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Jean McConville (above)

As TV events go, the BBC/RTE documentary on the Disappeared, the vanished victims of the IRA’s dirty war in Ireland, was truly momentous. Broadcast on both channels, it had a huge all night audience and online response. It was a master class in film making, a layered and gripping account, which mixed extensive archive footage of the Troubles, with newly shot misty scenes of the cross-border hills and bog lands: bleak, beautiful but, in this narrative, a pitiless backdrop.

The interviews with victims and former paramilitaries were fresh and revealing, clearly the achievement of reporter Darragh McIntyre, whose presence and empathic voice was the lynch pin to an exposure that was all the more devastating for its slow, methodical and incremental approach.

There were extraordinary moments: like the man who described digging on a beach and finding some clothing and then bones. Realizing immediately it was Jean McConville, he went to his car to get holy water to bless the body that had lain there for so long, with nothing, as he put it. A simple, thoughtful man, his words brought a lump to the throat.

And there in the midst of it all was Gerry Adams, who once again proved dissembling, evasive and utterly unconvincing in his answers about IRA actions. We even had veteran Republican Billy Mc Kee express incredulous contempt at the continuing denials by Adams that he was actually in the IRA at all, never mind giving the orders to have people killed.

But where’s the surprise? Adams also denied that the IRA were involved in the Columbia Three, or the Jerry McCabe killing or the Northern Bank robbery. And yet we are supposed to take this man seriously, standing in the Dail and talking about accountability and transparency? More incredibly, this man is still Sinn Fein leader, despite all these denials and associations about unresolved killings and despite the recent allegations about his knowledge of his brother’s serial sex abuse. Mary Lou Mac Donald must be silently shaking her head.

But this documentary was about more than the parody of denials by Gerry Adams. It was about the delusion and cruelty of a self-appointed ‘army’ and about the humanity of ordinary people and their burning desire to do anything to recover their loved ones, even their memory. What was interesting about the online response to last night’s programme was the depth of revulsion by a whole generation of viewers too young to have lived through the actual Troubles, and who were in many cases digesting the full details of this prolonged cruelty for the first time.

People of my generation and older were always sort of conditioned to accept this ‘tradition’ of cruelty and violence – the alleged informers, the code of omerta, the toxic old rubbish about ‘colonial invaders’ – whereas the current young generations are not so inured and thus we had the continuous online expression of : ‘how did all this actually happen in our country?’. Oh, but it did. Years and decades of it – and to what end?

What the programme proved is that past events revisited, with a different focus, can still have a valuable and powerful resonance. The fact that some of these crimes, so casually and callously done, could still be highlighted and exposed in this detail years later, is a great solace to those of us who fear that such deeds would just fade away. The perpetrators have not been caught, but their crimes have not been forgotten. No, the victims live on, in the memories of their families and loved ones.

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And here they were again last night: Columba McVeigh putting the funny hat on his head, or Charlie Armstrong (above) – a ‘wee man from Armagh’ – smiling from the couch, in the last photo taken of him alive, before he was disappeared on the way from Mass. Or Jean McConville with arms folded, half smiling towards the camera, like any busy Belfast mother. If Republicans take pride in the iconic monochrome pictures of their hunger strikers, then these too are iconic. And they loom larger than so many other victims of the Troubles.

Indeed, by their continuing physical absence, they resonate more than ever. And we should be humbled by that, for they do us a great service, they force us to look at what was done in our name, in our country, to our people. They are not just a bunch of ordinary people who are going to be airbrushed into the history books, as unfortunate collateral of the ‘armed conflict’.

These smiling photos, are of people (literally) caught in their prime. They are the Irish heroes, and they haven’t gone way, you know.

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