17 June 2005

Irish Echo

Murdered within sight of the law

Diane Hamill stands witness for her dead brother

By Anne Cadwallader

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BELFAST - Seven years ago, Diane Hamill spoke for the first time in public about the death of her brother, Robert. A crowd of about 20,000 people, gathered at a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry, listened intently.

In more recent days it has been her turn to listen as a public inquiry into Robert Hamill's murder began to ask the same questions.

In her January 1998 Derry speech, Hamill told of how Robert had been kicked to death by a loyalist mob screaming "Die, you Fenian bastard, die".

She told of how police patrol, within sight and hearing distance, failed to come to his aid.

She spoke of how police failed to even put tapes up to secure the scene of crime until the morning after the attack.

She spoke of how they also failed to make any arrests until Robert had lost his battle for life in a Belfast hospital.

"We're hopeful, really hopeful", she says of the inquiry.

"The judge in charge seems like the sort who won't take any nonsense. We believe that the inquiry team is dedicated to their work.

"We also hope that police officers will come forward with evidence. Maybe after all these years, someone might be troubled by their conscience and tell what they know."

The Hamills, mother, father and ten children, lived in the Obins Street of Portadown and, until April 1997, led a relatively normal life.

Around July 12th, the bonfires on the nearby Corcraine estate were sometimes frightening, as were the stones and taunts often thrown in their direction close to the local peace line. Still, the family wasn't political and mostly keep to itself.

Robert, a 25-year-old father of three, was the fourth eldest. Diane was his elder sister. She was on night duty at a nursing home in Carnlough, Co. Antrim, when she heard Robert had been seriously wounded in an attack in their home town.

On his way home from a dance, he and friends had been ambushed by a loyalist mob. Robert had been knocked to the ground and beaten mercilessly.

"Mum said Robert had been hurt by a whole lot of Protestants and the police hadn't helped him.

"I phoned casualty in Craigavon and they told me he was ventilated. I knew then that it was bad."

The Hamill family gathered at Robert's bedside in Belfast.

"He never regained full consciousness, although at one stage the consultant said he was out of danger.

"He was semi-conscious for a while but it was like he was trapped inside his body and could do nothing about it. He was uncomfortable and writhing in pain so they had to sedate him. It wasn't until the post-mortem that they identified a diffuse brain injury."

A "diffuse" brain injury means that someone has not been killed by a single blow but by a series of blows as the brain repeatedly hits the skull, amounting to a fatal injury.

The first time Diane asked herself serious questions about what was really going on behind the scenes was when press reports claimed Robert had been injured as the result of a fight between rival factions.

She knew from eye-witnesses that this wasn't right. He had been the victim of a totally unprovoked attack.

Diane went to a solicitor and explained her concerns but he discouraged her from phoning the police, asking her instead to leave it in his hands. The next time they met, the lawyer couldn't look her in the eye and, on advice from friends, she went to see another solicitor.

That solicitor was Rosemary Nelson.

"She sat me down and I told her what had happened and she began clicking her fingers, asking the people she worked with to do this and that right away. She was really on the ball, fantastic.

"She pushed us the whole way. I would tell her that I couldn't manage to keep going and she would insist that I could, that I was a strong woman. She was a great example."

After eleven agonizing days in hospital, Robert died. The media gathered at the family home and Diane found herself acting as their spokeswoman.

"It was like a coping mechanism for me. It was something to do.

"I was so angry with the police. How dare they? Did they really think they would get away with it? To let then kill him and no-one do or say anything about it?

Once the campaign started, the family became the target of a loyalist hate campaign in Portadown. Loyalists would rip down the flowers the family attached to lampposts where Robert had been attacked.

During loyalist parades, people would make shout and gestures at the family home, jumping up and down on the spot and asking if the Hamills "knew what it was like to hear someone's brain go squelch, squelch, squelch."

Loyalists also put up flyers in the town center referring to the "Six Portadown Heroes," a reference to the six men who were then facing charges, all of whom, bar one, were acquitted.

None of the alleged perpetrators has ever been convicted of murder.

The investigation dragged on. Then Rosemary Nelson was murdered.

Diane heard about the bombing while at work in a Belfast hospital. She phoned Rosemary's office and was told she was seriously injured. Like others, she instinctively traveled to Drumcree Community Center where people were already gathering to hear the latest news.

It was there that she heard that Rosemary Nelson was dead.

The whole agonizing experience, she says, has made her far less concerned about what people think of her. She's more self-confident and determined. She fully accepts that she was naïve before the murder about the nature of policing in Portadown.

She has reduced the number of meetings she speaks at, finding it massively draining to pour her heart out to strangers.

"It's made me stronger", she says. "It's changed my priorities in life. Little things don't worry me so much now."

Diane and her family are hopeful that the public inquiry will finally get to the truth of why he died.

The inquiry has adjourned and will not sit in public again until November at the earliest. Up to 100 witnesses are set to testify at the public inquiry, chaired by former British high court judge, Sir Edwin Jowitt.

Evidence will be studied to assess whether any failure or omission on the part of officers to halt the attack, identify the killers or properly investigate the murder was deliberate or negligent.

If all this is done, the Hamill family will stand to gain some measure of peace.

This story appeared in the issue of June 15-21

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