14 February 2006

Face to face with murder

Belfast Telegraph

14 February 2006

Can we Face the Truth in Northern Ireland? Can we even find it? JANE BELL watches a breathtaking encounter between freed Loyalist killer Michael Stone and the widow of a man he gunned down over 18 years ago, at a face-to-face meeting hosted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the man who headed South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In a darkened, hushed and elegant room, freed loyalist killer Michael Stone sits across a polished table from the widow of a man he shot dead 18 years earlier. It is a face-to-face encounter that none of those involved will ever forget. And one that it is hard to believe could ever happen in Northern Ireland.

Even before we hear Sylvia Hackett speak, we listen to her sobs, as she enters this 'safe space' and takes her place at the round table, supported by brother-in-law Roddy.

When they are settled, if not yet fully composed, Michael Stone, heavy-set, with close-cropped hair, trimmed beard and wearing a black leather jacket, enters the room, walking with the aid of a stick, and takes his seat opposite.

They are all greeted warmly and courteously by the broker of this unlikely forum, the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu, the man who headed South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All are here to Face the Truth, or, at the very least, search for it.

"You have taken a very courageous and important step forward by being together at the same table," the Archbishop tells them.

The deeply moving exchange being played out here is one of a series of six powerful and controversial meetings filmed by BBC NI and due to be screened on BBC2 shortly. It makes compulsive viewing.

You can feel the tension in the air as the Hackett and Stone encounter starts and falters, as those at the heart of the matter circle each other. The very word 'truth' is a prickly issue from the outset.

"I'm here today to ask Mr Stone a few questions. I don't know whether I'll get the truth or not," Sylvia Hackett begins.

Her husband's killer stares back, any emotion revealed only by the muscles of his jaw clenching, visible throughout this taut exchange.

Archbishop Tutu gently intervenes: "We expect, obviously, that all who come here unburden themselves by telling us the Gospel truth as far as they are concerned."

Stone, at last, replies: "I'm a lot of things but I'm not a liar."

This meeting is remarkable for many reasons, not least the dignity and restraint displayed by both sides.

It will be fiercely criticised in some quarters for giving a platform to a convicted killer who - in front of the bereaved - can describe his murdering a husband and father as "justified", though "regrettable".

Asked by an intermediary whether he could claim justification, Stone replied: "At that time, and, as I said, the circumstances and the fact that I was willing, would have been willing, to take a man's life, yes, it would have been justified. It's regrettable."

And today? "Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You become jaded and you become less politicised. And I've grandchildren now and that's one thing I have difficulty with ... Mr Hackett's daughters and his grandchildren. He never got a chance to see those. But I don't get a chance to see my own grandchildren, for security reasons. Three out of five grandchildren I've never seen."

Needled by the hint of self pity, Sylvia Hackett interjects: "That was your choice. It was not Dermie's choice. You had yours, he didn't have his."

At this point there's a reference to Stone's claim that his victim Dermot Hackett, the 37-year-old bread delivery man gunned down on his way to work, had allegedly been identified as a member of the IRA on security files - something the dead man's family vehemently denies.

Says Stone: "All I can say is I was acting on what I read and it was no different to stuff I'd read for 16 years on different Republican targets, on legitimate targets."

Mrs Hackett's rising indignation drives away her tears and she demands to see these files. Stone replies, "They come, they go. I've seen files on Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness."

She retorts: "Yes, I'm sure you have. But I'm not worried about Martin McGuinness and that. I'm worried about Dermie's file. Were you the last person to have that file before Dermie was shot?"

Stone replies simply: "I don't know."

Later, he tells the family how he set out to 'de-humanise' a victim in order to make it possible to kill them.

"I don't seek sorrow or redemption. I have my political beliefs. They are in the past. You can become jaded throughout the years."

He explains how he 'switched off' emotionally before a killing. "In the context of de-humanising an individual you don't want to think that he has someone back home waiting for him, just as you are out on operations and you might not come back, you might run into the Army, something might happen, you lose your own life. It's an emotional thing."

His notoriety was, he told them, a "terrible burden". "That's the path I chose when I was 16. I don't wish to come across as hard-hearted or as some sort of psychopath. I'm known as ''the Milltown Cemetery killer' and that's a terrible burden and I brought that upon myself and that's something I have to live with. It's more for my kids - 'Is your father the Cemetery killer?' - you feel like Freddie Kruger."

Roddy Hackett looks directly at Stone when he says: "As you see now, we are the human side of what you've actually done. Maybe it's time you did look and see the human side of what it does do. Life has always been held very cheap in Northern Ireland, it's proven by all the atrocities. We could ream them off bit by bit."

While the encounter wasn't going to bring Dermot Hackett back, it had given them "a wee bit of ease". Then, remarkably, he tells Stone: "I'm glad to meet you now, though we're heartbroken, heavy-hearted about it. As they say, perhaps in the days and weeks to come it'll get easier and easier."

Sobbing in her brother-in-law's arms, Mrs Hackett says, almost inaudibly, "I'm lost."

In the edited BBC preview disc, Stone never once says the word "sorry". He does, however, look Roddy Hackett straight in the eye and pays the family his own tribute.

"You are a better man than me and Mrs Hackett is a better person, a more Christian person. There are times, even today, I'm still angry about things. But you are better people than I am."

Perhaps that's as close to reconciliation as we can hope for.

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