The IRA, protected by new legislation rushed through Westminster and the Dail, began giving back to relatives the long-dead corpses of nine people killed by the organisation in the Seventies and early Eighties. Those relatives were plunged into a tumult of emotion yesterday at the arrival of the moment they have been anticipating with both longing and dread during those decades. Some could barely speak as they experienced a cruel mixture of relief and long-suppressed grief.
The first coffin was delivered in the morning, deposited in an ancient graveyard at Faughart near the town of Dundalk, just south of the border. Local Gardai who were contacted by a priest went to the spot and found it by a large bush.
The bush, regarded by local Catholics as a holy spot, is generally draped with ribbon, rosary beads, miraculous medals and requests for intercessions from an associated saint, St Bridget.
One of those who visited the scene, which was shrouded in early-morning mist, described it as eerie and unreal.
The body is believed to be that of a north Belfast man, Eamon Molloy, who vanished in 1975. The coffin was described as relatively new, conjuring up a grisly vision of IRA members disinterring the remains and placing them in the new casket.
During the day the IRA passed on to the newly established Commission for the Disappeared information on six other graves where eight other people are buried, all of them in the Irish Republic. The IRA recently admitted shooting Mr Molloy, describing him as a member who had been an informer for the security forces.
A North Belfast priest, Patrick McCafferty, said yesterday: "The Molloy family are taking this very calmly. They're obviously very distressed and sad but they're coping with great dignity and they're facing the situation with great courage."
Fr McCafferty said of the other families who had spent the day waiting for news: "Their agony is intense at the moment. They can't rest at all."
Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said: "[Mr Molloy] was an informer and that is something which is reviled in all aspects of society on this island. But none the less the grief of his family is as real as anyone else's." His comments were denounced by the Ulster Unionist MP William Ross, who said he was horrified by a remark which "really confirms the on-going depravity and vulgarity of the IRA and its apologists".
Apart from the political exchanges, there was widespread sympathy yesterday for families who had endured for so long the knowledge that relatives had been buried without benefit of proper funerals. Most of the families suffered in silence over the years, speaking out only after the IRA's 1994 ceasefire.
When they did so their plight came as a shock to almost everyone, since few, if any, had appreciated the extent of their pain and the fact that the absence of a body had prevented them from grieving. Over the past five years some of them have campaigned vociferously for the return of the bodies.
This campaign has been a severer embarrassment to the IRA, since the relatives clearly have a humanitarian and moral claim to the bodies. The organisation insisted to both London and Dublin, however, the bodies would be returned only after assurance that any new evidence would not be used in prosecutions.
London and Dublin gave that assurance in the form of legislation passed this week, which laid down that while post-mortem examinations would be done, no new scientific evidence would be used to bring charges. The British and Irish governments appear to regard the new law as highly unsavoury but necessary if the bodies are to be returned.
The new Commission for the Disappeared came into being at midnight on Thursday, the IRA then moving with all haste to tell it where the bodies were to be found. The organisation plainly wishes to put the episode behind it.
Relatives, too, were anxious for a speedy return of the bodies. The hope is that once they have properly laid their loved ones to rest, they can begin the process of allowing the wounds of all those years of loss to heal properly.
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