Willie Frazer: Cancer, death threats and my GAA secret
After a week that saw the issue of victims of the Troubles pushed to the fore, Adrian Rutherford speaks to controversial campaigner Willie Frazer about death threats, IRA violence, on-the-runs, and his battle with cancer
Q Your family suffered more than most during the Troubles – tell me about your experiences growing up in south Armagh?
A I had five members of my family murdered – my father, two uncles and two cousins. I've also had six of my friends killed. I actually count it as seven because another who was shot ended up killing himself a couple of years ago. I've had my home destroyed five times with no-warning bombs. I was injured twice with two other bombs, although they weren't serious injuries – cuts, lumps of timber stuck in you and so on. I was there the day two men I knew well – Ronnie Irwin and Snowden Corkey – were shot. I was standing beside another policeman in Newtownhamilton who was shot dead. I was there the day a soldier was killed. And it's not like the films. They don't fall back and say these romantic words. That's not how it happens. It is something you do not want to see. You never forget it.
Q But it wasn't always like that?
A I went to a Catholic school. I played Gaelic football. When my father was murdered my mother received over 1,000 Mass cards. That is some amount of Mass cards for any family, never mind a Protestant one. My father was respected within the Catholic community. There was hardly a house in south Armagh he couldn't go into.
Q So in your opinion what changed?
A It changed about 1972 and it really changed whenever we refused to go on the rent and rate strike. You had to put a poster up in your window to say you wouldn't be paying your rent and rates to the British government. The village we lived in, there was only us and another Protestant family. We didn't put up a poster. I was maybe 11 when men came and told my mother if she didn't put one up we would be burnt out. My mother was determined to pay her bills no matter who came to our house. That was the start of it.
Q Tell me about the day your father was murdered.
A I remember it like yesterday. I can remember them all. A couple of weeks earlier our next-door neighbour William Meaklin had been kidnapped and I remember coming home from his funeral. My father said to me: "Willie, son, you're going to have to harden up because you'll have a lot more funerals to go to." Little did I know that his would be the next one. I know who killed my father. Two boys who used to run about with my older brother. People were disgusted. There was a republican who carried by father's coffin. He said their fight was with the Army, they didn't believe in killing local men. My father's workmates were Roman Catholics. They stood and cried at the door. A few years ago a republican who had been in the IRA was talking to me and he told me they should never have shot my father. I knew he was genuine.
Q How do you feel that no-one has ever been held responsible?
A If I had known the justice system wouldn't be upheld, I would have taken justice into my own hands. I'd have taken them out. I've no hesitation in saying that.
Q Do you accept you'll never get justice?
A No, I don't. I can't accept that. I can't allow it. If we do that we have failed our loved ones. We will have basically legitimised the murder of our people.
Q Do you think it's a realistic prospect?
A Probably not, but if we give that away we're sending a message to the next generation that the only thing that works is violence.
Q The people who have killed your family – do you hate them?
A I wouldn't say I hate them. I wouldn't be stopping to give them a lift, and if I did I certainly wouldn't be taking them where they want to go. I actually don't have a hate for them. I have a desire for them to be held accountable.
Q How did you get on with Catholics during the Troubles?
A I played on a soccer team, half of them were Roman Catholic, and I know three of them were IRA men. We went to play a match in a real bad area. Our republican team-mates would give us a hard time, acting up to other the republicans. The following week we were playing football in Derrybeg. In those days you changed in the car. The same thing happened. So I brought a loyalist tape with me and whenever everyone went on the pitch I put one of their windows down and put on the loyalist tape. We were on the pitch playing soccer and the next thing one of these republicans looked over and his car was getting wrecked. That was our way of dealing with things.
Q Do you still get threats today?
A Every day. In a week I would get an average of 20 death threats. Out of that maybe one or two would be serious. A few years ago I was out with a photographer and our car got rammed. They had the van reversed up. They were going to kidnap me. It was only by the grace of God they didn't get me. The police are giving my house a lot of attention because of a number of serious death threats. They were at my house four weeks ago saying they had information I would be attacked.
Q But you won't be intimidated?
A No. Absolutely not. It makes me more determined to carry on with my life.
Q You've been involved in the Kingsmills campaign?
A Kingsmills was one of the worst atrocities. They took the men out, lined them up and executed them. Can you imagine how the community felt? If you ever wanted a justification for carrying out an act of revenge, then you got it that night. When they did Kingsmills, that was the closest we ever came to civil war in this country. The loyalist paramilitaries were going to retaliate – 10 times over, over one hundred victims. I know for a fact, they were more than prepared to do it. The only thing that stopped them was the families and the community pleading with them not to.
Q What about the on-the-run controversy?
A Sure we knew all about that, and so did our politicians.
Q Peter Robinson didn't know about it?
A He did know about it. I had the conversation with senior members of the DUP about OTRs as far back as 2004 – conversations Peter Robinson would have been privy to. If people don't believe me, I'll take a lie detector test.
Q Peter Robinson said he only found out last week.
A Okay, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. But if he didn't know, then he must be one of the most incompetent politicians in the history of this country.
Q You clearly knew what was going on?
A Of course I did. Let me tell you about an incident with Dessie O'Hare. He admitted he killed 27 people. We believe it's more, that it's 35, but 27 isn't a bad number. Dessie O'Hare had been on the run for 30-odd years. In 2006 I heard he was back across the border, and I went to his home. I asked the police to arrest him. They came out and contacted their powers-to-be. After two hours an inspector came and said: "Sorry Willie, but if you don't leave we're going to arrest you." He had been given a pardon. We reported that whole thing to the DUP – does anyone seriously think I didn't? The DUP told me they'd do this and do that. They did nothing. The DUP are playing with words. I can't confirm they knew about letters, but they knew the policy existed.
Q You've been looking into smuggling recently – why?
A It pays for terrorism. We have saved the taxpayer millions upon millions of pounds. We've had the Provos caught smuggling fuel and cigarettes. We even broke into a place where they were storing them, put a Union flag on one of the pallets, and took a photograph which we sent to the IMC.
Q What are your plans for the Protestant Coalition?
A We are a political party with proper policies – to uphold the rule of law and justice; to see our British democratic rights reinstated; tackling social deprivation in the Protestant community.
Q Will you contest the forthcoming elections?
A It looks like we are. We haven't decided yet on the European election, but there may be a number standing in the council elections. I was hoping to avoid standing myself, but now it looks like I've no choice. There is nobody else speaking up for us.
Q Do you vote and have you voted before?
A Not at the moment. I can't remember when I last voted. Certainly, unless something radically changes, I'll not be voting again.
Q What do you think of Peter Robinson?
A He's an arrogant man. He cares nothing about victims and will use any means at his disposal to justify his actions. We used to think he was taking a stand for our community. We feel betrayed by him. Completely and utterly betrayed.
Q What do you think of Martin McGuinness?
A We'll never be buddies, but I have to give him credit because Sinn Fein have negotiated a good deal for themselves. They've had a long-term strategy but it is only through the stupidity and arrogance of our politicians that they have achieved what they have. If Martin McGuinness gave me a commitment on something, and Peter Robinson gave me a commitment on something, I'd take Martin McGuinness's word before I'd take Peter Robinson's – and I don't say that lightly.
Q Some people see you as a fool. What do you say to that?
A Let them spend a few days with me. I'm stopped on the street by people I don't know, and these people tell me I'm the only one doing something. People can say I'm a loony, but if it wasn't for FAIR victims would not be an issue. We were the first to raise victims' rights in 1998. There would have been no Smithwick Inquiry. Judge Corry told us he hadn't enough for an investigation until we gave him what we had. We also stopped the Eames-Bradley proposals being implemented. We were also big players in getting the Maze shrine stopped. The work we're doing is voluntary – I haven't been paid a penny in years.
Q What about the incident where you mistook an Italian flag for an Irish Tricolour at a Co Tyrone school?
A Well, I was sent photographs, and looking at the photographs it did look like a Tricolour. I got it wrong, but if someone sends you a photograph and it looks like a Tricolour...
Q What about dressing up as a Muslim? People laughed at you
A They may have laughed, but it got the message around the world. There was people sitting in Hong Kong, in Australia, watching it on TV who rang me.
Q What about the Eastenders controversy?
A My attention was brought to it by activity on republican and GAA sites. They were saying: "Look at the GAA top on Eastenders. We'll be singing rebel songs in the Queen Vic next". They're the ones who promoted it as a GAA top – not me. I questioned if it was a GAA top, and if it was it should not have been worn.
Q Why should it not have been worn?
A Because it supports terrorism. When the GAA comes out and says to stop naming clubs, trophies and stadiums after terrorists, then fine. I don't have a problem with GAA. I actually like the game itself.
Q And would you watch a GAA game?
A Yes, I would watch it, although I don't go out of my way to see it. I wouldn't watch Tyrone or Armagh, because there's a republican element to it, but I'd watch the southern teams. They don't stand for being associated with terrorism. It's a good game, and it's unfortunate it has been tainted by support for terrorism. Can you imagine if Portadown FC ran an event for Billy Wright? There would be an outcry. So what's the difference with the GAA running one for Bobby Sands?
Q Are you a man of faith?
A I'm a born-again Christian. I have been for 17 years. The Bible I read continually talks about repentance. If Martin McGuinness and these people told me they repented, I would have to accept it. If they said what they did was wrong and without justification, I would have to forgive them. To prove that, I went to a gospel meeting four years ago which Dessie O'Hare was at. He claimed to be a born-again Christian, so I confronted him. I said to him that if he was born-again, that it was time to move on. I went and I shook his hand. He told me he had repented. A year ago I found out he was involved in criminality in Dublin.
Q Tell me about your interests, away from campaigning
A I like history and I like reading about Ulster's history. I used to be a very keen soccer player. I was a good footballer, without wishing to blow my own trumpet. Maybe I could have gone across the water, I'm not sure. It was the same for others, there were a few footballers in south Armagh who were first class players who never got the chance of a career because of the Troubles. I also like shooting, but they took the shotgun off me.
Q You've been unwell in recent years?
A I was diagnosed three years ago. The cancer is in my stomach and bowel. It can't be cured. I could live for 20 years, I could die next week – you're almost living month to month. I should be dead now. There was one night I took ill. They didn't think I'd live through it. They couldn't get a pulse. They thought I wasn't going to make it. The funders of FAIR, SEUPB, moved in here three years ago and tried to close us down when I was seriously ill. People wrongly put me down as a whistle-blower – they thought it wouldn't matter because I'd be dead soon anyway. The advice is for me not to get stressed. That's why I want to get out of the victims thing, but I can't until I see some sort of justice in place.
Q So has it affected your work
A It has, yes. I wouldn't have the same energy as before. I wish I was as fit as I was 10 years ago, because if I was I'd give the DUP some headache. I could pack it in now and my life would be a lot longer. But my father and people serving in the security forces could have done the same. Theirs was certain death. Mine may be too, but sure we're all going to die anyway. I want to concentrate on recording the stories of the past, and the only people who can write the stories are the people who lived through it.