you get a sense you’re about to hit a settlement or something. 2007 was the first time I was in Bragan. The more you dig, the more ground you exclude. So what’s left is that you come back each time with a renewed expectation because you have excluded ground in your previous search. There’s always a reason that you come back. You buy into that reason because you couldn’t come here if you didn’t believe you were going to find something.”
Under a cloudless blue sky, she adds: “This is a bleak place. It’s far away from everything. The digger drivers are from around here but we’re not. It’s not an easy place to come to physically so you need to believe you’re going to find something.”
You have to have hope, otherwise what’s the point?— Jon Hill, lead investigator for the ICLVR
Jon Hill, lead investigator for the ICLVR, has been involved with the McVeigh search since 2006. The initial investigations were undertaken by the guards in 1999. “At the moment we’ve covered about 21-22 acres but you have to bear in mind that a lot of that has been searched more than once – so if you were to lay it out in one plan it could be 30 acres or 40 acres,” he explains.
“Often you’re searching an area that’s been searched because information has changed. This latest search is over two acres. It’s just inevitable that once you start we find other areas that need to be looked at in more detail.
“I’ve been involved in eight searches – you don’t know when you’re getting close. You get no indication, you search, you find nothing and then you find them. It’s as simple as that. And I always say, that’s the biggest danger with our staff. Sometimes you’re better rotating staff to keep their focus, to keep their attention. They’re good anyway.
“But it gets very laborious, it gets difficult, it becomes time consuming. We’ve got two new staff starting this morning, and I said to them: ‘Don’t lose sight of the objective, the objective is to find the body.’ But it’s natural as a human being to say, ‘I want to get to the end of that line.’”
Hill believes Columba McVeigh’s remains will be found. “You have to have hope, otherwise what’s the point?”