Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Only a sick society canonises killers

The fetish for immortalising dead terrorists leaves ex-detective Alan Simpson cold. The Belfast surgeon William Rutherford was his hero

Belfast IRA men on patrol with new drogue bomb in Northern Ireland 1987
Belfast IRA men on patrol with new drogue bomb in Northern Ireland 1987

I have always believed that you can partly judge a man by his heroes. And, for me, it seems a natural progression to judge communities in the same way.

These past months, we have had no shortage of hero-worship, from both the republican and loyalist communities, as they remember their terrorist dead/freedom fighters of years gone by.

It all began towards the end of 2012, when it was confirmed that a park in Newry was to be officially renamed Raymond McCreesh Park in honour of an IRA member who was caught with a rifle used in numerous sectarian killings and murders of members of the security forces along the south Armagh border.

A few weeks ago, the Belfast Telegraph reported that some residents in Newtownabbey wanted to carry out a retaliatory strike by naming one of their parks after the notorious loyalist killer Lenny Murphy (in fairness, this is, thankfully, not considered a realistic possibility by the local council).

Then we had the republican parade in Castlederg to honour two IRA men who were on their way to blow up a police station, but died when their bomb went off prematurely.

Not to be outdone, loyalists on the Shankill Road turned out in force last weekend with a parade to honour the memory of Brian Robinson, a member of the UVF who was shot dead by a female soldier who had just witnessed him pump 11 bullets into a totally innocent Catholic man at Ardoyne shops.

Some years ago, I was saddened to learn that Robert 'Basher' Bates – one of the most brutal members of the Shankill Butcher gang – had his name added to a banner of the Shankill Road-based Old Boyne Heroes Orange Lodge, under the legend 'In fond memory of our fallen brethren'.

To the uninformed, this makes it sound as if he fell nobly at The Somme, or maybe on the beaches of Normandy. In reality, he was a vicious UVF thug who prowled the streets of north Belfast looking out for lone Catholics whom he could kidnap and batter to death. Most of his victims were harmless souls, wending their way home after a few drinks in the city centre.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with me. Well, quite simply, I joined the RUC in 1970 as a probationer constable and retired some 25 years later as a detective superintendent and deputy head of the CID for the whole of Belfast.

Most of my police service was in north and west Belfast, so I was at the coalface of anti-terrorist policing throughout the whole of the Troubles.

I personally encountered many of the most notorious terrorists from both sides, including John 'Bunter' Graham, the head of the UVF, and two of his henchmen, Joe McGaw and Harry Stockman, who were prominently in attendance at the recent commemorative parade for Brian Robinson. I charged all three in the early-1980s on the word of supergrasses.

Coincidentally, I also attended the scene of the Brian Robinson shooting and had his crumpled-up body photographed and scientifically examined before it was removed to the mortuary.

I dealt with many of the atrocities of the Troubles and, when the terrorists had finished their obscene work, my colleagues and I were left with the consequences. This often resulted in us visiting the casualty departments of Belfast hospitals, particularly the Royal Victoria and the Mater.

At the RVH, the surgeon in charge of casualty was William Rutherford. Rutherford was a pioneer in the specialism of emergency medicine and is renowned for the number of lives he saved.

Born in Warrenpoint in 1921, he moved to Dun Laoghaire before boarding at Campbell College in Belfast. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin and worked as a doctor in rural India for 20 years before returning to Belfast in 1967.

Rutherford worked in emergency medicine at the RVH for 18 years, finally retiring in 1985. He died, aged 86, in 2007.

When he heard that detectives were waiting outside his treatment room, he often appeared in his blood-stained gown to brief us with great courtesy and would give us a good idea if the victim was going to survive, or not.

Rutherford told the then-Radio Ulster journalist Bill Neely that it was the children who got to him; the kids who came in with gunshot wounds, or the ones who died on the operating table.

He said he had to try and stay detached, so he could do his job properly, although it was often very hard.

Rutherford soon became my hero. I don't think I will ever forget his sheer humanity – in stark contrast to those remembered terrorists.

I have always understood a hero to be someone who displays courage and self-sacrifice for the greater good, so the act of naming a public park after a killer, or adding another to a banner of an Orange lodge, or painting a mural of a sectarian murderer on a gable wall, simply perpetuates the bitterness in our land.

This, in its turn, merely condemns another generation to a life of hatred and sectarianism.

If these afflicted communities look a little more widely, they will find real heroes – like William Rutherford – worth remembering and move us all a little closer to a shared and decent future.