Paramilitary ‘brigadier’ Jackie McDonald wants an “all-inclusive amnesty” to allow victims and perpetrators to meet.
The UDA leader believes such a move would create “the conversation that answers the questions” from Northern Ireland’s violent past.
“You can’t cherry pick an amnesty,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “It has to be all-inclusive,” he added — meaning stretching across the loyalist and republican organisations and security forces and services.
“The people who did the killing, they were doing what they were told,” he said.
“An awful lot of killers I know just believed in what they were doing. They were genuine people. When you believe in something, the best way to defend your country is to kill the people who are trying to take it off you.
“You couldn’t let the IRA be seen as this elite, invincible force. You had to show that they were vulnerable,” he said.
McDonald is part of the so-called ‘inner council’ leadership of an organisation that carried out scores of sectarian killings under the cover of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) — an organisation that paraded figures such as Johnny Adair, Michael Stone, John White and Jim Gray on Ulster’s war stage.
The paramilitary leader accepts that an amnesty is a difficult issue, but argues that it is “probably the best thing”.
“A lot of people will be furious,” he said.
“But what do you do?
“If you want a future, the past is an anchor.
“If you want a mortgage on the future, what would you pay for it?” he asked.
He said the price for information would be high.
“If you want to know there has to be a compromise — that the person talking to you cannot be made amenable for it,” he said.
“We need the victims groups to sit down with the perpetrators,” he said.
“I don’t know how you do that — it’s like oil and water.
“(But) that’s the conversation that answers the questions.
“It has to be a warts and all conversation.”
However, proposals for any amnesty are likely to prove controversial with victims of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this week it emerged that proposals on how to deal with the past had been largely rejected by people here in a consultation exercise.
The rejections were revealed in responses to proposals put forward by the Consultative Group on the Past, headed by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley.
Of the 174 people who responded to the report, most rejected it without comment. Among the report’s 31 recommendations was a payout of £12,000 to the families of those killed in the Troubles — including relatives of dead paramilitaries.
Analysis: Hunt for truth clouded by years of accusations, claims and rebuttals
The statements that followed killings were dictated and delivered with codewords — the means of authenticating the messages that came from the paramilitary underworld.
In my contacts with the loyalist groups, I took scores of those statements. McDonald’s organisation used the codewords Linenhall, The Ulster Troubles, Cromwell, Crucible and Titanic.
One such statement dictated in April 1992 read: “The UFF acting on top grade intelligence carried out this morning’s assassination of female PIRA member Philomena Hanna, sister of Sinn Fein/PIRA member Richard McAuley. The UFF and the loyalist people have seen as recently as last week the central role females are playing within the republican war machine.
“The UFF wish to state once again that we make no distinction between male and female members of PIRA.
“The Government and the Northern Ireland Office should take note that no amount of failed security force policies will deter us from ridding Ulster of the cancer of republicanism once and for all.”
Richard McAuley was a member of the IRA and is now a senior aide to the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.
Philomena Hanna was not his sister and not a member of the IRA.
In an interview with me in 2008 – some 16 years after the shooting — Richard McAuley said: “When I heard that statement and the excuse that was made, my first thought was for the woman and her family.
“It was a particularly vicious action against a mother, and the excuse was so transparently pathetic.
“And my other thought was for my own family, because while this was quite clearly a flimsy excuse, I do have sisters and here they were hearing something about somebody being killed supposedly because she was my sister. It was one of those moments when an action goes beyond the news and the headlines.”
At the time of the killing, the then RUC described the killing as “blatantly sectarian” with one officer describing the shooting in a chemist shop where Philomena worked as “unbelievably callous”.
She was just one of many innocent, uninvolved, victims – shot not on the basis of “top grade intelligence” but as an easy target.
In other statements the UFF threatened the entire nationalist/republican community, in one stating: “The UFF once again reiterates that those who aid and abet the republican war machine either by the ballot box or by other means are deemed as guilty as those who pull the trigger.”
In any process of information recovery thousands of statements issued by the many sides in a long war will be examined.
And McDonald is convinced that the key to open up that process is amnesty.
‘I want them to admit there was a dirty war going on and I was a casualty of it’
By Claire McNeilly
Peter Heathwood, an insurance manager, was shot in his home in north Belfast in front of his three children in 1979. His father, Herbert, dropped dead at the scene minutes after the loyalist shooting. The 57-year-old Catholic has now been confined to a wheelchair for over 30 years.
“It was September 27. I was|with my baby daughter Louise when the doorbell rang. My wife Anne answered it. The next thing I heard was ‘gunmen, gunmen!'
“Anne was screaming. One gunman had her by the hair and had walked her into the room.
“I grabbed Anne and slammed the door into his head. I think I knocked him out. A second gunman appeared. One bullet went into my spine. Another went through my chest and actually tore off a nipple.
“I asked Anne to get me a priest. I was sure I was dying. Patrick, my eldest, who was only seven, was kicking one of the gunmen.
“When the other guy thought he'd killed me, he dragged his mate out. They shouted ‘Fenian b*****d’ before driving off on a motorbike. I passed out and I didn't wake up until two weeks later.
“Anne later told me she had phoned my father, who suffered from angina, to tell him I was okay. It took 23 minutes for the ambulance to come. In that time, police officers had come into the house and were trying to stop the bleeding. My father arrived shortly after the paramedics. They couldn't get me onto the gurney because I'd gone into a muscular spasm, so they put me in a black bag. My father saw this, and dropped dead of a heart attack.
“Then two Special Branch walked over, laughing and joking. Pointing at me they said ‘who the f**k's he?'
“Then, a man who was renting the upstairs flat came down. The Special Branch guys said ‘that was meant for you’ and a fight broke out. My father’s dead, I'm lying dying and now there's this punch-up. It was surreal.
“Apparently, the guy upstairs was IRA. Clearly the gunmen had been sent to kill him.
“I was in hospital for a year. Apparently I ‘died’ twice. But I remember telling myself that those b******s weren't going to kill me. I wanted to see my children grow up, and thank God I have.
“I was all for the prisoners getting out under the Good Friday Agreement if it meant peace.
“The guys who shot me were kids. Who put them up to it? Seeing them in court wouldn’t mean anything to me. I’d get more satisfaction from the Government admitting there was a dirty war going on and I was a casualty of it.
“Also, the RUC should stop pretending they were saints.
“I want a better Northern Ireland for my grandchildren. I don't want them to grow up in the fear and hatred we had. I'm prepared to accept nobody does time for this, but at least tell me the truth.”
‘Our society treats the killers better than the victims they leave behind’
By Claire McNeilly
Ginnie Gibson's husband John (51), a Protestant quantity surveyor who worked for a construction firm hired by the RUC, was shot dead by the IRA on October 21, 1993. His distraught wife, now aged 69, didn't speak to anyone about the tragedy for five years.
“The police matter-of-factly told us they had some bad news. They said my husband had been shot and pronounced dead on arrival at Newtownabbey Hospital. I was numb. I started pacing up and down the room, saying ‘I don't believe this'.
“My greatest regret to this day is that I didn't throw my arms round our son Peter. But I suppose that was a control mechanism. I was afraid that if I did that I would have broken down completely.
“Around 4pm that day, Peter, a final year University of Ulster student, called to say he was coming home for dinner. John, who was a diabetic, phoned an hour later to say he would be late for his meal. He told us over dinner that he had won an award for his charity work for other diabetics. Then he went back to work.
“Peter and I sat watching the TV. After 9pm, there were reports about a shooting in Glengormley, but I thought nothing of it.
“Then, at around 10pm, there was a knock at the front door and I opened it to find a policeman and policewoman standing there.
“My immediate thought was my son had done something silly – you know what students can be like. And then I thought they were there about my road tax, but they wanted to talk to both of us. Then they broke the horrific news.
“After my John had been taken from us, I felt nothing but anger and hatred. I told the police the IRA were too smart for them.
“Robert Duffy, a Republican from north Belfast, went on trial for John’s murder, was found guilty and got two 25-year sentences.
“It was the first case here where DNA evidence proved crucial.
“Then the Good Friday Agreement came and Duffy was released after four years, which was hard to take, especially when we heard he tried to murder another man after being released.
“A Dublin court jailed him for life for that offence three years ago, but we only heard about it on the news. Why did no-one tell us?
“I would love a chance to speak to Duffy and ask him why he did it. But I don't think he was the only one involved. I would want the others to come forward and to see them prosecuted.
“I'm not sure a public apology alone would work for everyone, and there's a risk it could open up old wounds.
“It doesn't get any easier. John’s murder wrecked our families. Peter has had two heart attacks. I've suffered two lung clots, breast cancer and depression.
“The injustice of it all is that perpetrators are better cared for in prisons than the victims.”