'Disappeared' by the IRA, found at the beach his family treasured

Peter Wilson's body, which was carefully removed from beneath the sands of a picturesque Co Antrim beach yesterday, had lain there undisturbed for close on four decades.

A vulnerable man with learning difficulties, he was killed by the IRA in 1973. He was just 21. His killers told no one they had done it, or why, simply adding him to their list of "the disappeared". They took him from west Belfast and shot and buried him on Waterfoot beach in north Antrim, which is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. But the Wilson family have endured 37 years of torment.

Wilson is the ninth "disappeared" IRA victim whose body has been recovered after years in similar untended and unacknowledged graves; the bodies of seven victims have yet to be discovered. The site of Mr Wilson's grave lent an especially poignant dimension in this case, for his family used to go to the beach, oblivious to the fact that he lay buried beneath their feet. A family statement said: "The beach at Waterfoot was a place we have visited often over the years with our mother and children, unaware that Peter was buried there."

Peter Wilson's sister, Anne Connolly, said it was an emotional time for the family. "We were totally shocked," she said. "We couldn't believe it because my mother had sat on that beach many times over the years. But there's a comfort in that, that my mother had been there: in a sense she was with Peter, sitting there.

"Peter was a character," she added. "He was very childish in his ways. Peter basically behaved like a child. He always talked about wanting to join the army, he wanted to be a soldier. That's how naïve he was at that time. In those years, where we lived, you did not join the army."

His parents are now dead, his mother living until she was 90, but he was one of six children. His five siblings are still alive. The discovery coincided with one of the annual events in which relatives of the disappeared come together. Earlier yesterday, another of his sisters, Patricia Gearon, carried a black wreath in an annual silent walk to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, together with relatives of other victims.

Anne Morgan, whose brother Seamus Ruddy is thought to have been killed by another republican group and buried in France, said: "We carry the symbolic black wreath with the white lilies which represents those who are still missing. Our walk is a reminder that our plight is ongoing and that every effort needs to be made to bring our loved ones home for Christian burial."

Relatives also take part in a yearly remembrance Mass held on Palm Sunday, which, they say, brings comfort to those who continue to struggle with the pain and grief of loss. The pace at which bodies are being recovered has accelerated in recent months, with three victims found since July.

Some "digs" have lasted many months, and have occasionally found no remains, but in Peter Wilson's case, excavations began only yesterday after the ground was prepared last week. This followed an announcement that "reliable and high quality" information had been received.

Most of those who vanished were killed during the 1970s but it was not until 1998, after years of heavy pressure, that the IRA acknowledged that it was responsible for most of the deaths. It said it would co-operate with the authorities, which set up a unique organisation to receive information on where bodies were buried. This operates under legislation guaranteeing that any information passed on will be inadmissible in criminal proceedings.

The disappearances remain in the news on a regular basis in Belfast, often focussing on the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who, according to tapes left by a now-dead IRA leader, Brendan Hughes, had ordered the killing of Mrs Jean McConville. She was a widowed mother of ten whose case was the first to come to public attention. She was abducted in December 1972 from her home on the Falls Road in west Belfast by a group of 12 republicans and was never seen again. Her body was found in 2003 on Shelling Hill beach in Co Louth.

Mr Adams has denied all knowledge of the killing – and indeed maintains he was never a member of the IRA. The testimony from Brendan Hughes is regarded as powerful evidence, although in later life he became a bitter critic of Mr Adams's. The accusations have certainly had no significant electoral effect on the vote for Sinn Fein, or indeed on Mr Adams's large personal vote.

The Sinn Fein president said last night: "My thoughts are with the Wilson family at this time. I would repeat my appeal that anyone with any information which might help other families locate remains and find closure should bring that information forward."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy