17 February 2006

Author probes sectarian murder of Newington mother sixty years ago


Guilty man walked free after instruction from Orange Order judges

The brutal sectarian stabbing of a Newington woman almost 60 years ago is the subject of a new book by an Antrim Road author.

Entitled: ‘Bloodstains In Ulster. The Notorious Case of Robert The Painter’

Tom McAlindon deviated from his normal subject of English literature to tackle what he calls the “terrible, terrible wrong had been done” in the collapse of the trial that became known as the gripping but notorious case of ‘Robert the Painter.’
The trial shocked people from Belfast because it tapped into the sectarian nature of the unionist state. And it was soon elevated from that of a routine murder to a show trial that split the community down religious lines.
In 1949 Minnie McGowan was in her home on Ponsonby Avenue when there was a knock on her door. She opened it to find a man named Robert Taylor asking to use her telephone. She let him in but immediately he became aggressive, grabbing her by the throat and choking her until she fell down where he then kicked and beat her. Minnie McGowan was then taken to hospital and the RUC arrived finding the house ransacked, a blood stained carving knife, and Minnie’s teeth lying on the ground.
The dying woman was conscious and was able to give a positive ID on who killed her - a painter from Meadow Street, called Robert Taylor. Taylor was arrested that day and bloodstains and hair were found on his overcoat which matched his blood group and the hair was Minnie McGowan’s.
The case engrossed Belfast because if Taylor was found guilty he would be the first person to hang in Belfast since 19-year-old IRA man Thomas Williams hanged in 1942.
Taylor pleaded not guilty to all charges and produced alibis that could account for his whereabouts that day. The jury were unable to agree and Taylor was sent for retrial in October 1949.
At his new trial Taylor again gave evidence but this time he could not convince the jury of his innocence and they found him guilty. He was sentenced to hang in November at Crumlin Road jail, but then the defence lodged an appeal against the conviction.
The outbreak of the conflict in 1969 caused a seismic shift in in Irish life, not least because all life became dominated with the unfolding events and everything was focused on the increasing spiral of violence.
But Tom McAlindon’s memories of the North are only from before the troubles, as this is when he left his native Belfast to start on his academic career. For this reason a court case regarding a grisly 1940s Newington murder, long forgotten by many, stayed with him and led him to complete a book on the case and make some extraordinary discoveries.
But what gripped the city was the revelation that a separation of the jury had taken place during the trial. On two nights while the jury was sitting they had gone by bus to Donaghadee and then Antrim. The judge had given permission for the jury to travel to Bangor for fresh air and exercise, but with orders that they were to be closely supervised and that they should at all time be kept separate from the public. However, the jury travelled on to Donaghadee where they made off in groups to spend time in the local pubs, walking in the area or visiting public cafes. On the second outing when they were in Antrim the jury visited a fruit shop and queued for their goods with members of the public. The blunder or otherwise led the judge to quash the Taylor conviction and release him immediately.
It is the fallout of this case that has stuck with Tom all these years and led him to write the book about Minnie.
“It happened when I was 17 or 18 while I was living on the Antrim road. Because I left Ireland in the fifties and went over to Cambridge and I didn’t experience all of the horrors of the 1970s 80s or 90s. As a consequence this very brutal murder stuck in my mind very vividly and has never left it. It seemed to me to be a very extreme and vivid case of the way sectarian politics made a mockery of justice and the law. Here was a man who was found guilty of a savage premeditated murder and the judge sentencing him said the sentence was based on conclusive, not convincing evidence. He got off on a technicality and couldn’t be tried again.”
Following his investigations, Tom McAlindon is convinced the collapse of the trial was engineered.
“It is very difficult to believe otherwise, and in fact the documents that I have unearthed in the Records Office point to the fact that the appeal court judges, both of whom were members of the Grand Lodge Committee of the Orange Order, now dead, were perfectly well aware of what was going on and the pressure on the judiciary was very strong. But I think it went from the ground up, right through the men of the jury and the RUC.
“It seemed to me an extreme example of what could go on. The unionist establishment had a complete control of the law.”
Tom McAlindon says that it is obvious the RUC disobeyed instructions.
“The jury was given very strict instructions that if they were to go out on a walk they were to keep together, two policemen at the front and two at the back, and this was because until 1976 there was a rule in Northern Ireland that a jury had to be kept together during the time of the trial.
“So they slept in the courthouse itself and had their meals there. This rule was stopped in England in 1946 but it continued in Northern Ireland for another 20 years.
“They had strict instructions to stay together, but as soon as they got to Donaghadee they got out and they broke up into four groups and with the police went in different directions.
“The second time they went out they went to Antrim and did the same thing – they broke up. The man (Robert Taylor) was sentenced to death on the Friday and low and behold on the Monday affidavits came from the jury and police saying in a very unashamed manner what they had done, which clearly infringed the rule.
“The appeal court judges had to quash the conviction. They said ‘by some strange accident’ and they are the very words they used, ‘by some strange accident, we don’t know how’. It’s laughable, but the problem is it happened at the very highest level of the judiciary and this is what is so appalling.”
Getting to the bottom of the case was something that Tom McAlindon says has been an invigorating experience for him.
“I found it very cathartic because I felt a terrible, terrible wrong had been done to that woman and I thought of her daughter, who left Belfast in disgust.
“I was able to track her down and she told me she left because she got on the bus shortly after Robert Taylor was released.
“There he was, sitting in front of her laughing and joking. She felt sick and left and very soon after (that) she disappeared. In fact people thought she was dead, but I was able to track her down and she helped me fill in any gaps there were and helped my understanding of the case,” he said.
Despite the interest in the book Tom says that it will be his one and only foray into the world of true crime and says he will now retire to read other books.
“This is totally different to anything I had done before and it will be my last book. I have too many books to read now I have retired,” he said.
“I want to spend the rest of my life reading good literature – that’s my seventh book so I am finished now writing. I am 73 now so I think I deserve some time off,” he laughed.

Bloodstains In Ulster is on sale now in local bookstores, published by The Liffey Press and priced £8.95.

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