For years Maureen Rafferty watched Columba McVeigh’s mother plead for the return of her son’s body. One of the Disappeared, the 17-year-old from Co Tyrone was abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1975. His mother Vera died in 2007, aged 82, but investigators are still searching for her son’s remains in a Co Monaghan bog.
“It’s sad to think they’re digging now for his body,” says Rafferty. “His mother was on TV so many times and she died and they never found his body, that kills me.
“I keep thinking, my heartache was bad, but I couldn’t live with that.”
Two years earlier, in 1973, Rafferty lost her son. Fourteen-year-old Philip was abducted by loyalists as he walked home from band practice in west Belfast. He was taken to a beauty spot where he was tortured and then killed.
The last time she saw Philip he had been wearing the new duffel coat she had bought to keep him warm. The next time she saw the coat it was in a plastic bag, saturated with blood.
For 25 years she could not talk about what happened. Now, aged 90, she says: “I can talk about Philip all day. There was a time I couldn’t have done that, but I can do it now.
“I always say, I didn’t just lose my Philip, I lost my whole family, my [daughter and son] Patricia and Stephen live in Brighton because I encouraged them to leave home because I was afraid for them.
“Even now when they’re home, especially Stephen when he’s out having a few drinks with his mates, I would go to bed and let on I’m sleeping and once I hear him coming in I think, ‘thank God, he’s home safe’.”
Rafferty is one of 16 women whose portraits feature in a Belfast exhibition that focuses for the first time on the experience of mothers bereaved by the Troubles.
It Is Different for Mothers: An Irreparable Loss is a large-scale exhibition by photographer Evanna Devine and aims to begin the process of acknowledging that it was “different for mothers” and to highlight the contribution women have made to peace.
“From the day and hour that a woman loses a child, in any circumstance, we all treat that woman differently,” says Andrée Murphy of victims and survivors group Relatives for Justice (RFJ) that organised the exhibition and has been conducting research into the impact on mothers.
“She is looked after during the wake, she is supported during the funeral, and we instinctively do it but we don’t explicitly say it, that it is different for mummies.
“It’s time we did it professionally, that we did the research and the official acknowledgment, that we tailor our support and our therapeutic programmes, but also recognise the difference in law, that these women are actually primary victims.”
RFJ is one of the victims and survivors groups campaigning against the UK government’s legacy Bill, which aims to “draw a line” under the past and would block criminal and civil cases and inquests and grant a conditional amnesty to perpetrators. It is almost universally opposed nationally and internationally, including by the United Nations, but supported by the UK government and veterans groups.
“We have paid lip service to victims and survivors since the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement was signed,” says Murphy. “They have at different times been used for political purposes, at times there has been piecemeal attention to some victims but we have not dealt with the overwhelming need for, particularly, truth, justice, acknowledgment and reparation to those families.”
Time is of the essence. RFJ began exploring the impact of the Troubles on mothers in 2016. Since then, Murphy says, “we have lost two-thirds, two-thirds of our mothers have passed away”.
Rafferty met the former minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney: “I think I shocked him because he was sitting facing me and his head was well down after listening to all the things that happened to Philip.
“He more or less started to say, well it’ll take a few years for this to happen, and I said, ‘excuse me son, I’ve just turned 90 and I haven’t got an awful lot of time’.
“I said, ‘I’ve waited 50 years, don’t you think that’s long enough’, and he put his hand right across his chest and said to me, ‘that’s my lifetime’.”
“We have to do something now, not as a statement of regret in 10 years time when they’re all gone, because they will be,” says Murphy.
“So in the context of the Good Friday anniversary, there was a lot of celebration of what could be done and what was done and that’s good, but we have failed victims and we continue to fail victims and, in particular, we failed those mothers who voted yes.
“Those mothers [in the exhibition] all voted yes, but yet the past 25 years have been completely engaged in court cases, in unrecognised grief, and we have failed them, and if this anniversary is to mean anything to them it has to be a commitment to them and an acknowledgment of them.”
RFJ and Amnesty International are campaigning for the Irish Government to “stand up” and take a case against the British government at the European Court of Human Rights over the legacy Bill.
In 1998, Ms Murphy says, RFJ was supporting “parents and spouses primarily, and some siblings; now we are looking at the children, the grandchildren, the nieces and nephews”.
She gives the example of one young man, only a baby when his brother was killed during the Troubles, who took his own life at the spot where his brother died.
“I think we’re only starting to appreciate now what intergenerational trauma looks like, and there is a mental health crisis which is absolutely compounded by this,” she says.
Asked what needs to happen, she replies: “Pay attention. See these women and their needs and start informing policy and stop avoiding it and blaming others.
“We can’t blame the fact that we don’t have a process to deal with the past, we don’t have the Stormont House Agreement [which was agreed between the Irish and British governments in 2014 but never implemented], which is true, but let’s look at what we can do.
“Can we do a process of acknowledgment, can we recognise mothers as primary victims? Can we start to change our local policies, even in small ways that will make a difference in their lifetimes, and if we start doing that it’ll inform the big processes.”
In 1998 the agreement “all went over the top of my head, because I’d lost my son”, says Rafferty. Now, looking back, she realises “all that was going on, and thank God, it is great”.
“I look around town now and I see all the different nationalities, people coming and feeling a bit freer walking around, that was a great feeling.”
But the loss, she says, “never goes away” for anyone who lost a loved one.
“You think you’re the only one in the world but God, I’m not. There’s a lot of people had their heart broke with it all.”
It Is Different For Mothers exhibition at Botanic Gardens, Belfast concludes at 2pm on Thursday, May 18th