Looking back on the past

PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 19/2/99: Collect picture of Portadown man Robert Hamill, murderec in 1996.
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 19/2/99: Collect picture of Portadown man Robert Hamill, murderec in 1996.

The murder of teenager Paul Beattie on July 12, 1972, was a sad baptism for Portadown into the Troubles – it was the first of literally hundreds of killings within the area and a personal tragedy for the family who never recovered from the senseless loss.

They lived at Castle Avenue – just across the road from my Garvaghy Road home. Paul was with his father Davey in nearby Churchill Park when he was gunned down by Republicans. Davey, who died five years ago at the age of 80, once confided in me that his wife Winnie’s death (at the young age of 51) was mainly precipitated by the murder of their son.

File photo dated 29/08/1996 of loyalist leader Billy Wright as his father David Wright has died aged 78. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Saturday October 1, 2011. David Wright alleged that security forces and the prison service colluded in his son's murder. Last year, an inquiry into the death of the Loyalist Volunteer Force chief - who was shot dead by a republican splinter organisation in the high-security Maze prison in 1997 - found there was no collusion. Mr Wright branded the report a "total whitewash and a failure to get to the truth". He will be buried at Killicomaine Baptist Church in his home town of Portadown, Co Armagh, on Sunday. A family friend said: "He was inspirational." See PA story ULSTER Wright. Photo credit should read: Brian Little/PA Wire

File photo dated 29/08/1996 of loyalist leader Billy Wright as his father David Wright has died aged 78. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Saturday October 1, 2011. David Wright alleged that security forces and the prison service colluded in his son's murder. Last year, an inquiry into the death of the Loyalist Volunteer Force chief - who was shot dead by a republican splinter organisation in the high-security Maze prison in 1997 - found there was no collusion. Mr Wright branded the report a "total whitewash and a failure to get to the truth". He will be buried at Killicomaine Baptist Church in his home town of Portadown, Co Armagh, on Sunday. A family friend said: "He was inspirational." See PA story ULSTER Wright. Photo credit should read: Brian Little/PA Wire

In June past, my colleague Mairead Holland conducted a moving interview with Paul’s younger brother Brian, now 60, (there are also two sisters) who told her of the terrible trauma they had all suffered.

Mairead’s report stated – ‘Brian, who has never before spoken publicly about his brother’s death, says he cannot forgive or forget, especially as his brother’s killer was never caught.’

That thread of lifetime grief – a feeling of helplessness – runs through all the killings we covered (well over 300).

On the night after Paul’s murder – the first in Portadown for 40 years - Catholic businessman Jack McCabe (48) was gunned down in his licensed premises at High Street, along with customer William Cochrane (53) who worked for the borough council. William had been a member of the Territorial Army. An ex-policeman shot both men from point-blank range, reportedly in revenge for Paul Beattie. But, like Paul, William Cochrane was a Protestant.

The Portadown victims included people of all religions, members of the security forces, civilians, IRA personnel… It would be impossible to mention them all, and this is a cross-section, ranging from the Beattie murder to the assassination to Constable Stephen Carroll (45) in Craigavon in March 2009.

A week that stands out in the mind is the turn of the years 1975-76. Three Protestants perished as the result of the New Year’s Eve INLA Central Bar bombing at Gilford – Richard Beattie, William Scott and Sylvia McCullough.

And on January 4, three members of the O’Dowd family were murdered at nearby Ballyduggan – revenge shootings - when UVF gunmen burst into a family sing-song and sprayed the room with bullets. Barry O’Dowd (home on a visit from his oil rigger job in Scotland) his brother Declan and their uncle Joe were the victims.

What remains with me is the graciousness of the families as we intruded on their grief. In Gilford – with a young cub reporter in tow – I had to interview the three families, get pictures and also speak to the police and the people in the bar. It was our deadline day and it had to be “put to bed” that night. The O’Dowds, too, helped us, despite their crushing grief.

Another death that haunts me is that of Richhill woman Christine Lockhart who died in the La Mon Hotel (February 1974) fireball where 12 people perished at the annual dinner of the Irish Collie Club.

Her parents had arrived from their home in Blackburn to be with her husband Terry (a renowned County and Western singer) and all three helped me in every way to portray a brave, positive woman.

Christine (32) who had suffered from cancer, had a leg amputated 11 years previously and obviously had added difficulties in trying to escape the blaze. Terry showed me a police picture, thought to be of Christine’s charred remains after the fire, which brought home the awful horror.

In the aftermath Terry went to live in the Philippines where his music was popular. He set up an orphanage for ‘Christine’s Children’, where he and his new Filipino wife care for 30 children.

Portadown also felt the aftershocks of the Newry RUC station bombing (February 1985) where respected police officers, Chief Inspector Alex Donaldson (41) and Rosemary McGookin (27) were among the nine victims.

It happened late on our deadline night, and again the phone lines went berserk. Chief Inspector Donaldson’s widow described Alex as the love of her life and the family would never get over it. And my own family became personal friends with Rosemary’s sister Jean, who thinks of her every day.

I also recall the personal help of Margaret Thompson whose husband Gerald (31) was one of three ‘doggie’ men (the others were Alfie Doyle and John Preshaw) murdered at the Border in June 1975. And the mother of Margaret Perry (21, whose body was found in Donegal in June 1991) also became a friend of the Times. Three alleged IRA men were killed by the Republican movement as a result of Margaret’s murder.

The Loughgall police station ambush (May 1987) caused much controversy when the SAS killed eight members of the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA, with civilian Anthony Hughes killed in the crossfire. Angry relatives of the Brigade demanded an investigation into the ambush. In 2001 it reached the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that IRA members had their human rights violated by the failure of the British Government to conduct a proper investigation into the deaths

But in December 2011, Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team found that not only did the IRA team fire first, but that they could not have been safely arrested. They concluded that the SAS were justified in opening fire.

Another atrocity which left an impression on our staff was the October 1993 double murder of brothers Rory (18) and Gerard Cairns (22) when UVF gunmen shot them at their home in The Slopes, Bleary, in cold blood. Their parents returned from Mass to meet a horrid, bloody sight. Again it was deadline night, with Mairead Holland and former colleague Peter Taggart having to file the last-minute report.

The heartbreak of the Cairns family was compounded 14 years later when a controversial finding by Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan stated that there was no evidence of British Crown force collusion in the killings – a finding the family refused to accept.

Finally, perhaps the two most high profile murders with Portadown connections were both in 1997. Catholic father of two Robert Hamill (a third child was born after his death) was attacked by a mob in the centre of Portadown in April and died 11 days later.

LVF leader Billy Wright was murdered while a prisoner at the Maze in December by the INLA.

Robert Hamill was on his way with his family from St Patrick’s Hall in Thomas Street to Obins Street when he was set upon.

A police vehicle with four officers on board was nearby, but no help was afforded to the Hamill group.

Billy Wright was shot dead in an amazing series of security lapses, with the killers moving from the Republican cells to the van taking him to see visitors.

Both families insisted on security forces collusion, with Billy’s father David Wright fighting his son’s cause, and the Hamill family doing all in their power for justice.

Both have been frustrated. A £30m inquiry into the Wright murder concluded no collusion which Mr Wright dismissed as “pure whitewash”. And the Hamills have been similarly frustrated along the way, with no closure.

These were shocking, harrowing times all round. And it was humbling to experience such raw grief at such close quarters.