Former Red Hand Commando chief and prisoner, Winston ‘Winkie’ Churchill Rea, was so moved by the death of the young Irish language teacher (inset) that he went to Tyrone to pay his personal respects.
On behalf of the Shankill Northern Ireland Football Supporters Club, Rea queued for almost two hours to attend the wake in the Harte family home.
As he stood with the crowds outside the house last Saturday, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness recognised him and came over to shake his hand, telling him he would be warmly welcomed.
Inside, Rea — jailed in the mid-Seventies for his role in the murder of two Catholics — stood at Michaela’s coffin along with her father Mickey Harte and her husband John McAreavey.
“We all have our own daughters and granddaughters and everyone was moved by what happened to say the least. Some of us would have a past, including myself, but none of us would like it if something tragic like that happened to someone in our families. This was not about publicity, it was about showing support to a grieving family who lost a wife, daughter and sister in very tragic circumstances,” Rea told the Belfast Telegraph.
“The committee of 1st Shankill Northern Ireland Supporters Club held an extraordinary meeting on Friday night and it was decided that we wanted to deliver two sympathy cards, one to the Harte family and one to the McAreaveys. I was more than proud and honoured to be asked to deliver the cards. When I got there I was touched by how warmly welcomed I was into the Harte family home.”
Slightly apprehensive, Rea joined the mourners waiting in line on Saturday morning on the long driveway that stretches to Michaela’s childhood home.
“People from the GAA were marshalling at the wake. It was all being controlled by the GAA and it amazed me, the tremendous work that went into it. For the first time, for me, the GAA came across to me like a big extended family. At one particular time of my life I would not have seen myself saying that,” Rea said. As he queued to enter First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Culture Minister Nelson McCausland were leaving.
“Martin McGuinness recognised me and came straight over and held out his hand to me. I took his hand and I felt a very warm sensation. He spoke very kind words to me. He said: ‘It is really nice to see you here and I’m very glad that you made the journey’. And he said that I would be warmly received by the whole county of Tyrone.
“I will treasure those words for a long time because I know he was being totally sincere. His approach to me spoke volumes.”
Rea, part of the loyalist leadership that delivered the 1994 ceasefire statement, was met by a Harte family member.
“I said who I was and who I was representing. When that person heard that, he immediately called over other family members who stood by my side
for the whole duration I was there. I really appreciated the hospitality. Even on a sad day, I was very warmly received.
“I was then asked if I would go up to see Mickey and other family in the room where Michaela lay in an open coffin. As I walked by Michaela I said a few prayer words into myself.
“At the head of the coffin on a stool was her daddy Mickey. I introduced myself, and like Martin McGuinness, he held his hand out and took mine. The whole time we talked he held my hand. He thanked me and said how pleased he was to see me. I then went to shake hands with the rest of the immediate family, and there was her husband John. I stopped and spoke to him and he gave me a warm handshake and thanked me for making the journey. Even for all they were going through they were all very welcoming. I was very touched.
“I left the room and was taken to one of the other rooms where they served sandwiches, buns and tea. I stayed for about an hour-and-a-half and met other family members, including John’s father. We had a very good conversation. As I drove home I thought to myself, I am glad I made that journey. Michaela’s death touched not just me, but the whole nation, including the people from the area I’m from.”
Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea has travelled a long way — decades ago he was jailed for his part in the sectarian murder of two Catholics.
His visit to the grieving family of Michaela McAreavey would have been unthinkable when the Red Hand Commando was carrying out its murderous campaign. Rea became leader of that loyalist organisation.
But in 1994 he was part of the loyalist leadership that delivered the ceasefire statement. Next came the endgame declaration of 2007, and then his organisation’s decommissioning.
And then he made his journey last week — a long way from the 1970s, when he was in jail.