29 April 2005

Guardian

Looking for Lisa



Her death came just weeks after the murder of Robert McCartney, but while his killing made headlines worldwide, Lisa Dorrian has been forgotten. Was she the victim of Loyalist paramilitaries as many believe? And where is her body? Angelique Chrisafis investigates

Friday April 29, 2005
The Guardian



Ballyhalbert holiday caravan park, according to the sign in front a cluster of grey mobile homes decorated with plastic swans and hanging baskets, "Is a whole new way of life!"

This is the most easterly village in Northern Ireland, where the Scottish hills loom across a narrow stretch of sea and "Christ died for our sins" beams down from the wall of the Gospel Hall. There was a pub here once, but the lady in Ballyhalbert's only shop can't even remember when it closed. A shred of rotting union flag bunting clings to a telegraph pole. Even the red, white and blue paint on the kerbstones that tells you that Ballyhalbert is Protestant and proud of it is chipped and fading.

In the slightly snobbish hierarchy of caravanning on the Ards peninsula of County Down, this pebble-dashed village is a decent place without the rough "Shankill-sur-mer" connotations of other holiday sites nearby.

So when Lisa Dorrian, a smiley and impressionable 25-year-old sandwich shop worker from up the coast at Bangor, told her parents she was off there for the weekend with a new crowd of friends, they didn't think anything of it. It was late February. She had split up with a long-term boyfriend before Christmas and had met a new crowd. She was deeply into fashion and was wearing her white furry moonboots.

But Lisa never returned from the caravan park. Police believe she was murdered, and two months on, despite extensive land and sea searches, her body hasn't been found. It is widely believed she was murdered by the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the most volatile and unpredictable loyalist paramilitary group. The LVF deal in drugs and death, often hiring themselves out as assassins for other groups during loyalist feuds. Some of its members have a reputation for humiliating women. Lisa might have inadvertently crossed paths with their young, macho element. Her newfound circle of friends was thought to be mostly made up of fun-loving twentysomethings like herself. But a few others were more sinister, with links to the LVF. One of them was believed to be wooing her.

Lisa - blonde and beautiful in her passport photo - has vanished into that strange void of "the disappeared" of the Troubles whose bodies have never been recovered. In an age when photogenic victims get priority, it is odd how her death - coming only weeks after the killing of Robert McCartney, which has made headlines around the world - has only made the local media.

In a well-kept cul-de-sac in Bangor on north Down's "Gold Coast", which was almost untouched by sectarian conflict, Lisa's mother Pat sits on her sofa, with sympathy cards on every mantelpiece. A stack of newspapers are hidden in a black bin-bag from her distraught eight-year-old daughter who has been told that her older sister Lisa got lost in the woods after dark and died of the cold.

Pat is English, and the family are not politically aware like the McCartneys, who grew up in the teeth of the conflict. "I'm from Oldham," she says. "I haven't the first clue about paramilitaries. None of us in this family would." She works in an old people's home and her husband John is a driving instructor. They are Catholics in a predominantly Protestant town, but live on a nice, mixed estate.

"We were wrapped in cotton wool, growing up," says Lisa's sister Joanne, an English student.

"People always asked me, 'Would you go back to England?'" Pat says. "But my standard of living here is better, there's better schooling for my children."

The family, and relatives in Oldham and Manchester, are becoming increasingly desperate. Yesterday they offered a reward of £10,000 that they have scraped together to get back Lisa's remains. "We just want her body," Pat says.

Facts are thin on the ground. On the night of Sunday February 27, there was a party at the caravan site. It is not clear if Lisa ever arrived. Some of the people there told her family that she had left at 5am on the Monday morning and "got lost in the dark". She left her handbag and all her possessions behind. Her clothes, make up, jewellery and hair straighteners were collected by her sister there days later, when she suspected something was "seriously wrong".

A murder inquiry was launched very quickly for a missing persons case. Something was not right. "The police must have had some sort of intelligence," Pat says. The family had not met Lisa's new friends. "She was young for her age and she was quite naive, anything you told her, she would have believed it as gospel," says Joanne.

Soon afterwards graffiti appeared on the walls of houses at a local estate telling police, "Ask the LVF where Lisa is", and in town, "LVF: ladykillers".

The LVF was founded by the murdered loyalist icon Billy Wright in 1996. King Rat, as he gloried in being called, had his powerbase in the sectarian hotbed of Portadown in north Armagh and the LVF does not have a huge presence in leafier north Down. It makes large sums dealing and trafficking drugs. The group has been linked to a string of gruesome murders including the shooting of an 18-year-old Catholic girl as she slept next to her Protestant boyfriend, and the killing of journalist Martin O'Hagan in 1999, the only reporter murdered during the Troubles.

The police say speculation about LVF involvement is unhelpful. They are following a number of definite lines of inquiry. Three men have been arrested and questioned but released. The LVF itself issued a statement to the Belfast Telegraph saying they weren't involved. But paramilitary statements are often taken with a generous pinch of salt.

David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, linked to another group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, says: "I can't see an organisation condoning in any way the murder and disappearance of this young woman.

"Someone knows what happened to Lisa Dorrian and it would seem they are not prepared to impart that to the police, possibly because they are frightened. We as a society need to encourage these people not to be frightened."

Where paramilitaries may be involved, witnesses have always been notoriously reluctant to come forward, fearing they will be the next target. As the McCartney murder showed, the old mantra "whatever you say, say nothing" holds as true now in Northern Ireland as it did 30 years ago.

At home, looking at the last photo of Lisa, her mother said she was always accident-prone - but she could never stand pain.

"She was always falling off her skates," Pat said. "She had had two knee operations. She couldn't stand pain. She wouldn't even open up her mouth for the dentist. Her dad had to sit for an hour while she ripped a piece of paper to bits in her fist. She couldn't tolerate pain, you would hear her howl from one end of the country to the other."

John Dorrian has a newspaper article on the disappeared in his car with him. One mother is reported as having never given up hope of finding a body. She prays and lays flowers at other people's graves because she has none to go to herself.

But he can't equate Lisa with the disappeared yet, it's too painful. "We want her body back, that's our focus, that's our only focus, that's all we can think about, all we can wish for."

"Two months on, we are in exactly the same situation," says Joanne before making another public appeal for information yesterday. "It's a terrible situation to think the best you can hope for is to have your sister's body back. Someone out there knows something."

At the caravan park, the flowers left by the family have now died. Advertisements are up for a children's disco and karaoke and weekenders don't like people asking questions. One man in the site office says: "It's very sad, we have great sympathy for the family and we have helped the police, but people here are trying to move on, and get back to normal."

"This is a very quiet place, we're in shock," says a worker from the local fish factory. "No one saw or heard anything. This has to do with outsiders. If we knew something, we would say."

Meanwhile, Lisa's nephew is beginning to find holes in the cover story of their aunt's death. "I used to have an auntie but she got lost in the dark and died," says the four-year-old. "But if you were going out in the dark wouldn't you take a torch?"

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