By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Excavations on six possible burial sites for the bodies of eight of the so-called disappeared — IRA murder victims who vanished during the 1970s and ’80s — have been extended by gardai with some now as big as a football pitch.
Despite more than a week of digging, no remains have yet emerged and the IRA and Sinn Fein have been strongly criticized for prolonging the agony of the relatives by not providing more accurate information.
Speculation that the bodies may have been moved to new secret graves in recent years was dismissed by Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin, who is standing as a Euro candidate in Northern Ireland.
"For anyone to come along to disturb or to remove remains and place them somewhere else I think would be a physical impossibility," he said. "It mystifies me how anyone could see any advantage whatsoever in this for republicans to withhold information or to give false information."
McLaughlin denied there was an "cynical play" involved but said it is clear more precise information is needed.
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"If anyone has any, if their memory has been triggered in any fashion at all by the awful scenes we have witnessed this week, then pass it on immediately. Pass it on as quickly as possible to the [cross-border] commission so that we can address the ongoing agony of the families," he said.
McLaughlin added that it is quite clear that the searches are based on information that is a quarter of a century old and this is causing obvious difficulties.
"This issue has been an injustice visited on those families by republicans and, if we are to address the injustices visited on us by others, then we have to clearly ensure that we deal with the motes in our own eye also. We want to see this matter resolved as urgently as possible," McLaughlin said.
The IRA claims its victims — all from the Catholic, nationalist community — were killed because they were informers, stealing weapons or fraternizing with British forces.
So far, only one of nine people the IRA admit they murdered has been found. That body, believed to be Eamonn Molloy, who went missing in 1975, was exhumed by the IRA itself and left in a coffin in a graveyard near the border on May 28.
McLaughlin said the fact that Molloy’s remains had been handed over and "carefully garnered" information had been provided to the Anglo-Irish Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains was evidence of republicans facing up to difficult issues as part of the peace process.
A Garda spokesman said that some of the sites being probed had been extended and were now as big as a football field. The only remains discovered so far had been those of a dog found in a County Louth beachside site.
Gardai have been digging since May 31 at the parking lot at Templetown Beach, Carlingford, Co. Louth, where the body Jean McConville, from Belfast, is believed to be buried.
Originally, one bay in the lot had been identified as the grave site, but now virtually the whole lot and areas alongside have been excavated to a depth of more than six feet.
A widowed mother of 10, McConville was 37 when she was abducted from her Divis flat in Belfast in 1972 after tending to a mortally wounded British soldier.
The lot had not been there when she vanished.
At remote mountainside bog at Lacken near Blessington, Co. Wicklow, which is believed to contain the remains of Belfastman Danny McIlhone, who vanished in 1981, the dig has been extended to 100-by-100 feet.
On bogland at Colgagh, Co. Monaghan, where John McClory, 17, and Brian McKinney, 23, who disappeared in 1978, are believed to be buried, the site has been extended by 300 square yards.
Water-logging has caused problems on bogland at Carrigroe near Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, described by gardai as equivalent to the size of a football pitch. It is believed that Columba McVeigh, 17, from County Tyrone, was buried there after he vanished in 1975.
Digging is also continuing at Oristown Bog near Kells, Co. Meath, where Belfastman Brendan McGraw is believed to be buried. He vanished in 1978.
A large number of trees had to be felled at Coghalstown Wood near Navan, Co. Meath, before digging could begin for two bodies, believed to be Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee from Belfast, who vanished in 1972. This site is larger than an acre.