By David Young
April 16 2012

THE IRA’s practice of secretly burying some of its victims during the Troubles was wrong and unjust, a senior Sinn Fein figure has told the Assembly.

Mitchel McLaughlin said the Provisionals should also have come clean with information on the whereabouts of the so-called Disappeared long ago.

But the South Antrim MLA’s remarks drew challenges from unionists to retract a claim he made in 2005 that the killing of the one of the victims, Jean McConville, was not a criminal act.

Mr McLaughlin said he would deal with that issue in the context of a full truth recovery process in the region.

The exchanges took place during a debate tabled by the SDLP on the ongoing efforts by an independent commission to locate the seven bodies still to be found of the 17 Disappeared. The majority were killed by the IRA.

“I support the right of the families to have redress after so many years of injustice piled on injustice and I think this policy was wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now,” said Mr McLaughlin.

In reply to a subsequent question from Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, the Sinn Fein member confirmed his belief that secretly burying victims was an official policy of the IRA at the time. He said it was one that first emerged in Ireland in the 19th century.

“It was indeed a practice and a policy that was carried forward,” he said.

“The IRA themselves, and they stated this publicly, came to recognise the injustice of this policy which they themselves, in terms of this generation, inherited and they ended it.

“What I regret and what I think we all should regret is, as well as ending the practice and policy, they should also at that time should have taken steps to identify where the remains were buried.

“I say it was an injustice then and it is an injustice now.”

Traditional Unionist leader Jim Allister then quizzed Mr McLaughlin on his past remarks on Mrs McConville, a west Belfast mother of 10 shot dead and buried by the IRA on the belief she was a British spy.

The allegation she worked for the security services was subsequently rejected by a Police Ombudsman investigation. Mrs McConville`s body was found on a beach in the Irish Republic in 2003.

“Would the member then like to withdraw the statement that he made in January 2005 that the killing of Jean McConville was not a criminal act?” asked Mr Allister.

“Or is it still the position of Sinn Fein that the vile murder of Jean McConville was in some way justified because if it was not a criminal act and if that`s the member’s stance, then so much of what he says today has no credibility.”

Mr McLaughlin responded: “I have to reply in this way: I will address that issue in the context of a process of truth recovery and in a process of genuine reconciliation.

“That would mean that I could expect from all sections around this room, people to acknowledge the role of the British security services in procuring murder, in procuring collision with murder gangs.”

He added: “I think we do need to have a truth recovery process in which all will come to that table with all of the available information, not this partisan approach because that means we will ask only some questions and we will only end up with some of the answers.”

But the Sinn Fein representative was again challenged by DUP MLA Lord Morrow to explain his comments in 2005.

“I will give way to him if he wants to put the record straight here once and for all in relation to the death of Jean McConville and what he said at that particular time,” said Lord Morrow.

Mr McLaughlin said that on the issue of the Disappeared he said the same thing in 2005 and he had done today: that those with information on the remains should bring it forward.

“So my position has been consistent,” he said.

The motion tabled by the SDLP`s Dominic Bradley urged anyone with information on the remaining bodies to make it available to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains.

“It was people from Northern Ireland and the Republic who were responsible and involved in all of the disappearances,” he said.

“They are the people who have the vital information and they are the people who can bring the suffering of the families to an end.”

The Newry and Armagh MLA said he wanted to place on record his thanks to those who have come forward and given information to the commission.

“Information is the key to progress and I want to take this opportunity to renew the call for information in relation to those victims whose remains have not yet been recovered,” he said.

“Now is the time for those who have said nothing or who have not said enough to come forward and speak and give information.

“That is why I ask all members of this house to join me in appealing to anyone who has any piece of information whatsoever that may be of help to the independent commission to bring that information forward by whatever channel they feel comfortable with, either directly to the commission, a member of the clergy, through the media, through a public representative, whatever means they desire.”

He added: “The families ask not for revenge, not for prosecution, not for the where, why and how or even for the truth, to which they are rightly entitled, but simply for information to help locate the remains of their loved ones so they can afford them a Christian burial so that they and the community in which they grew up can say goodbye and have a place, a grave where they can be remembered, where they may rest in peace and have the fact that they lived on his earth marked publicly.”