Private history weighs heavily on politicians in Mid-Ulster polls


Analysis:The voters of Mid-Ulster go to the polls on Thursday to elect a new MP to succeed Martin McGuinness who has stepped down to concentrate on Stormont. If the Sinn Féin candidate, Francie Molloy, isn’t elected it will be a greater political shock than when Peter Robinson lost to Alliance’s Naomi Long almost three years ago.

But Mid-Ulster still presents an intriguing story where the past intrudes on the present, while Molloy and his chief rival, Nigel Lutton, the unionist unity candidate, insist they want to look to the future.

In 2007 the DUP Upper Bann MP David Simpson used House of Commons privilege to link Molloy, currently the deputy chief speaker in the Assembly, to the IRA murder of Lutton’s father Frederick.

Molloy denies the charge and says if Simpson, a relative of Lutton, ever makes the claim outside the security of parliament he will sue him.

The DUP has employed this device before, using Westminster to overturn presumption of innocence. In one notorious case the Rev Ian Paisley linking a demonstrably innocent man to the 1976 IRA Kingsmill massacre of 10 Protestant workmen in south Armagh.

Yet this resonates. It’s like something Frank O’Connor or Seán Ó Faoláin might have conjured from their experiences of the War of Independence and the Civil War, a grim account of close neighbours and a past that haunts.

Shot in the back

Frederick Lutton was killed by the IRA in May 1979. He had recently retired as an RUC reservist. A farmer, he also worked as an estate manager in the Argory, a big old manor house in north Armagh bordering on east Tyrone – part of what was the North’s Murder Triangle during the conflict – then recently taken over by the National Trust.

Both the Luttons and the Molloys lived close to the Argory. He was closing the gates to the estate when two men got out of a car and shot him in the back.

Francie Molloy, now 62, says he knew Eric Lutton and the Lutton family long before the Troubles. “We were neighbours and I would have known him from a young age.”

Frederick Lutton, who was 39 when he was killed, would have been 11 years older than Molloy. “Strangely enough he would have taken me to school on his bicycle when I would have been going to school walking,” Molloy recalls. “I lived close by, and in rural areas everybody is your neighbour.”

This has been the most peculiar of byelections. Normally candidates want as much media exposure as is possible to make their case. The two other runners in the race are Patsy McGlone of the SDLP and Erick Bullick of Alliance. Last Thursday you had the bizarre situation of the two of them having a free run together on BBC Northern Ireland’s The View, its flagship politics programme – Lutton first and then Molloy wouldn’t appear.

It also took more than a week of badgering the Ulster Unionist and DUP press offices before The Irish Times was finally granted 10 rushed minutes on the phone with 42-year-old Lutton. A funeral director and embalmer, he came across as a likeable man in the brief time I was rapidly throwing questions at him, and like Molloy, he is very much of the country and mid-Ulster.

Past unfolds

Do both the two main unionist parties, the DUP and Ulster Unionists, and also Sinn Féin now have misgivings about how this scenario of the past is unfolding? The DUP and Sinn Féin seem keen to dampen what is the obvious story of this election – the Nigel Lutton/Francie Molloy nexus. Moreover, it was the DUP’s and the UUP’s decision to run a unity unionist candidate that led to Basil McCrea and John McCallister quitting the Ulster Unionists and deciding to form a new centrist unionist party – a move that is threatening the viability of the UUP.

In Alistair Wilson’s 2005 book, If Stones Could Speak, Nigel Lutton said: “My father was only 39 when he died, he worked hard all of his life and did all he could for everyone in the community. I was a child of eight . . . I could never forget what they did to him or my family, and while I remember I will never forgive.”

He has worked for several years with victims of the Troubles and appears to have moderated his views – to a degree.

“I want to leave what has happened in the past, I want to keep moving forward,” he told The Irish Times. “There is no point harbouring thoughts of revenge or hate. It destroys the person, it destroys the country and the fragile peace we have at this stage.”

But he would like some justice if such a thing is possible: “So, we will leave the past with the HET and the authorities.”

Molloy again rejects Simpson’s claim and says he can look the Luttons in the eye with a clear conscience.

“Oh yes, without a bit of bother. And I have actually talked to the Lutton family on many occasions, both the nephews of the particular man, and also other family members. I have absolutely no qualms about that whatsoever.”

Showmanship handshake

So, at the count centre this Thursday night, would Nigel Lutton shake hands with Francie Molloy?

He considers briefly and says, “I think where healing is concerned for victims you need to be at a certain place, you don’t want to do it for showmanship, you don’t want to do it to please the crowd and I think at this stage we just accept each other for who we are.

“As a victim who has come through a lot I don’t think I would be ready for a handshake.”