February 4th 1992 was a Tuesday. It was also a typically cold though dry day. Martin McGuinness and I left the Sinn Féin office at Sevastopol Street, just off the Falls Road, around 12.30pm. It was a dangerous time. Sinn Féin offices were being regularly targeted for raids by the British Army and RUC. Following a south African arms shipment a few years earlier, facilitated by British intelligence, the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance were now well armed with high-powered assault rifles, RPG’s, hand grenades and pistols.
The impact of this weapons shipment, which the British knew about from their senior agent Brian Nelson in the UDA, and from other agents in the north, as well as in South Africa, was significant. In the three years prior to receiving this weapons shipment the loyalist death squads had killed 34 people. In the three years after the shipment they killed 224 and wounded countless scores more. There was also a dramatic rise in the number of Sinn Féin activists and family members killed.
So, bringing senior activists together in a Sinn Fein office was rartely done. Locations for meetings were constantly changed. On that day we were meeting in Conway Mill.
Shortly after 1pm Richard McAuley, who was due to attend the meeting and was typically late, left Sevastopol Street with Fra Fox. The two of them walked down to the Mill. Just as they arrived word came through that the office had been hit. Richard immediately ran back up to Sevastopol Street. When he arrived the paramedics were navigating a stretcher, on which lay Pat McBride, out of the reception office and through the narrow front door. Pat died a short time later.
55 Falls Road was an old terrace house. There was a reception room on the left as you entered and an advice centre behind it. Upstairs was an interview room for the media and our Prisoner of War office. Stuck in a tiny attic was the press office.
Richard went into the side reception room. On the floor lay Paddy Loughran. He had been shot in the head. On the floor opposite was Pat Wilson. He was sitting with his back to a bench. Pat was clearly very badly hurt but his eyes were open and he was looking at Richard. Michael O’Dwyer, who Richard didn’t know, was sitting on the bench behind the door. Richard went to him but it was obvious that he too was dead. Nora Larkin who had also been injured and had been in the advice centre was already on her way to the hospital.
Richard went over to Pat and knelt beside him. Louise from the POW office was also there. The two spoke quietly to Pat as they waited for the paramedics to arrive to lift him out. After they did Richard and Louise went upstairs. Michael O’Dwyer’s two year old son had been in his father’s arms when he was shot and was being looked after by some of the staff. For the O’Dwyer family this was the second tragedy to shatter their lives. Michael’s mother Sadie had been killed in a UVF bomb attack in North Belfast in 1976.
At that point we all assumed that it was an attack by either the UDA or UVF. As it turned out it was an RUC officer called Allan Moore, who then drove to the shores of Lough Neagh and shot himself.
As he left the building Moore was grabbed by Marguerite Gallagher, a stalwart of the Green Cross Art Shop next door. Holding Moore, Marguerite was dragged by him round to his car which was parked on Sevastopol Street. He told her to ‘fuck off’ as he pushed her away and drove off.
I arrived up from Conway Mill to a scrum taking place outside the door of the office. The RUC wanted to close the building and the activists inside were refusing. They weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone. Later when some of those in the building got back into the reception room to clean it they discovered shotgun cartridges and the bag in which Moore had carried his shotgun. The RUC’s forensic examination of the scene clearly wasn’t serious.
The attack on Sevastopol Street was not the first on that building or other Sinn Féin offices. In all 20 members of Sinn Féin, as well as family members – wives, sons, brothers were killed in this period, mostly by unionist paramilitaries in collusion with British state forces.
Within 24 hours of the Sevastopol Street attack two UDA members entered Sean Graham’s bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast. They opened fire killing 5 customers and wounding 9 other people. The youngest to die was a 15-year-old schoolboy, James Kennedy, the eldest a 67-year-old father of three, Jack Duffin, together with Christy Doherty (52), William McManus (54) and 18-year-old Peter Magee.
Relatives for Justice later exposed the extent of the collusion between the RUC and the loyalists who took part in this attack. The hand gun used was allegedly 'stolen' from a UDR base by UDA killer Ken Barrett who gave it to UDA quartermaster William Stobie. Both of these men were agents working for the RUC Special Branch. They were also part of the gang that killed human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
State collusion in the murder of citizens has been a fact of life in the northern state from its foundation. Under British control it was part of the institutional apparatus of its counter insurgency strategies. Reports by the Ombudsman’s office into killings in north Belfast and most recently Loughinisland, in County Down, and other reports by groups like Amnesty International, have revealed the extent of state collusion.
The British do not want those truths from becoming known. That is why they have obstructed the agreement reached at Stormont House two years ago into legacy cases. It is why they refuse to fund legacy inquests. It is also why they want immunity for British soldiers and others who were responsible for beatings, for torture, and for murder.
But the British aren’t alone in this. The DUP and the UUP have joined forces in attacking the Public Prosecution Service and the Lord Chief Justice. They too are only interested in protecting British soldiers, the UDR, and the RUC. Does the SDLP share this position? That’s a question that needs to be asked also. Because that party is calling on nationalists to transfer their votes to the UUP. If the UUP can, they say, they will block investigations into British state killings.
For the families of those killed 25 years ago in Sevastopol Street and the Ormeau bookies the weekend commemorations were poignant events. I am very conscious that it is replicated on other anniversaries by other victims and survivors of the conflict.
The narrative here is one story. One narrative. There are others. Each must be respected. The British government and most unionists know that. But they rarely, if ever, acknowledge or concede this truth. This may be understandable when it comes to victims or survivors. But for British politicians like James Brokenshire it is cynical. It means that the past will distort and impede how we as a society shape our future. And that is one of the reasons why Brokenshire and his ilk say and do what they say and do.
For them the war is not over. They live in the past, in their own version of what happened. We cannot be limited in that way. Our priority must be to support victims and to stay focussed on the future.