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Tributes to Joan Travers, who cradled daughter as she died in the street after IRA ambush

By Ivan Little

A Belfast woman who cradled her dying daughter 'on a dusty street' after the IRA shot her and seriously injured her resident magistrate father as they left Mass in the city 33 years ago has died.

Joan Travers narrowly escaped death herself in the ruthless attack after the Provisionals ambushed her 'devout Catholic' family near St Brigid's Church, a short distance from their Windsor Avenue home in the Malone Road area on April 8, 1984.

It was later revealed that after the terrorists killed schoolteacher Mary Travers who was 22, they pointed a gun at her mother's head. However, the weapon misfired not once but twice.

But Mrs Travers later urged people to pray for the killers, and said her daughter would have forgiven them.

The IRA claimed the bullet which killed Mary Travers had struck her father first, but forensic tests quickly established that was a lie.

A moving picture at the time showed Mrs Travers leaving St Brigid's church after her daughter's funeral. She was wearing a black coat and a black mantilla over her head.

By her side was her other daughter, Ann Travers, who has since become a high profile campaigner for justice for her family and for other victims of the Troubles.

Ms Travers announced the death of her mother in a poignant message on her Facebook page yesterday.

It read: 'My beautiful Mum Joan passed away peacefully this morning, reunited in Heaven with her husband, our father Tom and her gorgeous little Mary taken from her too soon on this earth.'

Ms Travers added that her family 'would appreciate privacy at this time'.

Just seven days ago, 33 years after her sister's killing, Ms Travers went on to social media to say she was feeling emotional about the anniversary of the murder 'and her killers' 33rd year without accountability'.

Yesterday, hundreds of people also used Facebook to pass on their condolences to Ms Travers and her brothers about their mother's passing.

Politicians from most of the major parties expressed their sympathy along with Stephen Gault, whose father was killed in the Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre and Kevin Skelton, whose wife died in the Omagh bombing.

Survivors of terrorism had supported Ann Travers' campaign to prevent former prisoners who were guilty of serious offences becoming highly-paid Stormont special advisers.

Ms Travers launched her campaign after a woman convicted of her sister's murder was appointed as a special adviser by Sinn Fein to the party's Culture Minister Caral Ni Chulin.

Mary Ann McArdle, who had been 19 at the time of the killing, was arrested near the Botanic Inn shortly after the attack and two guns and a wig used by one of the two gunmen were found strapped to her thighs.

She was jailed for life.

An appeal was later turned down, but McArdle was freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement after serving 14 years in jail.

A man who was identified by Tom Travers in court as his daughter's killer walked free after a judge said there was a possibility that the magistrate, who had broken down and wept uncontrollably in the witness box under cross examination, could have been mistaken about Joseph Haughey, whom it was later claimed had been working as an informant for the Special Branch. Haughey's barrister during his trial was Dessie Boal QC, a founder member of the DUP.

After the lawyer's death two years ago, Ann Travers paid a remarkable tribute to him and said he "was only doing his job and doing the best for his client".

Mary McArdle later expressed remorse for the murder and called it a "tragic mistake".

But a furious Ann Travers rejected her statement and said the Provisionals, who had always claimed that they were out to kill her father, had gone to south Belfast armed with two guns and shot her sister in the back and attempted to murder her mother.

Mr Travers touched thousands of people's hearts after he subsequently wrote about his daughter's murder and the attempt to kill his wife.

"On the day my lovely daughter was murdered, her killer tried to murder my darling wife also," he wrote.

"At that time Mary lay dying on her mum's breast, her gentle heart pouring its pure blood onto a dusty street in Belfast.

"The murderer's gun, which was pointed at my wife's head, misfired twice. Another gunman shot me six times.

"As he prepared to fire the first shot, I saw the look of hatred on his face, a face I will never forget."

In 2007, Mr Travers denounced the arrest of a former RUC Special Branch man who had contacted him to claim there'd been a cover-up over his daughter's murder because of the involvement of a police informer in the IRA plot.

The then-Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan later issued a report saying the RUC hadn't had any information that could have prevented the attack.

However, the Ombudsman's office later apologised for errors in a report into the murder.

A report from the Historical Enquiries Team in 2013 said that Mary Travers had been deliberately murdered by the IRA gun gang which they concluded had intended to wipe out the entire family.

The HET report said that the Provisionals had been lying in wait for the Travers family at the same church the previous Sunday but "for some reason called off the attack".

The late Rev Cecil Newell, who was President of the Methodist Church in Ireland at the time of the killing, attended Mary Travers's funeral and wrote to her mother to express the sympathy of his members.

In a book called Pilgrims, Mr Newell disclosed that Mrs Travers had sent him a 'beautiful' reply in which she said that her daughter Mary was a young woman who was full of forgiveness and love.

Mrs Travers added: "We know that she forgives and would want to forgive those who planned and carried out her murder and the attempted murder of her dad."

Mrs Travers appealed to Methodists to remember her daughter and her family in their prayers.

But she also urged them to pray for the killers too, adding: "We would like you to pray that all men who have murder in their hearts will be overcome by the love of God so that that they, like Mary, will one day be at peace with Him."

Mrs Travers, who had been nursing her husband, told Mr Newell that he was making a good recovery from the injuries sustained in the attack.

Mr Travers died peacefully at his home in Holywood on Boxing Day in 2009.

Following Requiem Mass at St Malachy's church in Kilclief, Strangford, he was buried in the adjoining cemetery.

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