'This idea that victims shouldn't speak . . . it's moral blackmail'
‘I’ve been done; call a priest’: Judge Rory Conaghan’s last words after being shot by the IRA in 1974 came back to haunt his daughter when she heard that Martin McGuinness was running for the presidency
IT WAS PARTLY “synchronicity” that prompted Mary Conaghan to approach The Irish Timesto speak publicly for the first time about the murder of her father, Judge Rory Conaghan, by the IRA in Belfast in 1974.
On September 16th, the 37th anniversary of her father’s murder, she was listening to the car radio when the news was announced that Martin McGuinness would be a candidate for the presidency. She was struck by the coincidence, but her main motivation for speaking out, she says, is McGuinness’s repeated assertion during the campaign that the media are guilty of “stirring up” the feelings of victims.
“The media don’t need to stir up our feelings,” says Conaghan, who lives in Dublin, where she works part-time as a bereavement counsellor. “The victim’s feelings are there all the time. It may all be in the past for the perpetrators, but this is our present. Our feelings never go away. I want to speak for my father, to honour his memory. He was a good man. A man who lived for the rule of law and for justice, and a man who could have contributed so much more to Northern Ireland had his life not been cut short at the age of 54.”
In a soft voice she recounts the events of the morning her father, a Catholic, was killed. She was 17 and in her final year at school. “We had just finished breakfast, and the normal routine was that I would go upstairs, get ready for school and leave straight away. While I was upstairs the doorbell rang and then I heard this almighty bang, which I thought was a bomb. I ran downstairs screaming ‘watch your eyes’ and I saw my father lying on the floor.”
Shortly after 8.30am her father had heard the doorbell and gone to the door. When he opened it a man in a postman’s uniform took a gun from his postbag and fired a shot.
“As the gun came out my father shouted at the top of his voice, ‘I’ve been done; call a priest,’ ” Conaghan says.
Rory Conaghan’s youngest daughter, Deirdre, then nine years old, was standing beside him and witnessed the murder.
“My mother heard his last words,” says Mary Conaghan. “I remember holding my father in my arms, saying, ‘Daddy, please don’t die,’ while my mother went to find a priest. Our lives were shattered that day.”
Five minutes earlier, in another part of Belfast, the magistrate Martin McBirney had been shot dead. Conaghan and her sister both contributed to a report into the case carried out by the PSNI’s historical inquiries team, a specialist unit reporting on unsolved cases from the Troubles. The report, completed earlier this year, stated that both murders were a joint operation organised at a high level in the IRA.
In a statement shortly after the attacks the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau in Dublin said the men had been killed for being “willing agents of a most corrupt, rotten and evil judicial system”. In fact, according to the report, both Conaghan and McBirney were viewed as “moderate and humane” members of the judiciary. In 1971 Conaghan had awarded damages to 16 men whom the security forces had subject to sensory deprivation while they were interned, and he had once jailed Ian Paisley. The report says his “reputation for fairness spread among ex-internees, who at the time were exclusively Catholic”. It also refers to speculation that the IRA planned the murders because it was fearful that the Maze would close and internment would end. A Sunday Timesarticle after the murders suggested that they were killed because liberal Catholic judges and magistrates were “more dangerous to the IRA cause than Protestant bigots”.
Conaghan believes that her father had been warned in various ways that he was a target, but “he would never have given in to terrorists”. When she tells people that he was murdered by the IRA, their immediate assumption is that she is Protestant. “When I tell them, ‘No, I am actually from the Catholic tradition,’ the next thing they say is: ‘Was your Daddy English?’
“I suppose I’d like the perspective to be aired that the war was not just waged by the IRA on the British and Protestants but on Catholics or anyone who got in the way of their project.”
Last June a Belfast woman, Ann Travers, the sister of Mary Travers, who was killed in an IRA gun attack in 1984, spoke out in protest against the appointment of Mary McArdle, the woman convicted of her sister’s murder, as a Sinn Féin ministerial adviser at Stormont. In an act of solidarity, Conaghan has since met Travers.
“There is this idea that the victims shouldn’t speak,” says Conaghan. “It’s sort of a moral blackmail that if you speak you are against peace, and that could not be further from the truth. I fully endorse the peace process, but victims are part of that peace. Many people have had to cope with people getting out of jail early; others are living with the physical and psychological trauma of what has happened to them. People get credit for giving up violence and for sharing power with their most hated enemies, but the people caught in the middle, who didn’t want any violence in the first place, they don’t get any credit.”
She describes the “moral dilemma” for her in McGuinness standing for president. “This is somebody who possibly knows who killed my father, and he is also someone who thinks that the murder of my father was okay, that he was a legitimate target. I was delighted to meet Mary McAleese recently; that’s how it should be when you meet your President. That is not how it would be with McGuinness.”
She is unsure how her questions and those of other victims looking for truth can be answered, but she feels strongly that they should still be allowed to ask them. “There is this duplicity the whole time with Sinn Féin and the IRA. They want everyone else to be accountable, but they don’t want to be accountable themselves. They don’t, for example, give information to the historical inquiries team. If somebody was caught and tried for my father’s murder, they would be let out under the Belfast Agreement. I could live with that. What I am most interested in is the truth.”
Conaghan’s mother died two years ago, without knowing who had planned the murder of her husband. Their daughters are still trying to find out what happened. “My sister and I are just two of a great number of people with no answers. I keep being told that it’s in the past, and there is all this talk of moving on, but for things to move on you need people to take responsibility and to have remorse.”
Conaghan believes that if she or her sister or mother had been murdered, her father “would never have stopped asking questions . . . I also know he’d be pressing for peace. I wouldn’t wish the kind of suffering we as a family went through on anybody. You literally take a shattered life and spend the rest of your life reconstructing a new one. You learn to live with it, but it never goes away.”