Man helping to bring end to pain of families of ‘the disappeared’
- Credit: Jon Hill
When a loved one dies families can take comfort in having a body to bury and grieve over, but for decades the relatives of Northern Ireland’s “disappeared” have not.
To help ease their pain, a former police officer from Gidea Park has been trying to find these missing victims, work that saw him awarded a CBE at Buckingham Palace last week.
Jon Hill, 63, has spent nine years searching for the disappeared – those killed and buried in secret by illegal organisations during The Troubles, which plagued Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998.
The 16 disappeared differ from the 3,269 unsolved murder victims that were often left by a roadside during The Troubles as a warning to others – they simply vanished.
“I feel really sorry for those people who don’t know why or how their family members were killed,” says Jon.
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“Generally they were thought to be informers and so taken.
“Personally, it is a great feeling of success when we find a body. It is a very long process and can take up to two years to find someone.”
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As a 24-year-old, in 1976 Jon joined the police force and was based at several stations including Romford CID and Scotland Yard’s stolen car squad before retiring in 2006.
He joined the Historical Enquiry Team – a unit of the Northern Ireland police service set up in 2009 to investigate the unsolved murders.
His investigating background and the fact he had no affiliation to Northern Ireland or its former conflict led Jon to be recruited from the enquiry team to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR).
He has met with former members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and similar organisations to gain details about where bodies might be buried.
“They are controlled meetings with people who have a past and a history,” said Jon.
“But we are considered to be a friend to everyone. All we are trying to do is to recover bodies and give them a burial on consecrated ground.”
Jon and his team introduced scientific methods in their approach to recovering bodies such as using old maps and aerial photographs to see how sites have changed, cadaver dogs trained to detect the odour of decomposing bodies and ground-penetrating radar that detects changes deep in the earth.
Of the 16 that disappeared, there are four bodies left to find.
Jon’s CBE came as a complete surprise.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.
“This is the first time anyone who has been involved with the commission, since the Good Friday Agreement, has been recognised for it.”
Jon will continue to work with the commission to finish the job.
“It is the families that are suffering,” he added.
“Our work is very much a part of modern history and I am very fortunate to be in the position that I am in, to be able to do something like this, to help.”
Family visited beach where body lay
No reason was given for why a vulnerable man with learning difficulties was abducted from his home and killed in 1973 at the age of 21.
Peter Wilson from west Belfast was only added to the list of the “Disappeared” in 2009 after new information became available.
In a cruel twist of fate, his body was found on Waterfoot Beach in north Antrim. His family visited the beach often over the years, blind to the fact that under their feet laid Peter.
After 37 years of agony, his family were able to give him a proper burial.
His sister Anne Connolly said the family gained some comfort that his mother enjoyed visiting the beach while she was alive because in a sense she was sitting with her son.
Children fended for themselves when mum vanished
A widowed mother-of-10 from Belfast, Northern Ireland who went missing in 1972 is perhaps one of the most famous victims of “The Disappeared”.
Jean McConville was accused of passing information to British forces in exchange for money and it was alleged that a radio transmitter had been found in her house.
At 37-years-old she was snatched in front of her children at gunpoint and taken to a remote location where she was shot in the back of her head.
The 10 children were initially left to fend for themselves and treated as outcasts by neighbours, terrified of getting involved.
A month after their mother disappeared, the children were interviewed on BBC programme Scene Around Six looking dirty, dishevelled and unkempt.
Social services then became involved and the children were split up and sent to different orphanages to grow up strangers.
Jean’s body was missing for 38 years before her remains were found at Shellinghill Beach in County Louth by a walker in November 2010.
Her family were then able to give her a proper burial.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland
The Troubles in Northern Ireland raged for 30 years - dating between a civil rights march in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 and the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998.
The conflict centred on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Protestant and unionist majority wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and the republican and nationalist Catholic minority wanted to remain part of the Republic of Ireland.
During the troubled period, more than 3600 people died as a result of violence committed by all sides - including British forces.
As much as 50,000 people were physically injured or maimed and continue to suffer from psychological damaged caused by the conflict.
An agreement between the Irish and British governments established the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains.
It’s purpose is to obtain confidential information which may lead to the recovery of those abducted, murdered and buried in secret by “prescribed” - illegal - organisations such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
So far, the IRA has admitted responsibility for 13 of the 16 and the INLA one. No organisation has claimed responsibility for two of the victims.
At present, 16 people have been added to the list of “The Disappeared” which can fluctuate depending on information received, meaning more can be added at any time.
No information gained by the Commission can be used by the police or in a court of law to bring forth a prosecution. The information gained is solely to recover the murder victims.