06 January 2006

Lingering questions compound pain of a murderous 24 hours


(Sharon O'Neill, Irish News)

This day 30 years ago, the north was gripped by one of its bloodiest periods. Chief Reporter Sharon O'Neill talks to the families still mourning their loss

I am not long up, I have been dreaming all night about Sunday fourth of January [1976]," midwife Eileen Reavey said.

The loss of three of her brothers, John Martin (24), Brian (22) and 17-year-old Anthony is faithfully marked every year by a large family gathering – cherished photographs and scrapbooks are poured over.

Eileen was just 20 when her brothers were gunned down by a UVF gang at their home in south Armagh.

Less than 15 minutes later another Catholic family were to suffer the same trauma amid a wave of tit-for-tat sectarian killings that in a 24-hour period also claimed the lives of 10 Protestant workmen.

Eileen was working in Belfast when the family home in Whitecross village was targeted at around 6.25pm on January 4 1976.

John Martin and Brian were killed instantly in a hail of bullets while Anthony was wounded as he cowered for cover under a bed.

The teenager, a trainee electrician, initially appeared to be on the mend and was interviewed about his ordeal in hospital. But his condition deteriorated and he died just a few weeks later.

Like many who have lost loved ones during the Troubles the Reaveys had no option but to struggle on.

But another blow was not far away when their father, Jimmy, died in 1981.

Today (Wednesday) is the 30th anniversary of the triple murder.

Allegations persist of security force collusion in the killings, in which no-one has been brought to book.

Eileen said: "I don't think it [killers being brought to justice] will make me feel any better. I don't think it would change one thing about how I feel about my brothers being murdered.

"I know in my heart they were shot simply because they were Catholics. I can live with that. There were people who would never believe they were innocent. It needs to come from an important body – an important person.

"There are people, I'm sure, who think because you are Catholic you are in the IRA... or if you were murdered you must have done something.

"It [the murders] should have been properly investigated at the time.

"Not one of my neighbours was asked anything."

The years have not dulled the family's pain. Instead, unanswered questions continue to compound their grief.

"We have a big family; we are all very close. My mother [Sadie] is doing fairly well for 82. She had a nervous breakdown two years ago. Her psychiatrist said it all came from her past," Eileen said.

"We will have a Mass on Saturday evening and then go back to my older brother Seamus's and look at the scrapbooks. We normally do that.

"Seamus pulls out every item ever written and has it all in his scrap books. It is very important. I have never missed it in 30 years.

"It is always with you. You are reminded almost on a daily basis. When they see your [work] name badge, they would say, 'Would you be one of the Reavey's from Whitecross?'

"I usually try to hide my badge. I am not ashamed to be a Reavey but it is for less embarrassment for other people.

"I spent New Year's eve [1975] in the company of my brothers [John Martin and Brian] in Dundalk. That is my last and best memory.

"We were there bringing in the New Year. I love the New Year since that because of my memories of them."

Her brother Eugene added: "My mother, she has been waiting and praying for 30 years for someone to be made accountable for all this...

"When you have three brothers murdered in one house, it has a major effect. It gets harder every year, every year you have to go through this.

"It defies me that the police couldn't find out who was responsible and the dogs in the streets could tell you.

"Now they are talking about bringing out this new [on-the-run] legislation. That will in effect kill off any chances of knowing who killed her sons.

"Legislation on its own cannot mend a broken heart – that is what my mother is suffering from."

Today the O'Dowd family will also mark the 30th anniversary of the murders of two brothers and an uncle, targeted in similar circumstances to the Reaveys 15 miles away at their home in Ballyduggan, near Gilford.

Again the UVF were involved. Notorious loyalist killer, the now dead Robin 'The Jackal' Jackson, was implicated, as were the security forces.

Barry O'Dowd (24), his 19-year-old brother Declan, and their uncle Joe (61) were killed during a family party on January 4 1976 – 10 minutes after the Reavey household was hit.

The brothers' father Barney was seriously injured in the triple murder.

"I was at Mass at the time and returned at 6.50pm. It was all over at that stage," one of the victims' brothers, Noel O'Dowd, said.

"The total shock and disbelief will never go away. You left your family home and an hour later when you come back it is the scene of devastation and realisation life can never be the same.

"Very few people go through a situation where their life changes so dramatically.

"Joe was killed in front of two of his daughters. There are two families involved here. Nothing will bring the boys and uncle Joe back."

Later that year the O'Dowd family, four boys and two girls set up home in the Republic, the horror of what had happened too hard to bear.

Mother Kathleen passed away in 1999.

"My mother couldn't live there any longer. She found it unbearable. We made a new life for ourselves in the Republic," Noel said.

"It [the north] is undoubtedly a better place now.

"There is still a lot of hurt on both sides of the community.

"We are heading into a new era now and hopefully no-one else will have to go through what we as a family have had to go through."

With a review of unsolved murders spanning the history of the Troubles to commence, Noel just wants "the truth".

"Police told us who was involved. This is really the part that is so hard to take. Nobody was ever brought to justice. You are left to your own devices, your own grief.

"It is a sense of uselessness and futility that nothing was done about it.

"His [Robin Jackson's] gang were involved.

"It is well documented now that after all these years they [the UVF] were perpetrating a lot of these murders in the mid-Ulster area and yet they were allowed to run free with impunity.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions. We know who did the shooting but why was it done? Who pinpointed us? The security forces don't bring the security forces to book... We realise after the passage of time there will be no prosecutions but we want answers.

"We had our anniversary Mass on Sunday. There will be no family get-together.

"We will remember in our own quiet way."

The bloodshed did not end there. On January 5 the IRA killed police constable Clifford Evans in an ambush near Toomebridge, Co Antrim.

The same day 10 Protestant workmen were killed at Kingsmill Cross outside Bessbrook.

Returning home from a factory, their bus was stopped by republican gunmen – who singled out their victims by asking terrified workmen their religion before then executing the 10 men.

The attack – retaliation for the Reavey and O'Dowd killings – was claimed by the Republican Action Force, believed to be a cover name for the IRA.

Former Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) member Kenneth Worton (24) was one of the Kingsmill victims.

His brother Colin was 15 at the time and heard the news on television.

"We were still hoping that he had worked late, was doing overtime," he said.

"My uncle identified him. To this day he wouldn't talk about it.

"It makes you go very bitter. I was 15; he was my big brother, somebody you looked up to. Every younger brother wants to be their big brother. That was taken away.

"He had two young children and wanted to see them grow up. When he was killed the youngest said, 'Could you be my daddy now?'

"Everybody would love to move on but there hasn't been anybody ever brought to justice. It is another thorn in your side you can't get away from."

When he came of age Colin Worton joined the UDR.

He was later charged, along with other members, with the murder of Catholic man Adrian Carroll in Armagh in November 1983, in a case which became known as the 'UDR Four'.

Although four were convicted – three later cleared on appeal – the case against Mr Worton collapsed in 1986 after a judge threw out an alleged confession.

"Whenever I became the age I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment because I thought I could play my part to stop doing things like this," he said.

"I ended up in jail. Everything else went pear-shaped. From the age of 15 I have been a victim – from the IRA's side, from the government.

"The most important thing, even in that case of mine is, you can't do without justice.

"All you are looking for is justice. A level playing field."

January 5, 2006

This article appeared first in the January 4, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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