‘The IRA called us collaborators’: a sister’s quest for justice

Terence McKeever was shot dead in 1986. His family suspect Garda collusion

Terence McKeever: the electrical contractor had been married for 11 weeks, and hadn’t yet been on his honeymoon

Terence McKeever: the electrical contractor had been married for 11 weeks, and hadn’t yet been on his honeymoon

 

“They called us collaborators,” Karen McKeever says, recalling how her Ballsbridge-based businessman brother, Terence, was abducted at the Border and shot dead by an IRA gang on June 16th, 1986.

He was 30; she was a 20-year-old university student. They were Daniel and Claire McKeever’s only children. Terence McKeever had been married to Rena, private secretary to the then managing director of Independent Newspapers, Joe Hayes, for just 11 weeks.

Terence had so many work commitments that they hadn’t yet gone on their honeymoon, although, as his sister recalls, he did bring Rena to Istanbul for a few days, because he had some work there. The plan was to honeymoon later that year.

Daddy had to go to retrieve Terence’s body. His son was not going to lie out overnight

He left his home, on Pembroke Road in Dublin, early that morning to travel to the Armagh offices of the family firm of electrical contractors. A local priest broke the news to McKeever and her mother that day. Her father, who although semi-retired helped run the company with Terence, was out working and did not hear the news until 4.30pm.

Terence was found dead, with gunshot wounds to his head, and his hands tied behind his back, at Mullaghduff Bridge, near Cullyhanna, on the Border in south Armagh. The IRA had placed a booby trap near his body, in an attempt to kill British soldiers or police investigating the killing.

Although that bomb was defused by British soldiers, neither the army nor police wanted the body to be moved until the following day, in case of further booby traps, McKeever says. But her father objected. “Daddy had to go to retrieve Terence’s body. His son was not going to lie out overnight,” she says.

McKeever Brothers was a major contracting firm, with offices in Dublin and Ballyshannon, in Co Donegal, as well as in Armagh. It worked on large projects such as airports, hospitals, schools and – the reason it was targeted by the IRA – RUC and British army bases. They also did work for the Irish Army.

To this Catholic family it was just work. McKeever says they weren’t the type to be bullied or intimidated. “I was brought up in a nonpolitical family,” she says. “I asked Daddy why he did the work. ‘It is part of the package,’ he said. In those days you did everything. We were out to run a business in a time of recession.

“Terence knew he was on a hit list, but Daddy and Terence’s view was that we are not giving in. It was a hard price to pay in the end, but you don’t give in to that: you have to keep going. They were offered personal-protection weapons, but they turned them down, because there was no way they would ever use them.”

McKeever says she learned afterwards that her brother was tortured before he was killed. In a statement after the murder the IRA said it had obtained the names of the whole McKeever Brothers workforce. It also warned contractors doing similar work that they had 24 hours to stop if they wanted to avoid a similar fate.

At the funeral the Catholic primate Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich said Terence provided work for more than 100 people at a time of high unemployment. He asked, “What cruel fate is at work in our distracted country, what madness has seized us which strikes down a brother when he is most needed?”

You can’t let go of the past until you have justice, until you have a positive outcome, until you know what happened to your loved one

Now, almost 32 years later, we are in a cafe in Co Armagh and McKeever is talking about her brother and her search for truth and justice.

“You can’t let go of the past until you have justice, until you have a positive outcome, until you know what happened to your loved one,” she says. “If there is an open-ended question still there, unanswered, you are never, ever going to have peace of mind. It is the same with all victims.

“People think that the Troubles, all the memories, will just fade away. But they always resurface. Something always brings it back to the fore. It has to be dealt with. You can’t move on: the hurt is too deep. It increases anger when you hear that statement. It is easy for people who have never suffered.”

A number of unanswered questions are causing McKeever continuous profound distress. She is very unhappy with the Garda’s handling of its part of the investigation of her brother’s murder and with the way the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission dealt with her consequent complaint.

Jonesborough killings: Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan; the rifle used to kill Terence McKeever was also used in the attack on the RUC officers
Jonesborough killings: Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan; the rifle used to kill Terence McKeever was also used in the attack on the RUC officers

The rifle used to kill Terence McKeever was also used in 16 other shootings, including the IRA murders of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan, outside the Co Armagh village of Jonesborough, in 1989.

Judge Peter Smithwick, in his inquiry into the RUC officers’ murders, found that one or more unidentified gardaí operating in Dundalk colluded with the IRA. McKeever is convinced the same happened in her brother’s murder.

Although he was killed just north of the Border, the van the IRA used, a stolen Toyota LiteAce, was discovered in Ardee, in Co Louth. McKeever, in her complaint to Gsoc, said the Garda failed to deal with the van and its contents adequately and in fact returned the vehicle to its original owner.

Gsoc found that the Garda technical bureau examined the van four days after the murder and packed, sealed and labelled 16 exhibits, including brown woollen gloves, a blue woollen cap, Sellotape from the driver’s seat, a green anorak, floor mats, seat covers and debris.

But the exhibits disappeared, and Gsoc, despite inquiries and interviews with more than 80 gardaí, was unable to establish what happened to them. It appeared satisfied that, wherever they went, they were not handed over to the RUC. And although fingerprints had also been taken from the van, Gsoc was unable to obtain any records relating to their recovery, analysis or storage.

Terence’s murder wasn’t properly investigated. How could these exhibits suddenly disappear? Somebody in the Garda was responsible for disposing of them

McKeever is particularly angered by the failure to hold on to the exhibits, as she is convinced that modern forensics could now use them to identify the killers. “DNA tests are so crucial to the case,” she says.

Gsoc allowed that “it cannot be ruled out that the exhibits . . . were removed by a member of the Garda Síochána” to help the IRA but added that “no evidence obtained during this investigation indicates that this had occurred”.

It concluded: “Possible failings on behalf of the Garda Síochána have been highlighted with regard to labelling and retention of exhibits. However, no evidence has been established to indicate that the exhibits went missing as a result of a deliberate act, or as a result of collusion between members of the Garda Síochána and the Provisional IRA.”

The commission said it could understand McKeever’s disappointment with its findings but hoped she could see it had conducted a “comprehensive and thorough investigation” of her allegations.

McKeever still feels the opposite. She is supported in her efforts to find the truth by the South East Fermanagh Foundation, a group for victims and survivors. She says that she and one of its case officers, Ken Funston, had some fraught and unsatisfactory meetings with Gsoc.

McKeever believes the commission could have done more, that it could have been more critical of the Garda, that it could have been more definitive. “Terence’s murder wasn’t properly investigated,” she says. “How could these items suddenly disappear? Somebody in the Garda was responsible for disposing of them.”

What also infuriated her was that, in its initial report, Gsoc said the Garda had received intelligence about a threat to her brother’s life. “The information indicated that Terence had been paying protection money to the Provisional IRA but had stopped doing so. Terence had allegedly been directly threatened that if he did not resume payments he would be executed,” the report said.

It is handed on to the next generation and the next; it is ongoing. The psychological problems hurting Northern Ireland still run deep

McKeever insists that neither her father nor her brother would have paid the IRA. “I was very distressed by that. My father would not have allowed that at all. Through all the threats that we endured for years there was no way would Daddy pay protection money.”

Gsoc subsequently removed the reference.

Asked about her continuing complaints, Gsoc says it “conducted a thorough and lengthy investigation; our report and findings are based on the evidence gathered in that investigation”. It will make no further comment.

McKeever’s anguish is palpable.

McKeever is married to a Co Armagh businessman, and they have two daughters, aged 12 and 10. “They know all about Terence. It goes down to the next generation, because they know my hurt and my anxiety, and they feel for me,” she says.

“I tell them about Terence. It just lives on. It does cross generations. I think the governments are waiting in hope that the generation that lived through the Troubles will die off eventually. But it is handed on to the next generation and the next; it is ongoing. The psychological problems hurting Northern Ireland still run deep.”

After the murder the family firm finished projects it had already started. But without the driving force of her brother, and given his murder’s impact on their parents, McKeever Brothers petered out.

Ultimately, she says, that cost 216 people their jobs. “It was sad, because all those men were out of work, and they had to go across the water to get work. They were a mixed workforce.”

McKeever says Terence was the best brother anyone could have. His motto was “Where work, will go.” A man of big ambitions, he was planning to expand into the Middle East. “He had fabulous business acumen. He was very driven, and he wanted to run a very successful business. He had a fabulous brain. He was ahead of his time. He wanted to be one of the top contractors in Ireland and the UK.

“And that is the sad thing. The boys that were out that morning setting up his murder, they had no jobs to go to. He was up early and out to do his work, and they were thinking about their evil deeds. I miss him every day.”