Belfast Telegraph

Family take comfort as driver finally admits to causing road crash which killed professor

By Nevin Farrell

The grieving family of a man who died when a van smashed into his car have slammed the lies told by the driver who killed him.

Professor Ed Cairns (66), who had just retired from full-time work at the University of Ulster, died in Coleraine Hospital of injuries sustained in a collision just a mile from his Ballyrashane home.

Geoffrey William McLaughlin, of Ford Avenue, Stranocum near Ballymoney, had initially denied he caused the fatal collision by driving dangerously on February 12, 2012.

However, McLaughlin (40) was eventually charged with causing death by dangerous driving but still denied the charge and his trial was set to go ahead last month when a witness travelled from New Zealand.

But in a change of heart on the day of the trial last month he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of causing the death of Professor Cairns by careless driving and yesterday was back in court for sentencing. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at Antrim Crown Court yesterday, the Cairns family said up until the guilty plea many people in the community had wrongly believed Mr Cairns – who was highly regarded in academic circles around the world – had been responsible for the crash which killed him.

They said all the heartache could have been prevented if McLaughlin had admitted that he was to blame at the start.

Professor Cairns' wife, retired 68-year-old nurse Ida, said she was pleased the correct version of events has now emerged after all this time.

Mrs Cairns, who met her husband when she was just 16 and went on to be with him for half a century, said the road death had devastated her family and the memories of her former home at Ballyrashane were just too much for her so she has moved to Magherafelt.

She said: "We are happy we got a plea of guilty. The last two and a half years have been really difficult for us. Everybody in Ballymoney and Coleraine...everywhere... said my husband had caused the accident. It's disappointing he (McLaughlin) didn't plead guilty at an earlier opportunity.

"It has been a difficult two and a half years for us not knowing exactly what did happen to him. We had a fair idea but we couldn't judge it. We knew he hadn't had any problems – stroke, heart attack, nothing".

At the court yesterday, prosecution QC, Terence Mooney, said it had been "distressing and hurtful" for the Cairns family that McLaughlin had initially blamed Professor Cairns for the accident, suggesting he had "collapsed" whilst driving.

Mr Mooney added: "That allegation is now withdrawn. Mr Cairns bore no responsibility and the defendant accepts by his plea that his driving was entirely to blame."

McLaughlin, who was driving a Ford Transit van and was taking his two young sons Ryan and Jeff – who were not wearing seatbelts – to do trail-biking in Desertmartin, also previously pleaded guilty to causing grievous bodily injury to Jeff McLaughlin (10), who was injured in the crash.

Mr Mooney said another driver saw the van veer completely onto the other side of the road into the path of Mr Cairns' Citroen Xsara and the professor – who was wearing a seatbelt – died of injuries, including severe head injuries, while 10-year-old Jeff McLaughlin suffered a dislocated hip. Mr Mooney said it had not been established how the van came to be on the wrong side of the road but that one potential explanation involved a "short lapse of concentration".

The prosecutor said the initial intention to place the blame on Mr Cairns should be considered an aggravating feature.

Defence QC Martin O'Rouke, acknowledging that the blame issue was "unsavoury", said while McLaughlin has no clear memory of what happened, he wished to expressly apologise, in the hope that it brings some consolation to the family.

McLaughlin will be sentenced today after Judge Desmond Marrinan said he wished to consider the case overnight.

‘He was love of my life. I knew him for 50 years’

Ida Cairns plans to travel to Africa this weekend to honour her husband by carrying on his charity work.

Professor Ed Cairns (66), who worked at the University of Ulster campus in Coleraine since it opened, had popped out in a Citroen Xsara to get some bread and ham for his grandchildren who gathered for the mid-term school break when tragedy struck on February 16, 2012.

But just a mile from his home at Ballyrashane — outside Coleraine — a van driven by Geoffrey William McLaughlin (now 40) swerved across the road, causing his death.

For a long time McLaughlin tried to claim it was Mr Cairns who was to blame for the crash — saying the professor had collapsed at the wheel — but in recent weeks he pleaded guilty to causing the death of the respected professor by driving without due care and attention.

Tomorrow the professor's widow — Ida Cairns (68) — will set off for Africa to carry out charity work which she and her husband used to do together.

Just two weeks after his death in 2012 the Cairns had been due to go to Uganda to carry out a health education programme and Ida — a retired nurse — will return there this weekend for the first time since the tragedy struck her family.

Ida, who was accompanied by her son Ryan and daughter Claire, spoke to the Belfast Telegraph at Antrim Crown Court yesterday and paid a touching tribute to her husband, a father of three and grandfather of seven.

Ida said: “He was the love of my life. We committed together when we were 16 so I knew him for 50 years. I was extremely proud of him. He was a very humble man even though he was a world renowned psychologist. The people of Ballyrashane had no idea until his funeral just how well known he was throughout the world.”

And Ida revealed that the memories of the tragedy were just too much and she has now moved out of the area. She said: “I have a very strong faith. We are a very close family. Life is just full of ups and downs but I have actually moved house, I have left because it means too much to me there and I have moved to Magherafelt.”

 After his death, Ida received letters from around the world where Ed was well-known in academic circles. He had written three books and several university papers on psychology and was very much in demand as a lecturer across the globe.

One friend of the professor's phoned Ida “and he just cried and cried”, she said.

She was proud of the legacy her husband has left and the inspiration he had been to hundreds of psychology students.

Ida added that her husband had retired from his full-time work but still did part-time work like research.

She added: “He was just wonderful. We really had a lot ahead of us. We had a lot of travel plans. There were still quite a few places he would like to have gone.”

On the day of the accident it was mid-term and Ed and Ida Cairns had gathered their family around them, including grandchildren visiting from London.

Said Ida: “He went out to pick up some bread and ham for the grandchildren coming and he was only away 20 minutes.”

 But tragically the doting granddad never did return home.

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