Anatomy of an IRA murder

Anatomy of an IRA murder: The brutal shooting of an RUC officer barely made the news — even though he was killed in front of his son. A new book confronts his assassin, and lays bare haunting truths about the dark heart of the Troubles

  • Ian Cobain examines the murder of Protestant policeman Millar McAllister 
  • McAllister’s killer Harry Murray says he thought it was the right thing to do
  • Cobain also examines the tunnel vision that underlay The Troubles

Book of the week

Anatomy Of A Killing 

by Ian Cobain (Granta £18.99, 304 pp)

The children should not have witnessed it — their father lying dead in front of them in their own kitchen, three bullets in the chest and one in the head.

Even the cold-hearted killer who carried out the assassination had qualms about their presence. He had sons of his own.

But this was the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, in civil wars, uncivil things happen. Everyone gets hurt, even kids.

The murder of Protestant policeman Millar McAllister in the town of Lisburn one Saturday lunchtime in April 1978 was a callous act of terror but, among the awful catalogue of bombings and mass murders that were all too commonplace in Ulster and on the mainland for so many years of division, it is not an obvious incident to dwell on.

Ian Cobain examines the murder of Protestant policeman Millar McAllister (file image of British Army patrol moving past IRA graffiti in 1976)

At the time, it wasn’t a big deal, meriting just a down-page paragraph or two in Britain’s national press (with a mention that McAllister was the 80th policeman to be killed in the Troubles). Chalk it up as just another violent death in the tally of more than 3,700 killings as the rival Irish factions tore each other apart.

But it takes centre stage in this book by veteran investigative journalist Ian Cobain, who reconstructs it in forensic detail, vividly bringing together the tangled webs of all those involved, their motives, their actions and reactions, the days and hours leading up to the killing, the aftermath.

It is as gripping as a thriller, except that this isn’t fiction but cold, spine-tingling reality, with a worthy purpose running through it. This is Cobain’s route to find some understanding — even some closure — for us all in the morally bewildering underground war between Republicans and Unionists, with British Army soldiers caught in the middle, that split the benighted province for decades.

Harry Murray, the IRA gunman who pulled the trigger, was a 30-year-old thug with a troubled back story and a grievance. He grew up a Protestant (like his victim) but crossed the divide to the Republican cause when he married a Catholic girl and was shunned by his former community.

At the time, McAllister’s murder wasn’t viewed as big news (file image of graffiti in Northern Ireland)

Each member of his IRA unit had his or her own job to do in any operation. One would steal (or ‘borrow’) a car, another provide the gun, another drive the killer to the job, another whisk the weapon away afterwards, another hide it.

They were a well-drilled unit, just waiting for the nod, when from higher up the chain of command came an order — assassinate Millar McAllister. Who? Why? It didn’t matter. Orders were orders. Thirty-six-year-old McAllister was a veteran member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which he joined after leaving school in 1961.

He was not an obvious target and would not have stood out if it hadn’t been for his hobby, as peaceful a pastime as it is possible to imagine: racing pigeons.

He not only bred them, he wrote about them every month as the Northern Ireland correspondent for the English journal, the Pigeon Racing News And Gazette. His column was anonymous, going under the byline of ‘The Copper’, but was accompanied by a photograph of his face. That was what drew him to the IRA’s attention.

Cobain found that the IRA unit Murray belonged to all had specific jobs to carry out, such as steal a car (stock image), provide a gun, a driver for the job and another to hide the weapon after an attack

Eager to establish that they could kill as they willed, the IRA in West Belfast put him on its death list, and the killing was assigned to Murray’s active service unit, who were told the target was no ordinary policeman but an undercover cop, a member of the hated Special Branch.

The team went into action. Two hijacked a car in Belfast, going up to a random yellow Fiat 127 they’d seen and telling the driver: ‘Hey mate, we’re Provisional IRA. We want the lend of your car.’

The car then picked up Murray as arranged on a street corner and they drove the eight miles to Lisburn, with Murray in the passenger seat excited and jittery, aware that he’d never killed before, though he’d tried and failed a number of times.

He was nervously fingering the revolver, wrapped in an old blue scarf, as they approached Woodland Park, a suburban street of well-kept gardens.

After shooting McAllister, Murray stared at the police officer’s son for a moment, before the child screamed ‘Daddy!’ (stock image)

The car stopped at number 106 and Murray, dressed in a pin-striped suit, got out. He walked up the drive of the whitewashed bungalow and round the side, hoping to find a pigeon loft in the garden confirming that he was at the correct house.

Through the partially open back door, he saw a dark-haired man he recognised from the picture in the Pigeon Racing News And Gazette.

A surprised but not unduly alarmed McAllister peered round the door, his seven-year-old son Alan at his side, and the two men began a garbled conversation about photographs of pigeons before the boy went back inside. Murray snatched the gun from his waistband and fired, sending McAllister reeling on to his back inside the door.

As he pumped more bullets into his victim — in the shape of a cross, he bizarrely claimed later — he saw the little boy come back into the kitchen and, for a moment, the two of them stared at each other before Alan screamed ‘Daddy’.

The IRA unit that had gone after McAllister was being followed by the police who had an informant in their ranks (file image)

As Murray fled, McAllister’s other son, 12-year-old Mark, saw his father on the floor, his feet poking out the back door. Outside, Murray jumped into the waiting car, the gun was smuggled away, the hijacked Fiat was returned to its cowed owner. What he and his crew didn’t realise was that the police were on to them.

They had an informer in their midst, and an unmarked police car had been tailing Murray as he headed for Lisburn but had lost him along the way. Otherwise he would have been stopped in time.

Arrests began almost straight away, followed by interrogation — some of it brutal and unlawful, according to Cobain, involving stress positions, beatings and sleep deprivation. One of their number hanged himself in his cell, sparking accusations in Republican circles that he had been murdered.

The whole active service unit was convicted and jailed, but very little changed otherwise.

Cobain uses the book to also highlight the tunnel vision that underlay The Troubles (file image of Protestant children playing on swings near loyalist graffiti in Belfast, 1972)

The Troubles continued with even more violence as the IRA stepped up its campaign. It would be years before any form of peace descended on a divided Ireland.

Today, those who took part in the murder of McAllister put their faith in peace and reconciliation but show no regret about the past.

Murray, released from prison in 1993 after years of involvement in hunger strikes, mutinies and escapes that made him something of a Republican hero, maintains to this day that ‘I thought what I did was right. He [McAllister] was the enemy. It had to be done.’

Michael Culbert, the IRA commander who gave him the order to kill, agrees, but is uneasy that it was done in front of his sons. Cobain notes, ‘he wrings his hands when he mentions “those boys”.’ As should we all. It’s a harrowing story.

Anatomy Of A Killing by Ian Cobain (Granta £18.99, 304 pp)

Precisely what ‘those boys’ went through remains unknown, however. McAllister’s widow and family still felt too traumatised to be interviewed for Cobain’s book, and who can blame them?

But this leaves a crucial part of the story untold — the effect of the Troubles on the victims in the Unionist community.

Which is a pity because this is an important book, a reminder of the black hole that Northern Ireland fell into for so long and why it should never be allowed to go down that dreadful road again.

Crucially, he identifies the tunnel vision that underlay the Troubles. He writes that the separate communities ‘could readily recall the hurts they suffered but not always the injuries they inflicted’.

Let’s hope that gap in understanding has now gone for ever —and that Cobain has written the final epitaph for Ireland’s troubles.

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