Investigation fails to resolve mystery about death of notorious UDA man

THE NORTH’S Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has concluded its investigation into one of the long-standing mysteries of the Troubles…

THE NORTH’S Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has concluded its investigation into one of the long-standing mysteries of the Troubles – who killed Ulster Defence Association leader Tommy Herron. But apart from a general finding the inquiry team has failed to resolve the mystery about the death of one of the most important figures in the formation of the UDA.

The inquiry team, in a report seen by The Irish Times, found Herron – a senior, high-profile and dangerous loyalist at the beginning of the conflict – was probably killed by UDA members.

“Tommy Herron was in all likelihood abducted by members of the UDA on Friday, September 14th, 1973, driven to Glen Road, Lisburn and shot dead in a vehicle. His body was dumped in a ditch and later discovered by children,” it concluded.

“Tommy was a leading member of the UDA and a casualty of the rivalries and internal disputes among various factions trying to gain control of the organisation in 1973,” it added.


But the fact remains that the team failed to reach a definitive conclusion about who shot him although this article can name a prime suspect. But more of that. The RUC view at the time was that his own people killed him, although other suspicions were entertained as well including SAS or British military intelligence involvement. No group has ever admitted the murder, and most loyalists, while having their own theories, still remain unsure about who killed him.

There was something of a Scarface or mafia don about Herron. He was a vice-chairman of the UDA and its east Belfast “brigadier”, heavily involved in criminality as well as paramilitary activity. But he was also the main public face of the UDA, seen and heard regularly on TV and radio, quoted often in the press. He was seen as “colourful”.

Three months before Herron was killed two men, believed to be UDA members, entered his home and confronted his wife Hilary and asked where he was. The Herrons' five children were in the house at the time. The men ran upstairs and shot dead her brother Michael Wilson. The solid loyalist-sourced word at the time, as recounted then in The Irish Times, was that Herron knew his brother-in-law was to be assassinated, because the UDA believed he was colluding with the Official IRA.

Two Catholics, Daniel Rouse and James Kelly, were murdered in mock retaliation in an attempt to distance the UDA from the killing. Several thousand attended the UDA funeral for Wilson, with the Rev Ian Paisley delivering a 15-minute oration.

It was a murky world Herron inhabited. Similarly, as such a senior UDA figure, Herron received what amounted to a loyalist state funeral. About 8,000 uniformed UDA members paraded, and another 25,000 attended the funeral or lined the streets as his cortege passed by.

Six unmasked UDA officers fired shots over his coffin – the murderous UDA was a legal organisation – and Dr Paisley delivered an oration outside his home in the loyalist Braniel estate. The future DUP first minister said his “dastardly” and “diabolical” murder was another chapter in “our greatest Ulster crisis”.

Various theories have been offered to explain the motive for his murder, including one that subscribes to the inquiry team’s conclusion that he died as a result of an internal UDA power struggle. But there was also speculation that he was killed by the SAS or British army intelligence with whom he may have co-operated, and that he was shot, possibly, because he was getting too powerful.

Another more labyrinthine theory posited by loyalists themselves after their own inquiry had Herron caught up in a dangerous and bizarre web of intrigue involving the UDA, the Official IRA and an RUC officer. It was never properly explained but it appeared to hinge on the fact that Herron’s mother was a Catholic and that he possibly had some criminal dealings with the Official IRA.

An RUC officer was also put into the frame as a result of this internal loyalist investigation. This officer, so the inquiry concluded, exchanged information with Herron. There was no clear explanation why he might have been involved in his killing but one theory was that Herron put too many demands on the RUC man – who may have been acting without the authority of his superiors – and that the officer decided the only way out of his predicament was to collude in Herron’s killing.

But the brutal upshot of the inquiry was that another UDA man, Gregory Brown, was murdered by the UDA in May 1976 because, the UDA believed, he was implicated in Herron’s killing.

What added to the mystery about Herron’s murder – again something like a mafia tale – is that he almost certainly knew his killers and felt confident in their company. As the HET recalled he was last seen at about 12.20pm on September 14th, 1973, leaving the UDA headquarters on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast. He was in good humour. He had his legally held personal protection weapon with him, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. It was found holstered on his body.

He was due at a UDA meeting at 1pm but never turned up. Police were told he willingly got into his killers’ car. It was also accepted republicans were not involved. As part of its investigation, the team combed through the original investigation, which was a huge operation because Herron was such a public figure, the then northern secretary William Whitelaw “seeking reassurance that the RUC would do all they could to bring those responsible . . . to justice”.

The police view was that Herron was killed by his own people but as the HET report noted none of the suspects was arrested because there was no evidence against them. Strangely, RUC officers had to seek permission from the UDA to interview senior UDA officers.

The HET found that the original investigation was "well managed and appropriately resourced". It's curious that in the 30-page report six pages deal with accounts of his death covered in the media and in books and on the internet. There is particular reference to the Lost Livesbook, recording all killings of the troubles, whose instigator and chief editor is David McKittrick, a former northern editor of The Irish Times, now the London Independent's Ireland editor.

McKittrick wrote about Herron’s death in the mid-1970s, citing well-placed loyalist sources. He’s conscious of the conspiracy theories and various forms of speculation about Herron’s death.

“The death of Tommy Herron was always a mystery, with many theories surrounding it, some possible, and some very far-fetched,” he said for this article. “Many years later a UDA source told me what really happened, that Herron was killed by another leading UDA man, who was himself assassinated in another loyalist feud, and that the motive was a fallout over money from a robbery.”

The UDA source told him that Herron was murdered by Edward (Ned) McCreery, who in the 1970s was leader of UDA murder squad the Ginger Baker gang.

McKittrick believes his source is correct, that the mystery is settled. It’s a conclusion that the inquiry team refrains from.