Family seek apology for deaf sibling’s killing by British army 50 years ago

‘I would like the British government to apologise and to forget about this amnesty’

 

Fifty years ago, David Breslin watched from his living room in Dublin as the evening news reported the worsening situation in Northern Ireland.

A man had been shot dead by the British army in Strabane, Co Tyrone. When Breslin picked up the newspaper the next morning he was “greatly shocked” to see the victim’s name was one he recognised – his friend Eamon McDevitt.

The pair had been class-mates at St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra. Breslin remembers how McDevitt stood out as “funny boy” who grew into a “gentle and non-aggressive man”.

Deaf and unable to speak, 28-year-old McDevitt had been shot during disturbances which followed an anti-internment march. At the time, the British army claimed he had been holding a gun, but eyewitnesses and his family said he had been waving his hands – his way of attracting attention.

Days later, Breslin and other members of the deaf community marched to the British embassy in Dublin to demonstrate their disgust at McDevitt’s killing.

“I think our protest must have been the first ever organised in the world by the deaf,” says Breslin. “Certainly it was the first in Ireland.”

McDevitt is to be remembered on Saturday at an online conference hosted by the Deaf Heritage Centre in Cabra, which is dedicated to his memory, and features a talk by Breslin about the protest. A 50th anniversary vigil will take place in Strabane on Wednesday.

For Breslin, it was “important for the deaf community in Ireland to take part to protest against the British forces for killing an innocent deaf man”.

He recalls a meeting at St Vincent’s Deaf Club in Rathmines two days after McDevitt’s death. “I stood up on the chair in front and appealed to all, the youngest or eldest members, to demand a strong action and an inquiry into Eamon’s death.”

It was to be a “silent protest”. They would march from College Street to Iveagh House, where they would hand in a letter of protest to Patrick Hillery, then minister for foreign affairs, before moving on to the British embassy on Merrion Square, where similar letters were delivered for the British ambassador and northern secretary Reginald Maudling.

“Ours is a silent protest in mourning for the death of Eamon McDevitt, in mourning for injustice, in mourning for the absence of peace in Northern Ireland, ” they wrote.

About 80 protesters wearing black armbands marched through the streets carrying placards. “The deaf don’t hear bullets” was one of the slogans.

“We are very proud that he’s being remembered,” says Sammy McDevitt, Eamon’s older brother. “He was a part of the school, and it was like a big family – they considered him part of the family. I’m very proud of what they’re doing.”

Now 84, Sammy continues to campaign for an apology from the British government for his brother’s killing.

“Eamon was very outgoing, very happy,” he remembers. “I was in the [British] army myself, so he knew the uniform, he wouldn’t have been afraid of it. Our family was a very close family but my father died in 1975 and my mother in 1978 – it killed them. That was three people it killed.”

Sara Duddy, of human rights organisation the Pat Finucane Centre which supports the McDevitt family, says that as far back as 1973 what was then the European Commission on Human Rights “described Eamon as ‘a wholly innocent person’ who had been ‘picked out by the soldiers as a person to be shot’ and said it seemed impossible that no disciplinary action had been taken. Almost 50 years on this remains the case. This is the state acting with impunity.”

The McDevitt family are opposed to the British government’s new legacy proposals which would end all Troubles-era prosecutions, civil cases and inquests. The relatives of other victims, the North’s five main political parties and the Irish Government are also against it.

“There can be no amnesties,” says Sammy McDevitt. “There were a lot of things done during the Troubles that needs to come out . . . it’s only a matter of telling the truth which we’ve done all down the years.”

His family does not want prosecutions. “My mother always said she wouldn’t want any prosecutions, she never was bitter, she said [the soldier] was some mother’s son and they were just as worried about the soldiers here as we were about the young ones at home.

“I would like the British government to apologise and to forget about this amnesty, because it’s not going to work, it can’t work. There’ll never be peace if they do it.”