Who shot my 14-year-old brother Peter in 1973?
My older brother was shot dead on the Falls Road in Belfast. I’m still searching for answers
British Army troops with army Land Rovers and trucks on a side street in the predominantly Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast in May 1971. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images
First. The bones of it. When the gunfire stops I jump up and look from the back room through the shop and on to the Falls Road. Bullets have come in through the windows. I see someone has been hit. Before my mother reacts, I run out a side door and on to the front of the road.
It is my friend Jim Toner. He is falling against the front of the shop.
I run over and grab hold of Jim’s parka jacket to try to stop him from slipping down on to the ground. There are people on the road. Cars have stopped. It is 10pm on January 29th, 1973, and it is dark apart from the blinking orange glow at the zebra crossing and the light from Aldo’s chip shop across the road.
Jim is grasping on to the wire mesh protecting the shop windows. He is screaming “I’m on fire”.
His green parka is hard to grip and is riding up his body as he sinks. I feel foolish and helpless and I’m barely able to support his dead weight. There is a person on his other side also trying to hold him up.
The only thing I can do is to jam him in towards the wall and window of the shop front to somehow wedge him. But it is no good. Jim is slumping down. Every part of his clothing seems to move as I grab hold. His coat, pullover and shirt ride up over his torso and collect in a lump at his neck.
He is too big, too heavy for me. He is 15 years old. I am 12.
I fumble around and find a proper grip by his belt. His fingers have dug into the spaces between the iron grill on the window, which the bullets have shattered. In the middle of each exploded piece of glass is a perfectly round hole.
But I can’t stop Jim’s hands from giving way. His legs begin to fold, and his head falls backwards into the mass of his clothing.
I know he is badly hurt and I hope an adult will come and take over. I try again to put my shoulder somewhere under his arm, to find some purchase. But he has fallen too low as my nose presses hard into the side of his head. The smell is of the damp fur lining, the rim of his hood and his perspiration. I feel faintly warm air from his head underneath.
When his fingers fall away he becomes heaped and smaller, almost in a squat. I step back. His knees are on the ground, and he has stopped screaming. I back off, confused about what to do, as other people arrive. From a half kneeling position Jim falls to one side.
Then there seems to be no noise, not even the sounds you expect to hear. No ambulance. No army Saracen whining up the road. No boots jumping from the backs of armoured cars and jeeps. No steps of soldiers running to the nearest cover in the gardens and doorways. No police sirens.
In the background I hear rustling noises of adults and angry shouting, all of it chaotic and threatening. Closer to me there is concerned, panicked whispering.
There are car doors opening and slamming. There are black taxis screeching U-turns on the road. To where or why I don’t know. The people who had been ducking down and hiding start to come out.
There are teenage boys swearing and girls crying, some of them screaming as people swarm over the Falls Road, most of them from outside Aldo’s as they pick themselves from the tiled floor and from underneath the cafe’s booths.
No one knows what to do as Jim bleeds on the pavement. A bullet from a 0.38 Harrington and Richardson revolver is lodged in his lung, and he is terrified that he is dying.
But Jim doesn’t die. He lives.
I stare at him, worried, partly embarrassed and feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and to my right is a bundle of bodies hunkered around another boy. Although just feet away, I didn’t see him.
My 14-year-old brother Peter is lying on the ground. He looks like he has been gently lifted from our bedroom one floor above and dropped to the footpath without waking. He is still asleep on his side, almost as if he has tried to be smaller than he is when the shooting began.
My mother comes out on to the road, and the scene becomes a fearful exchange of kind, firm words and restraint. The noise now is very loud and already seething anger has begun to rise as people remonstrate with each other. I don’t know why.
The night ends in a panicked drive to the hospital, an anteroom and a curtain pulled, a nurse saying “no” when my mother asks if her son is all right. Outside I see Jim’s mother Mrs Toner wandering around the emergency room, not knowing where to go.
On the journey home up the Falls Road, as I lie in the back of the car across my mother’s lap and look up through the back window at the passing street lights, I sense from the depth of her silence and tremor of her leg that her toll is great.
Through her clothes and from the strange pitch of her voice I sense she has seen her world change and is no longer the mother she used to be. That will never change, and the misery that has crept in will never leave.
We arrive home as the open doors of the houses up Rockville Street and the Falls Road close one by one. The lights in Aldo’s are switched off but the boys outside don’t want to leave, and they hang around. Neighbours find a basin of warm water and a brush. Without speaking they sweep the blood of both children from the pavement.
Why this. Why now.
The day after the funeral we left the Falls for Dublin, although my mother would later return to run the shop for a further 10 years. In 2009 I received a package from the Royal Mail. In it was a 33-page document from a body called the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), a unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland set up in 2005.
Idealistically, it sought to investigate the 3,269 unsolved murders committed during the Troubles between 1968 and 1998. The British government closed down the unit in 2014.
The document in the post contained their findings about the death and investigation into the killing of Peter, who had been shot from a passing car as he spoke to two friends after attending a local youth club. I had asked the HET to get involved and had been interviewed by two police officers from the UK in November 2008, a man from Newcastle and woman from Liverpool.
The report gathered dust until September 2016, when my mother died. To spare her certain pain I had specifically asked the HET not to make contact with her during their investigation and I never mentioned it to her.
Her death triggered my decision to act on the information because as I read the HET report over and over I could see the original “investigation” had died on the vine. In a broadly worded, vague conclusion it referred to the local rumour that a man named Francis Smith may have been responsible. Smith was a loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member.
Hours after Peter was killed Smith was found dead in an alley five streets away. The Provisional IRA had shot him twice in the head.
I didn’t have a coherent strategy on how to follow up on the report as the HET no longer existed, so I approached people who had a history of successfully investigating past records: Anne Cadwallader and Alan Brecknell of the Pat Finucane Centre, a non-party political, anti-sectarian human rights group.
On our first meeting in Belfast it was suggested I do an interview with the Irish News, a paper widely read in west Belfast. My father George had been a well known GAA player in the 1940s and 50s and had captained the Co Antrim football team to an infamous senior All Ireland Championship semi-final in 1946, where they lost to Kerry. Four years before Peter was killed, my father died from a heart attack brought on by health complications, not least of all a struggle with alcoholism, leaving my 37-year-old mother to raise the two of us.
My father’s name would be remembered among older people and, along with an appeal for information, it was thought it would have wide local interest.
Last year, the story, by security correspondent Allison Morris, was carried on that paper’s front page. It drew considerable attention, and a number of people came forward to share information.
It was picked up by Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 and, more recently, appeared in a book by Joe Duffy and Freya McClements, Children of the Troubles. A documentary based on the book will begin showing on RTÉ One next week.
What I want to know is who, why and what happened on that night in 1973.
Constant threat of attack
“In the nationalist Falls area in the early 1970s, the security forces would have been under a constant threat of attack,” says the HET report. “Police had to be taken to the scene in ‘heavily armoured vehicles’ . . . The fact armoured vehicles were used to transport officers would mirror the sentiment a high level of threat was present to police officers who tried to operate in the area.
“Additionally, as the attack occurred during the hours of darkness, the officers in charge may have decided it would be more appropriate to visit the scene in daylight. Only a limited police investigation took place. The scene does not appear to have been preserved.
“Furthermore, the Belfast area police duty officers’ report for Monday, January 29th, 1973, stated that on the day of Peter’s murder Belfast was ‘inundated with rioting, bombings, shootings, armed robberies, arsons, hoax bomb calls and other crimes’.”
Hardened by fear
Andersonstown Police Station. A concrete and steel installation shrouded with anti-rocket screens and electronic surveillance equipment is a straight line 600 yards away. It has since been demolished. Springfield Road Police Station is one mile away in the other direction.
I’ve tried to imagine what pitch of fear was inside their heads whenever they chose to slide back the steel gates and fan out into the shadows of a Falls Road crippled by its daily seizures.
I’ve tried to understand the military minds hardened by fear and self-preservation, leaving their barracks for west Belfast’s trip wires and snipers to investigate a child killing and maybe be killed themselves. That and the sulphurous contempt of the locals.
On that January night in 1973, no army Saracens are sent out to secure the area, no police officers sent to investigate. They choose not to risk the guaranteed bile and probable bullets of the Falls.
At first light on Tuesday, 12 hours after the shooting, the RUC and British army arrive.
The HET report states that no ballistic investigation was carried out at the scene. There are bullets buried in the walls of the shop, the ones that missed. They are likely still there.
There are no house-to-house enquiries undertaken and there is no indication from the case papers as to the duration of the investigation or exactly how many officers were attached to the team.
During the period it takes to respond and before my mother can appeal for no reprisals, west Belfast wakes up to what had become a normal morning.
On the same night Peter was killed, James Trainor is killed one mile away, shot four times in a garage where he worked. He is 22 years old. Smith, too, in the early hours, is found. I don’t hear the gunfire. His body is discovered by a woman leaving out her bins.
The following day Philip Rafferty, who has celebrated his 14th birthday two weeks before, is abducted even closer to Andersonstown station. He is brought to a beauty spot called the Giant’s Ring, made kneel on a bank, his hood pulled over his head, and executed.
On the same day and on same road as Philip was abducted, 17-year-old Gabriel Savage is also abducted. His body is found by soldiers on a grass verge on the nearby M1 motorway. The following day Patrick Heenan is killed in Belfast. The day after that James Greer, Patrick Brady and Robert Burns are killed in Belfast.
The day after that James Fusco, Samuel Reynolds and James Sloan are killed in Belfast. The day after that Tony Campbell, John Loughran, Brendan Maguire, Ambrose Hardy, James McCann and John Boyd are killed in Belfast.
The gun used to kill Peter
I have spoken to ranking members of the republican IRA and the loyalist UDA. We met in a building on the Belfast peace line between the Falls and Shankill Roads. They did not wish to be identified, recorded or have any handwritten notes taken.
They said Francis Smith, given a full loyalist paramilitary funeral, did not carry out the killing of my brother. They do not say who did.
The IRA officer in command of the local area at the time is now dead. Other IRA members I have spoken to said that Smith was carrying a zip gun (made, they said, in local engineering companies Mackie and Harland & Wolff) and that he fired at his assailants before he was taken and shot.
Smith, who came from a mixed marriage, lived in the staunchly loyalist Village area and had Catholic relatives living nearby. No zip gun was recovered.
I spoke to people from the loyalist community who, out of fear, didn’t want anyone to know of the meeting. I spoke to local people who were there when the shooting occurred, some of who say that three people were in the car, a Ford Corsair.
I spoke to the HET twice before it was shut down, and to Jim and Brian McMahon, who were talking to Peter on the night. I have written to Her Majesty’s Prison Service and to the Northern Ireland Attorney General.
Why? Because intelligence given to the RUC at the time named two different individuals as having been responsible for the shooting. There are no records to say they were arrested, questioned or charged.
“Two separate intelligence reports were received in June 1973 and March 1974 respectively,” says the HET. “They each name two different men, both with loyalist paramilitary connections, as being responsible for Peter’s murder. There is no specific record of any action being taken in furtherance of the intelligence, or any reasoning as to why not.”
The bullet removed was a 0.38-calibre round, fired from a Harrington & Richardson revolver rifled with five grooves and a right-hand twist. It was not a zip gun.
The same weapon was used in five other incidents: two attempted murders in Belfast in 1973, one murder in Belfast the same year, a murder in Belfast in February 1975, and another in June 1975.
The gun used to kill Peter was recovered following the murder of Margaret O’Neill in 1975. Four men in a car drove down the New Lodge Road in Belfast randomly spraying bullets at people on the street.
A mobile army patrol saw the shooting and gave chase. The gunmen had a Sterling submachine gun, a .45 and two .38s. The following February all four men pleaded guilty to Margaret’s murder and that of another Catholic, John McCormick.
The HET report says: “The HET have established the men from whom the revolver was recovered had been tried and convicted before the forensic link to Peter’s murder was confirmed. The police are aware that without corroborating evidence or an admission of responsibility, this link alone would not be sufficient evidence to merit a charge against these men. The revolver used to murder Peter was destroyed by the police on Tuesday March 16, 1982.”
Because all the defendants pleaded guilty to a double murder, three attempted murders and possession of firearms and ammunition with intent, no judgment or transcript exists. The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service have sent me the names of the four men.
Their war is long over. I would like to meet or talk to any of them.
There must be memory
People have asked why I invite this back into my life. Why look for answers that might not be there, why relive it again through the police and news reports of another era, why pore over the details of the postmortem, of the coroner’s report and trawl through the memories of the people of west Belfast? Why go back there? Why do all that?
Part of the answer is about permanence and a relationship that does not end with death. And there is a part about justice, which can never be recovered.
There is a part about state dysfunction and exhausted indifference in a conflict that permitted the murder of children where they lived,and their abduction and execution. There must be respect.
There is a part about forgetting. Few people know or care about the brief life lived by Peter Watterson. There must be memory.
There is a part about the squalid end-of-life story of a 14-year-old boy lifted dead from a pavement and bundled into the back of a car. Do you walk away satisfied that’s where it ends? There should be dignity.
I don’t remember what he looked like or how tall he was or how his voice sounded. But as I shifted around the house in an evasive mood the morning after Peter’s shooting, I recall the whispered conversation between an RUC officer and my mother. In her altered voice she sat by the fireplace struggling to say words. He nodded and scribbled notes.
The officer in charge that day was Det Constable JG Warnock. In the summer of 1988, as he sat in his BMW 100 yards from the police station where he worked, an IRA bomb exploded underneath the car. He died instantly.
Maybe one of the truths of Belfast’s churn of killing and the 30 years of acid rain is that it fell on families everywhere and the dead rarely got dignity.
Children of the Troubles is at 9.35pm on RTÉ1, on Monday November 4th