RUC families recall the pain of Newry attack 25 years ago

THE pain never goes away. The heartbreak never heals. And 25 years after the IRA mortar on Newry police station - where Portadown was perhaps the most profoundly affected town in Northern Ireland - the raw memories were in focus on Sunday at the moving memorial service in First Newry Presbyterian Church.

Nine officers perished that day in February 1985, among them Portadown residents Chief Inspector Alex Donaldson (41) and WPC Rosemary McGookin (27), whose families this week recalled the dedicated officers who were ruthlessly murdered by the mortar attack at the Frontier town police station.

The other WPC killed - Ivy Kelly (29) - had also recently moved to Portadown with her policeman husband Robert, while Constable Peter Topping also had roots in the town.

The other five officers who perished were - Reserve Constable Geoffrey Campbell (24, from Dromara), Sergeant John Dowd (31, from Lurgan), Reserve Constable Paul McFerran (33, from Belfast), Reserve Constable Sean McHenry (19, from Newtownards) and Reserve Constable Denis Price (22, from Glengormley). And there were scores of injuries.

Rosemary McGookin's 87-year-old mother Mary Robinson and sister Jean McCready this week recalled a young woman full of fun who had been married for just 20 months - sadly, they have lost touch with her husband Michael who has since re-married.

And Alex Donaldson's widow, Ida, told of a truly professional chief inspector, loving father and husband, who had promised her "a wee hug" when he returned from duty that fateful night. He never did return, and as well as Mrs Donaldson, he left three children - Samuel (then 13), Joanne (11) and Andrew (7). Poignantly, there are now five grandchildren whom Alex never saw.

Mrs Robinson - a retired nurse - said, "Never a day passes when we don't think of Rosemary and what stage in life she would have reached now. We wonder if she'd have had children, where her police career would have taken her, for she loved the RUC and had progressed into the DMSU in Newry , after starting off in headquarters in Belfast and then working in Lisburn."

Sister Jean said, "Rosemary was so full of fun. She loved driving and when she drove the police Land Rover, they used to tease her she drove too fast and their heads were hitting off the roof. She was one of three sisters - Barbara, myself and Rosemary - and we loved her so much.

"She is never out of our minds, and while Sunday's service at First Newry Presbyterian Church was a wonderful occasion, it brought it into sharp focus, especially as the dissidents' bomb last week damaged Downshire Presbyterian Church where the service was planned.

"They read out all the names of the police killed during the troubles in the Newry and Mourne area, and they were all in the RUC, and the RUC badge was the backdrop of the service.

"It still hurts RUC families the way the force was phased out - they presented them with the George Cross and then pointed the RUC towards the sunset after all their professionalism and sacrifice. That hurts so many families, especially given the fact that terrorists whose representatives carried out attacks like Newry are now in government. But that won't dim our love and happy memories of Rosemary or her real sense of fun."

Rosemary and Michael McGookin lived at Killicomaine Gardens, Portadown, and Mrs Robinson will never forget the kindness of one man who helped them through - RUC officer Ian Adair.

"It was his job to tell us and he was so sensitive and caring," she recalled. "He still keeps in touch with us and has been so compassionate over the years."

On that same night, Chief Inspector Alex Donaldson shouldn't even have been on duty. But he was there in Newry from his base at Gough Barracks in Armagh to meet controversial priest Fr Dennis Faul as part of his inquiries into a complaint and was in the canteen at the time the rockets were launched from the back of a lorry in Monaghan Street, 200 yards away.

His widow Ida, left to raise their three children, told of the last time her husband left for work and said he would give her "a wee hug" when he returned - he reckoned it would be between 6.30 and 8.30pm.

But later that night, she was visited by two police officers who broke the horrific news of the biggest loss of life suffered by the RUC during the troubles - including her deeply-loved husband.

She said, "Alex was a fantastic person, a lovely, lovely man, a great father, a great husband, a great all-rounder. It has wrecked our lives and people don't understand that.

"It may be 25 years ago, but it's something we're dealing with every day and you never get over it. Sometimes it feels as if it may have happened about five years ago, at other times like a long, long time since I spoke to Alex, and on all the anniversaries I run over the last week I spent with him."

Mrs Donaldson added that her Christian faith helped her through, and that she found great comfort from "reading little verses in the Bible".

She added that she bore no bitterness towards the killers - "I would far rather be Alex's widow than the person who killed him."

The Donaldson were a large family originally from Kilkeel where they were highly respected Presbyterians, and his brother Constable Samuel Donaldson was one of the first victims of the troubles, killed by republicans in August 1970.

They were the cousins of Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson who attended Sunday's service and said afterwards, "The sense of loss for family members of all the RUC officers killled in the mortar attack are as keen now as they were 25 years ago.

"The service brings it all into sharp focus and brings back such difficult memories. There is a determination to ensure that the people who carried out the attack and who came to Newry to wreak havoc last week must not be allowed to win."