Families of Troubles victims continue their struggle for truth

Northern Ireland’s legacy issues are left aside by politicians as relatives demand justice

When Sarah Reavey was in her first year at Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry, Co Down, in 1999, her English teacher asked her class to write a poem.

“Everyone else wrote about their pets and going on holiday and silly, fun stuff,” she says.

“I wrote this big, long serious thing called Questions about how nobody tells you anything. The teacher read it out to the class and cried. I remember being really embarrassed.”

Reavey grew up with questions, which all traced back to a winter night in early January 1976 before she was born when death came to the door of her family’s house in Greyhillian, Whitecross, in south Armagh.


Six members of the Reavey family, including Sarah’s grandmother Sadie and her husband Jimmy, were out visiting.

The key was in the cottage door, as it always was. The Reaveys were sociable and hospitable.

Three of their sons, John Martin (24), Brian (22) and Anthony (17) were spread across armchairs, watching television, when a masked gang burst in and sprayed the room with gunfire.

John Martin died in the living-room. Brian made it to the bedroom but the gunmen pursued him and shot him dead there.

Anthony tried to take refuge under a bed but one of the killers dragged him out by his legs and shot him several times.

He was left for dead. Minutes later, silence fell as the gang drove off. Badly wounded, he managed to crawl up the road to a neighbour’s house.

He died a few weeks later in hospital.

Sarah’s uncle Oliver was the first to return to the family home that night, where he found a trail of blood coming out the front door and a scene of horror within. He uttered not a word for a year.

In the years afterwards, her grandmother Sadie took solace in candles and funerals.

Sometimes thought she saw the red hair of one of her sons in a crowd. Running forward, she found herself face to face with a stranger.

Glenanne gang

The gang responsible for the minutes that changed everything for the Reaveys are known as the Glenanne gang, who murdered up to 130 people, mostly Catholics, in the 1970s, mainly in Armagh and Tyrone.

The gang, which included serving members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, also carried out the Dublin-Monaghan bombs in 1974, in which 34 people were killed on a horrific day of no-warning explosions.

Now a lawyer in Dublin, Sarah Reavey (28) is one of a new generation of relatives of those who were killed during the Troubles who have taken up the call for justice to be done.

Friends in Dublin tend not to be interested.

“Sometimes people react awkwardly. It is sensitive. People my age don’t know anything about it. Most of them just think it is about “up there”, meaning the North.

“I can see why people would say that we should just leave it behind, but they are coming from a place of ignorance. As time goes, on you do become cynical. The families have been pushed from pillar to post, let down again and again.”

The atrocity that afflicted the Reaveys came at the start of a horrific year. By the end of the first week of the year, 20 people living in or near Whitecross were dead.

It began with the IRA bombing of a pub in Gilford, Co Down, on New Year's Eve, killing three Protestants.

The Glenanne gang killed three members of another Catholic family, the O’Dowds, the same night as the Reaveys died.

Meanwhile, the IRA also shot a policeman and carried out the sectarian massacre of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmill, although it is an atrocity that it has never claimed, even 40 years on.

Last November, after grinding weeks of talks, Northern Ireland's then first minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness unveiled the Fresh Start agreement.

However, relatives of those killed during the Troubles were shocked to learn that measures formerly agreed to deal with the legacy of the Northern conflict had been set aside.

The usually soft-spoken Sandra Peake, who runs Wave, the main cross-community victims group, issued a blistering statement in which she said the politicians had betrayed and abandoned victims and survivors.

It is not the first time hopes have been dashed. Many relatives are increasingly convinced that little of what they have told is true and that a great deal remains hidden.

The Police Ombudsman has carried out inquiries into many cases; the Historical Enquiries Team investigated many more, as did non-governmental organisations such as the Pat Finucane Centre.

Over the years, some have become despondent, believing that politicians and others at risk of reputational damage are simply hoping that time will quell the demands of the victims as an older generation dies off.

Sarah Reavey is part of a new generation of campaigners.

“It is a matter of principle and of dealing with injustice. History has to be told accurately. As it stands, people don’t know what happened, not just to the Reavey boys.”

Court case

Next month, a test case resumes in Belfast's High Court brought by Eddie Barnard, the brother of one of the Glenanne gang's victims, against the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The PSNI is being sued for the RUC’s failure properly to investigate, and for the decision to leave unfinished a highly sensitive HET review detailing state collusion with the Glenanne gang, when the HET was shut down in 2014.

“Growing up, you always heard people talking about ‘the boys’,” Reavey, their niece, says. “You knew John Martin was the life and soul, singing and dancing, Anthony had flowing red locks of hair, and Brian was the sweetheart, the footballer.

“They are very much part of the family – even now, sometimes you’ll be sitting at a football game and Daddy will turn round and say, ‘See that? That is exactly the way Brian would have handled that ball’.”.

The brothers’ anniversary is still marked, with a Mass and a gathering at the home of one of the surviving siblings.

Scrapbooks are laid out. “As children,” she recalls, “ me and my cousins would be looking at them, piecing it together, figuring it out.”

From the scrapbooks, she learned that her grandfather, Jimmy Reavey, had gone on TV immediately, calling for no retaliation, saying that he was praying for those who had killed his sons. "I found that very shocking," she says.

Reavey grew up attending meetings, conferences and court hearings with her father. Not surprisingly, she chose to study law.

By the time she was at Trinity College Dublin, a Dáil inquiry was investigating the Dublin-Monaghan bombing.

"I used to nip up to Leinster House and sit in on them. By that time I knew the circumstances but that was the first time I got a grasp of just how much people in authority knew and how shameful it all was."

She understands the weariness of those who have not lost loved ones, but she is clear that a new generation is determined not to let these stories fade away, as those who witnessed them die or cease to remember.

Today, Reavey writes submissions, speeches and press releases for her family in an attempt to force a proper investigation into the killings. Her brothers are also involved in the campaign.

Pulling on a fur coat, which belonged to her grandmother, to whom she was very close, Sarah leaves the family home.

Watching her go, her father, Eugene proudly lists her accomplishments.

“Granny Reavey trusted me to look after things,” he says.

“See these kids of mine? I trust them in the same way. I couldn’t do without them. I’m getting older, losing confidence. They are far better at this than I ever was. I’ve no fears, they will keep this going.”

Alex Bunting was 15 when the IRA attempted to murder his father, also called Alex, in October 1991, by planting a bomb under his taxi, which took off his legs.

From his school bus, Alex jnr’s nine-year-old brother witnessed the horror. The IRA later admitted it had been a case of mistaken identity.

Today, Alex snr is a member of the North’s Victims and Survivors Forum and a prominent campaigner for victims’ rights, particularly for those seriously injured. Alex jnr works for a Bangor-based drug-abuse charity.

“A significant proportion of families [going to the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse] are affected by the Troubles,” he says.

"It is one of the main reasons why Northern Ireland has such a culture of drug dependency."

The car-bombing changed everything. The family moved out of Belfast, the parents fearing that their sons would be preyed upon by loyalist paramilitaries urging revenge.

The nine-year-old was traumatised. “He was very badly damaged by what happened,” says Alex snr. “He has suffered more than I have. I wish I could take that burden but I cannot.”

Spurred by watching his father campaign for pensions for those who became amputees, paraplegics, blind or catastrophically traumatised during the conflict, Alex jnr became involved in community work.

In all, the numbers left are not large, no more than 650 people, nor is the cost high, but the issue has become mired in political wrangling between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, he believes.

Despite promises, nothing has been delivered. “The politicians need to hang their heads in shame over the way they have left people. Life could be made so much easier for people.”

IRA abduction

Shauna Moreland was 10 when the IRA took her mother Caroline (31) in July 1994.

Fifteen days later, her body was found dumped on the side of the road in Fermanagh. The IRA claimed she was an informer.

Many former friends and neighbours turned their backs on her funeral in Belfast, scorning her as a "tout", although it has recently emerged that she had been targeted by Freddie Scappaticci.

Scappaticci led the IRA’s internal security unit, the so-called “nutting squad”, which interrogated, tortured and kills scores. In reality, he was an MI5 agent, who was eventually spirited away by British intelligence.

“Not knowing is the hardest,” she says. “None of us wants to go back to the Troubles or to wreck the peace process, but the politicians want us to forget the past because some of them just have too much to lose.”

Her mother may well have been marginally involved in the IRA, she admits.

She may indeed have given some low-level information to the authorities, “but I don’t think she thought she was an informant. I think she thought she was helping. Some people say she was protecting someone,” Moreland says.

“I know the IRA killed her but the state put her in that position. Why did her handlers not get her to safety?”

The campaign to know more brings costs. “I was advised to find a lawyer but I could hardly go to one on the Falls or the Shankill,” Moreland says.

Eventually, she chose the Belfast firm, Kevin Winters.

“She was my mummy and I miss her every day. I still get angry with her for not being here with me. You sacrifice a lot when you get involved in campaigning for the truth. It has caused a lot of family friction.

“It is very hard. Sometimes I hold it together in public and then I just go home and have to go to bed and stay there. Sometimes it can take over your life. But it is good. It is the right thing to do.”

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground