It's one of the most compelling movies about the Troubles that's never been made. The story of Ronnie Bunting has all the intriguing ingredients for the darkest of conspiracy dramas about a loyalist hardliner's son who became one of the INLA's most feared assassins before he was murdered by the UDA/UFF, reputedly with the help of forces of the state.
It's 40 years ago next week since Bunting was shot dead in his bed and his wife, Suzanne, was badly injured in a gun attack that also claimed the life of an INLA associate, Noel Little.
But the passage of time hasn't dampened the controversy over the suspicion of collusion in the killings.
Legal moves were launched last year by Suzanne Bunting to thwart a reported attempt to prevent the Attorney General, John Larkin, from ordering a new inquest.
It was claimed by lawyers that the Government was trying to stop "highly sensitive" claims about alleged state involvement from becoming public.
Ever since the killings, there have been consistent reports that a police surveillance operation, mounted at Bunting's home because of intelligence that his life was in danger, was stood down before the gun attack. One thing that was never in doubt was that the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries hated Ronnie Bunting, who was every inch the contradiction of a stereotypical east Belfast Protestant.
I grew up in the Summerhill area. 'The Bunt', as we knew him, lived not far away at Cumberland Drive in Dundonald with his father, Major Ronald Bunting, who was a close ally of the Rev Ian Paisley.
Contrary to some accounts, the Bunt didn't rebel against his father from the start.
I remember him as a red, white and blue scarf-wearing Linfield supporter. He also attended my youth club at St Molua's Church of Ireland opposite the Stormont estate. Eurovision winner Linda Martin was also a member, and the late guitarist Gary Moore used to play at youth club dances with a local band named The Barons.
It was at the youth club that the Bunt met the girl he would later marry, Suzanne Murphy, from the nearby Cloghan estate, who was a Sunday School teacher at St Molua's.
The Bunt and I worked one Christmas during the late 1960s in the old GPO sorting office on Royal Avenue.
We also occasionally travelled together on the number 16 bus into town at a time when the Troubles were smouldering and the conversations were more about politics than football.
He and Suzanne Murphy got engaged in May 1969 and, after he went to study at Queen's University, the Bunt was a rather familiar figure around the Students' Union, especially at Sunday night concerts organised by the colourfully named Esoteric Music Society.
After graduating and teaching for a time, Bunting became involved with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and, later, with the Official Republican movement.
He was interned from November 1971 until April 1972. Several months after he was released, stories started to reach east Belfast that he had become a deadly sniper who had shot a number of soldiers.
But he fell foul of the Provisional IRA in 1973 amid claims that he either knew the Army was going to kill the leading Provo James Bryson but stayed silent, or that he shot him himself.
In the mid 1970s, Bunting broke away from the Official IRA. He joined the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the Irish National Liberation Army.
However, his erstwhile 'Stickie' colleagues shot and wounded him in an attack during 1975 and his wife narrowly escaped injury in another gun attack, before the couple reportedly took refuge for a spell in Wales.
Bunting, who returned to live in Sevastopol Street in west Belfast, appeared in court in January 1978 charged with wasting police time by falsely claiming that he had been ill-treated by detectives.
Three months later, he told a court in Newtownards that even though he had been called a leading republican, he hadn’t been involved in republican politics for several years. Which may, technically, have been true, because Bunting was by then a republican terrorist leader.
And he was the man who masterminded the murder of Tory politician Airey Neave in March 1979, when a bomb ripped through his car at the House of Commons.
Sources said that Bunting helped organise the attack, but that he was in Belfast on the day of the bombing.
Former war hero Neave was one of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s most trusted friends and advisers and there’s been intense speculation that the “Iron Lady” and her regime demanded revenge for his killing.
Nineteen months later, Bunting was dead and, although the UFF claimed responsibility, the clinical nature of the killings in a heavily secured house in Downfine Gardens in the very heart of republican Turf Lodge led many observers to believe there’d been collusion.
Suzanne Bunting was convinced that the SAS carried out the attack themselves and said the gunmen who killed her 32-year-old husband and shot her as she tried to save him wore military-style clothing and acted with military discipline.
Shortly afterwards, Bunting’s funeral was an eerie one. The INLA wanted to give him a paramilitary send-off with all the trappings that they felt he’d earned.
But his father stood firm. He insisted that the funeral would be a family one and it emerged that Major Bunting and his son had remained close despite their disparate political ideologies, which had seen them on different sides at Burntollet during clashes during a People’s Democracy march in 1969.
Bunting snr, who at an inquest described Bunting jnr as “virtuous, high-minded and an opponent of injustice”, chose to have the first part of the funeral at an undertaker’s premises on the Newtownards Road, directly opposite the headquarters of the UDA.
Gloating paramilitaries jeered and waved loyalist flags as the tiny knot of mourners gathered across the road.
Bunting jnr was buried in a family plot in Donaghadee and pictures showed his distraught father wiping away tears as his son’s coffin was lowered into the ground. But the INLA did get their chance to honour their “comrade”, with the erection of a plaque in memory of him and Noel Little near the murder scene 18 years ago.
Bernadette McAliskey gave the oration for Bunting, who was remembered in 2006 in a book written by Belfast-born and now US-based author and journalist Walter Ellis, who was not only a distant cousin but also his best friend.
They were contemporaries at Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School, where other former pupils have included singer Van Morrison, Beirut hostage Brian Keenan and ex-UVF man-turned-peacemaker David Ervine.
One man who was in Bunting’s year described him as a “loner and oddball”, adding: “Ronnie was a bit of a head-case. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that he’d become a terrorist, but I was amazed when I discovered he was a republican, not a loyalist paramilitary.”
In his book, Walter Ellis said Bunting made his life a misery for years.
He wrote: “Ronnie had his own dark destiny to fulfil as an Irish terrorist leader. He should have been no part of mine, but he had a peculiar ability to bend others to his will. I tried to break free of him several times during our long friendship, but he always drew me back. The connection was so close that I was arrested myself on suspicion of terrorism.”
Long after his murder, Ronnie Bunting was still a hero in the eyes of INLA men.
During a deadly feud in the 1980s, I was regularly called to briefings as an Ulster Television reporter by the leaders of the two factions, who eulogised about Bunting’s terrorist “skills” and were fascinated to hear stories about him in his younger days in a very different world in east Belfast.