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SARAH VINE: Madeleine McCann's disappearance was every parent's nightmare that still haunts us

Those of us who have followed the twists and turns of the Madeleine McCann story had all but given up hope of the long-running inquiry into her disappearance leading anywhere.

So today's announcement by the police came as a bolt from the blue.

So much time has passed and so many leads have come to nothing. Yet now it seems there is a real possibility the end is in sight.

If it is, this is in no small part due to the tenacity of Kate and Gerry McCann.

My own daughter, Beatrice, was born just five days apart from her. They had the same huge, round eyes, those same soft, dimpled cheeks, the same impish grin. A photo of Maddie issued by the Metropolitan Police is left, and an e-fit (right) shows her aged nine

No parents could have worked more tirelessly, often in the face of cruel and malicious opposition, to pursue the search for their daughter — and for justice in her name.

What they have suffered over the intervening 13 years is beyond comprehension for most people, and in particular for anyone who is a parent.

Their fortitude, both as a family and as a couple, has been remarkable. Many people would not have survived such an ordeal. But they stuck by each other — and by Madeleine.

Her disappearance in May 2007 moved me to the core. 

My own daughter, Beatrice, was born just five days apart from her. They had the same huge, round eyes, those same soft, dimpled cheeks, the same impish grin.

They even had the same haircut, an unruly bob with a straight blonde fringe.

I’m ashamed to say that, as the tragedy unfolded, there were times when I simply couldn’t look. 

I couldn’t bear to see the anguish in Kate’s eyes or the barely suppressed rage tensing Gerry’s jaw.

What parent hasn’t, on occasion, lost sight of their little one in the supermarket or the playground? Above, Maddie's parents Kate and Gerry comfort each other days after their daughter went missing

While the world seemed to hang on every detail, I tried to avoid reading about it because it made my heart hurt.

When the Portuguese police, desperately hoping to cover up their own ineptitude, all but accused the couple of having killed her themselves, I felt enraged, imagining myself in a similar scenario, grieving for my lost child while trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

I hated the narrative that surrounded the McCanns, those who interpreted their dignity, eloquence and self-control as a tacit admission of guilt. I argued passionately in their defence with friends who angrily accused them of being irresponsible, of somehow bringing this abomination on themselves by leaving the children alone in their room during dinner at the resort in Praia da Luz.

Of course, with hindsight they would have done things differently. But how were they to know that a predator was on the prowl?

What they did wasn’t negligent. Countless parents do similar things and no harm ever comes of it. The McCanns were just very, very unlucky.

It was not their fault, I argued, that this awful thing had happened to them. 

To try to pin the blame on them for a minor lapse of parental duty was, to my mind, like blaming a rape victim for wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes.

Even now I can’t imagine the kind of pain the McCanns must be experiencing, the sheer living horror of it. Above, a photo of Maddie dated May 2005

I thought of all the times I had been a less-than-perfect parent and thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t in their shoes.

What parent hasn’t, on occasion, lost sight of their little one in the supermarket or the playground? 

Now imagine that gut-wrenching angst, that sickening panic, and multiply it a million times.

Even now I can’t imagine the kind of pain the McCanns must be experiencing, the sheer living horror of it.

But worst of all must have been the lingering guilt, the most corrosive of emotions and one that any parent who has lost a child in such circumstances can never truly escape.

And as the story rolled on and on, as Kate became ever more gaunt and haunted, as Gerry battled like a man possessed to clear his and his wife’s name and find his lost child, my respect for them only grew.

Not only do they need to know what happened to their beautiful little girl, they also need the world to know that it wasn’t their fault

It would have been easy for the McCanns to allow the world to forget Madeleine. 

But they have done precisely the opposite. They have kept the spotlight trained firmly on themselves and on her case.

Their dogged determination, their incessant, and at times seemingly futile, lobbying of the authorities, the vast sums spent in pursuit of an ever-dwindling prick of light at the end of the tunnel, have shown over time the depth of their sincerity.

Not only do they need to know what happened to their beautiful little girl, they also need the world to know that it wasn’t their fault.

It won’t bring Madeleine back. Indeed, it may even be that when the truth finally emerges, it will reveal even greater agonies for the McCanns. But at least they will finally be able to rest and, perhaps in time, find some peace.

It is the very least they deserve. And tonight, God willing, they may have come a bit closer to it.

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