Northern Ireland

Why the mother of disappeared man feels 'lucky'

Margaret McKinney at Brian's grave Image copyright bbc
Image caption Margaret McKinney finds peace at her son's grave

Margaret McKinney, whose son was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in the 1970s, considers herself "lucky" because his body has been recovered.

But other families have not found their "disappeared" loved ones and the cash to help them is running out.

In 1980 Margaret McKinney received a Christmas card signed with the name of her son, Brian. But she knew Brian was dead. She had known for two years.

Brian's nickname was "Bru" - Belfast humour, a comment on his tiny stature compared to his namesake, the towering ancient King of Munster, Brian Boru.

Brian had a learning disability and, according to his sister Lynda, would have been described as having special needs if assessed today.

But that and his happy, youthful enthusiasm were not enough to stop the IRA from walking him to an unmarked grave, forcing him to step into it and shooting him in the back of the head.

Long wait

"I can see him crying out for me," Margaret says.

"The coroner said that, when he was shot, the bullet went right through his wee head and deep into the soil. "That is how we know he was alive when he was put in the grave."

"I think that's what has tortured Mum most of all," says Lynda, "the fact that he knew he was walking to his grave and that his last thoughts will have been for her and for Daddy."

For 17 years, they heard nothing - apart from the fake Christmas card.

"Part of the way the paramilitaries dealt with this was to put out rumours," says Sandra Peake, of the victims group Wave (Widows Against Violence).

"They perpetuated a myth that these people were still alive."

Through Wave, Margaret became a thorn in the side of the IRA, as she campaigned relentlessly for the truth about the "disappeared".

She took her story to politicians, a prince and eventually a president.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Brian McKinney had admitted his part in the robbery of an IRA-run bar

During a meeting with Bill Clinton, he promised that he would do his best to find her son. Brian's body was found shortly afterwards.

Brian's father died a few years ago but swore that, when his son was recovered from a desolate bog, that he would never return to "that God-forsaken place".

Margaret however, returns regularly.

"He was harmless, well and truly harmless" she says. "I still wonder who it was that did it."

Lack of information

It might be hard to believe but Margaret considers herself one of the lucky ones.

Brian now has a grave in Belfast's Miltown cemetery. But seven other families of the "disappeared" are still waiting for their bodies to be found and time is running out.

The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, set up to find their loved ones, looks likely to be wound down.

It can only continue as long as there is fresh information for it to go on.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Margaret believes Bill Clinton persuaded the IRA to admit its role

According to the Northern Ireland Office which funds it, that phase is coming to an end.

Brian McKinney was found because an IRA intermediary spoke to those involved in his disappearance and passed on the details to the commission's investigators.

Today the team is led by Geoff Knupfer.

He cut his teeth in this line of work searching for the victims of the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

Finding the victims of the IRA and INLA is no less challenging.

"These locations were chosen with consummate care.

"They're invariably peat bogs - anonymous wastelands really - and to expect people to come along 30 or 40 years later and say "x marks the spot" is going to be a tall order.

"Often these incidents took place at night and in bad weather, and the individuals have never been back since."

Not only have many of the bodies never been found, the families have never been given any proper explanation as to why their loved ones were abducted in the first place.

The allegation that some may have been informers does not stand up for the McKinney family because Brian was targeted after he admitted taking part in the robbery of a bar run by the IRA.

But they know as well as anyone that alleged informers were made an example of. They were often tortured, hooded, shot in the head and left at the side of a road as a warning to others.

Their relatives were literally "disappeared", which suggests their deaths could not have been properly explained to the community from which they came.

Little comfort

Margaret does not care why any more. The recovery of her son's body was the most important thing.

"I've changed in my bitterness. I even asked a policeman to give me a gun to shoot the people I suspected.

"He put his arm round me and said 'Mrs McKinney, we know what you're going through, but it's not the right thing.'

Does she still suspect those people?

"Yeah, I do, but I honestly don't care any more. I have the grave and the flowers, and there's life there."

That is a comfort seven families may never get if the money runs out, and the information really has dried up.

Anyone with information that could help the work of the commission is asked to get in touch confidentially on 00800-55585500.

The Disappeared will be broadcast on Wednesday 13 July at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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