Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Greysteel 20 years on: Snarling and contorted with rage, the image of a killer that haunts us still

This photograph of Greysteel murderer Torrens Knight is a chilling reminder of the hatred that stalked the province 20 years ago, says Ivan Little

Evil personified: Torrens Knight at his first court appearance after the Greysteel killings in 1993
Evil personified: Torrens Knight at his first court appearance after the Greysteel killings in 1993

The TV pictures of unrepentant UFF monster Torrens Knight, the gloating Greysteel killer, screaming abuse and defiance as he was dragged out of the tiny courthouse in Limavady still send a chill down the spine 20 years on.

But trust me, the real-life experience of standing just yards away from the well-dressed thug in his suit with a poppy in the lapel was even more sickening and those horrifying few seconds will never dim in my memory.

One moment Knight was roaring his allegiance to the UDA, the next he was jeering his hatred of Catholics at people outside the court and the next he was grinning the twisted and obnoxious smile of a maniac.

The pictures of Knight captured the very essence of evil, and became an iconic image that symbolised the raw undiluted venom of sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

Rarely if ever before or since has a photograph of a killer so distilled the reality and obscenity of the Northern Irish struggle – a man who patently didn't give a damn about his loathful blood-letting or about the victims he left behind to mourn the loved ones he killed.

Yet this is the man who now wants the world to believe he has changed his spite-filled tune and who has claimed his thoughts and prayers are now with the Greysteel families.

My doubts about the sincerity of Knight's apology are well-rooted. Just a few years back, I covered a court case in which Knight was appealing against his conviction and four-month jail sentence for beating up two sisters in a Coleraine pub.

During his self-serving interviews with police, he insisted he was trying to keep his head down and get on with his life.

But more significantly, he said of his past, "I am not ashamed of what I have done at the end of the day."

No hint of a sorry there.

The Knight I saw that day in court was unrecognisable from the swaggering psychopath who walked past me in Limavady.

Gone were the suit and tie. Gone were the chiselled features and the spiky fair hair. And gone was the arrogance and the bravado.

No it was a podgy-faced and balding Knight who filed quietly into the dock at Antrim courthouse for his appeal.

Such was the dramatic difference in the way he looked that I remember thinking that I could have been sitting beside him in a bar or restaurant and I wouldn't have had a clue who he was, even though that footage of him in Limavady was still as clear in my mind as the day it was filmed.

In a way, perhaps, he is a metaphor for Northern Ireland itself, a place barely recognisable from those fear-filled days just two decades ago. And yet, even now, there is menace just below the surface.

Knight acknowledged that he rarely got hassle on the streets because not many people recognised him. "I have changed a lot in appearance since 1993," he said.

I remember one detective saying to me that he wasn't convinced that Knight had changed that much on the inside.

But the most surprising part of the appeal was when Knight went into the witness box to give evidence on his own behalf.

I and other journalists in the press box had to consult with each other afterwards to make sure that what we thought we had seen was actually what we had seen – tears from Torrens Knight.

He really did seem to break down in tears as he talked about his wife and about how she had been insulted in the pub in Coleraine before the altercation with which he had been charged. I didn't know whether to sympathise with him or applaud his performance.

Anyhow the judge wasn't convinced by Knight and sent him back to Maghaberry to serve out the rest of his Greysteel life sentences, though just nine months later the killer was freed again.

Probation reports said he was no longer a risk to the community and that the chances of him re-offending were low.

Maybe Knight is a changed man.

But the sights and sounds of him emerging from that Limavady court will live with those of us who saw and heard them and his actions at the Rising Sun bar on that horrible Halloween night 20 years ago won't ever be forgotten or forgiven by the families of the eight people who died as a result of the UFF revenge attack for the Shankill bombing exactly seven days earlier.

Knight may have been the most vocal of the killers as they left the court but he didn't actually fire a shot in the massacre but he was instrumental in its planning.

And those harrowing pictures from Limavady will ensure that it is Knight and not his cold co-killers who will forever be associated with Greysteel just like the name of Shankill bomber Sean Kelly will never be forgotten while people might struggle to recall the identify of Thomas Begley, the IRA man killed by his own device.

At Greysteel, it was Stephen Irwin who opened up with an AK47 rifle on the helpless drinkers after shouting Trick or Treat, calmly re-loading in the middle of the onslaught. Jeffrey Deeney fired one shot from a pistol before it jammed. And all the while Torrens Knight stood guard at the front door. He was armed with a double-barrelled shotgun and he told police how he thought about killing two girls who were leaving the Rising Sun.

But he decided against it, not because of any pangs of conscience but rather because he thought he might need his cartridges to kill someone who posed more of a threat to the ruthless UFF revenge attack than teenage girls.

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