Anatomy of a killing: ‘Harry pulled the gun out and took aim’

Ian Cobain has reconstructed the shooting of RUC man Millar McAllister on April 22nd, 1978

On April 28th, 1978, the IRA shot dead off-duty RUC member Millar McAllister at his home in Lisburn, in an attack typical of the violence and horror of the Troubles. A new book reconstructs the brutal killing, the events that preceded it and its aftermath – from the points of view of the killers, victims of IRA violence, security forces and others. This is an exclusive extract from Cobain’s book. 

A few minutes past eight on a Saturday morning, Millar McAllister said goodbye to Nita, left their bungalow, climbed into his small blue hatchback and drove to Belfast. It had been a chilly month so far, heavy with rain, but this Saturday was shaping up into a clear day and the sun was making a weak effort to shine. Millar had just a few hours' work to complete before returning to his weekend.

And today, as he drove to start his early shift, he was excited: it was the first day of the pigeon racing season.

It was April 1978. Just weeks earlier, an IRA firebomb attack on the La Mon House Hotel east of Belfast had killed 12 people, including three married couples. The attack had brought condemnation from around the world, even from the organisation’s own supporters.


The IRA had decided as a consequence to concentrate on what the British army called close-quarter assassinations. Millar, as well as being a pigeon fancier, was a police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and he had, to use the security forces terminology of the time, been “dicked” – he had been spotted, and his home watched.

‘Any car will do’

Around three hours after Millar left home, Gary went to meet Harry, who was waiting near his home in Lenadoon in west Belfast. Harry had possession of two handguns: a .45 automatic pistol, and a .455 revolver with black tape wound around the handle.

During the week, one or two visitors to Harry’s home had watched him sitting in an armchair, cleaning the revolver. He had decided that the revolver would be the weapon he would use. “I knew it would be less likely to jam when I came to fire it.” He handed the automatic to Gary. “I told him not to shoot anyone, just to show it.”

Slipping the weapon into the pocket of his anorak, Gary walked back down Lenadoon Avenue and turned left along Stewartstown Road. He had been instructed to wait outside a nearby shop until joined by another teenager whose description he had been given the night before.

Together they were under orders to acquire a car for that day’s operation – “Any car will do” – along with the owner’s driving licence. They should check the vehicle carefully for defects before leaving the keys in a hallway at the entrance to Rice’s, the bookmaker’s on the Andersonstown Road.

Gary soon saw the other youth. He was as described: tall, thin, sandy-haired. After the briefest of greetings, they made their way to the Andersonstown Road. Standing across the street from Rice’s, they watched as a number of cars pulled up and the drivers clambered out, locked up, and climbed the stairway on the left of the building, entering the first-floor bookmaker’s to place a bet. They didn’t fancy any of the cars so far: each, in its own way, was far too dilapidated.

Then a yellow Fiat 127 with Belfast number plates pulled up. Despite a rusty roof rack, it looked reliable enough. Gary and the other youth watched as the owner fitted a steering lock to the wheel, locked the door, and walked up the stairs.

“Right,” said Gary, “let’s go.” To his surprise, the other youth said he needed to go and do something – “Just wait a minute,” he said, over his shoulder, and walked off down Andersonstown Road.

Gary waited, his heart beginning to pound. After a few moments the youth returned with a newspaper. Instead of walking across the road to Rice’s, however, he opened the newspaper and began to read. “What are you doing?” Gary demanded. “Let’s get on with it!”

They crossed the road and climbed the stairs. The door opened and the Fiat’s owner walked out, squeezing past them on his way down. “Hey, mate,” said Gary. “Provisional IRA. We want the lend of your car. Give me the keys.” The driver turned, looked at the two young men, and immediately handed over his car keys.

Gary asked the man which one was the ignition key, and he showed him. He then asked for the man’s name, address and occupation, and asked if he had his licence with him. The man gave his name and address, told Gary that he was a civil servant, and said that he did not have a licence with him.

Gary took the keys while the other youth escorted the civil servant back into Rice’s. Gary returned to the Fiat, opened the door and left the keys in the hallway, where they could be picked up by another person, as arranged.

Gary asked the other youth to go to see if the Whitefort, a pub a few doors away, was open for business. By now, the civil servant, who had been looking apprehensive, appeared terrified, although he had not been threatened, and Gary had not produced the .45 automatic. “Don’t be nervous, mate,” Gary said. “You’ll be okay. You’ll have your car back in an hour.”

The youth returned to report that the bar was open. “Right,” said Gary, “come down the ’Fort for a drink.”

The civil servant explained that he did not want to have a drink. “But I quickly understood that I was going for a drink and walked towards the Whitefort Inn. These two men followed behind. There were quite a few pedestrians about and I didn’t see them hand the keys to anyone.”

Inside the ’Fort they took a seat beneath an archway, just inside the door, with the car owner sitting between the two youths.

The sandy-haired teenager asked what he would like to drink. “A beer please.” The youth went to the bar and returned with three beers. The civil servant took in Gary. “He had shoulder-length, unkempt dark hair, one day’s growth of beard, about 5ft 11 inches tall, well built – good shoulders – well educated and definitely not labourer’s hands.”

Gary explained to the civil servant what he should say if he was brought in for questioning by the police. He should say that after his car was hijacked, he had been ordered into the back of a white van and a hood placed over his head; that he was ordered to lie down and a coat thrown over him. He should say that after being driven around for a few minutes, the car did a sharp right turn, that he was brought out and taken into a house, and that after a while he was put back into the van, driven around, then set free.

Gary bought three more beers, and the men sat and chatted about the books they were reading, and about world politics. At one o’clock the Downtown Radio news came on the transistor behind the bar. Gary instructed the civil servant not to pay any attention, and not to listen to any news before he collected his car.

The two young men then stood up and instructed him to remain in his seat for five minutes. He could then go and collect his car from the car park of the Crazy Prices store in Lisburn. The keys would be either up the exhaust or in the ignition.

Gary went home and hid the gun under some old carpet on a shelf at the back of his garage. Two hours later a teenage girl called at his home to take it away.

‘I waited for a right wee while’

At around the time Gary was meeting Harry that morning, Anne was saying goodbye to her mother at their home on the Twinbrook estate. Anne must have been anxious. She had, perhaps, slept poorly, wondering about this package that she was to collect. It was clearly a gun. What would it be used for?

She walked over to the Stewartstown Road, where she caught a bus to Lisburn. The journey flew by and she was in the town centre by 11.30am. “I just dandered around for a while, and walked around Crazy Prices.” She looked for a pipe, a birthday present for her brother, and bought a pack of 200 Player’s No 6 King Size cigarettes.

Furtively, praying that nobody would notice, she unfolded the hand-drawn map that she had been given the night before. Following its directions, she walked down Chapel Hill and turned on to Longstone Road. Then she steeled herself for her task.

Arriving at the junction of Moira Road and Ballinderry Road, Anne could see how busy it was: the traffic never appeared to let up. She felt awkward; she was certain that the people driving past were staring at her, eyeing her up and down, wondering what she was playing at. So she ventured a little way up Ballinderry Road, and waited outside St Patrick’s School. “I waited for a right wee while…”

‘This is my op’

After handing the automatic to Gary, Harry had gone home to dress for the occasion, choosing a blue pin-stripe suit, white shirt with a blue check, no tie. His shoulder-length hair had been carefully combed and brushed back.

He wanted to look respectable: beyond reproach; above suspicion. He looked a little out of place on the bus, of course: people didn’t usually wear pin-stripe suits on the Lisburn bus, not on a Saturday morning. Well, not at any time, really. Harry hoped that nobody was looking at him too closely; that they were not taking in too many details.

The bus picked up a couple more passengers in Dunmurry. Harry put his hand inside the string bag, and touched the old blue scarf that was wrapped around the revolver. He felt the handle, wrapped around with black tape. Sure, he’d taken the better gun, but Gary had been ordered not to shoot anyone in any case. He was just to show it, if he really needed to. Besides, Harry thought, this is all about what I’m going to do: this is my op.

Harry rang the bell and got off the bus near Christ Church Cathedral. As he made his way along Market Square, towards the car park where he was to meet his driver, he walked past the doorway where District Inspector Oswald Swanzy had been shot dead in August 1920.

The men who planned Harry’s movements knew that that was the last time the IRA had shot dead a policeman in Lisburn; today’s operation was to have, as one of them put it, “historical resonance”.

Not that Harry was conscious that he was following the beaten path of Ireland’s violent political history: he was concentrating on remaining calm. He was nervous. Excited, too, but definitely jittery. It was natural, he told himself. He had never killed a man before. Although Lord knows he’d tried.

A yellow car pulled into the car park, a Fiat 127 with a rusty black roof rack. It had a Belfast number plate: JOI 5595. At the wheel was the person who had picked it up from Rice’s. Harry climbed in. “Ready?” asked the driver.”Ready.”

They set off, heading south. The driver knew where to go. They drove slowly along the A1, past the hospital, and turned right into Woodland Park. It was a quiet street, an upright street: a place of semis, bungalows, well-kept gardens, washed-and-polished family saloons. Harry took it all in, hyperaware.

The driver slowed down as they approached number 106, a small whitewashed bungalow on the right-hand side of the road. The car mounted the kerb on the opposite side of the road and came to a halt with the two left-hand wheels on the pavement. The driver yanked on the handbrake, but kept the engine running.

Harry had already made clear to the driver that he was going to go alone: this man would never open the door to two visitors. As he climbed out of the Fiat he pushed the revolver into his waistband at the back of his trousers and crossed the road. To his left, a couple of hundred yards away, he could see a young woman and two teenage girls walking in his direction. He was breathing fast now and his heart was thumping: he could hear his pulse in his ears.

The venetian blinds at the front of number 106 were drawn. To the right of the house, at the end of the drive, a small blue car was parked. Someone was at home. Harry walked quickly up the drive and along the side of the bungalow.

‘I’m here about photographs’

Millar had arrived home after a few hours’ work at police headquarters. He had said goodbye to his colleagues, made his way back to his car, and set off for Lisburn. He called on a neighbour, and then went home to look after the boys while Nita went to work: she was a nursing domestic at a home a few minutes’ walk away. Their oldest son Mark was by now aged 11, and Alan was just a month short of his eighth birthday.

Charlie Chaplin was on BBC1, while Ulster TV was showing Sesame Street; Alan hovered around his father, however, watching the things he did. Millar made a sandwich for his lunch and drank some tea. He placed the plate and empty mug in a plastic bowl in the kitchen sink. Then he turned to his left. Through the patterned glass of the back door, he saw a figure moving in his back garden.

Thinking that on the first day of the racing season Millar would probably be tending his beloved pigeons, Harry had walked down the side of the bungalow, looking for the pigeon loft. There was no sign of it.

Behind him, he heard a noise. The back door had opened a little, and he could see a man in a brown V-neck sweater and brown leather jacket peering at him. Harry could see immediately that it was Millar, looking exactly as he did in his byline picture alongside the articles that he wrote for Pigeon Racing News and Gazette: the same dark hair, the same slightly sombre expression.

“Are you Mr McAllister?” asked Harry.

“I am.”

“My father sent me up.”

“Who’s your father?”

“Mr Lavery of Duncairn Pigeon Club.” He made that one up on the spur of the moment.

The two men stared at each other. Now, thought Harry. Now!

A small boy appeared at Millar’s side and looked up at Harry. The boy stood there, staring at him through the few inches of opened door, not saying a word.

“I’m here about photographs,” said Harry.

“What sort of photographs?”

“Of birds.”

“What birds?”

“Pigeons, of course.”

Both men laughed. Harry put his hands on his hips, pulling his jacket back a little so that Millar could see that there was nothing tucked into the front or sides of his waistband. He looked ever so smart in his pin-stripe suit.

“If you phone my father, he’ll give you the details.”

Millar opened the door a little more and stepped into the back garden. So did the boy, staying close to his father.

Will I do it now? thought Harry. Will I shoot him now, with his boy watching?

“Why don’t you ask your boy to fetch a pencil and paper, so I can write down my father’s telephone number?” The boy disappeared into the house.

Harry pulled the gun out and took aim. He looked at Millar’s face.

Millar didn’t look frightened. He just looked a little disappointed. Irritated, even. Harry could see that he didn’t like being tricked.

“Aah,” said Millar, quietly.

Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island, by Ian Cobain, is published by Granta