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Lost Lives: The former paramilitary who still lights a candle for murdered boys

Emmanuel 'Manny' McDonnell was a ruthless terrorist until the deaths of two children, Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball, in the 1993 Warrington bombing finally made him turn his back on republican violence for good.

By Audrey Watson

By the time he was 15 years old, Emmanuel 'Manny' McDonnell was in jail, convicted of possessing documents likely to be useful to terrorists. So began a journey that would see the teenager from Belfast's New Lodge Road rise through the ranks of the junior IRA and go on to become a ruthless paramilitary and unit commander with hardline republican organisations, the INLA and IPLO.

A new book, Lighting Candles: A Paramilitary's War with Death Drugs and Demons, by true-crime author and former News of the World reporter David Leslie, is the brutal and shocking account of McDonnell's time fighting for 'the cause' and his subsequent entry into the equally violent Glasgow underworld, where he became a major player in a drug-smuggling operation run by the city's most notorious gangster.

Leslie (69) has written several books about Glasgow's major criminals, including Crimelord, the story of Tam 'The Licensee' McGraw.

It was through Tam that Leslie met McDonnell, now in his mid-50s.

"Thomas 'Tam' McGraw was one of Glasgow's most powerful gangsters," says Leslie. "I new Tam well and through him was introduced to Manny, who I found to be an intriguing character.

"Manny and I kept in touch after Tam died in 2007 and I suggested that he put his life story down in a book and paint a true picture of what it was like for him during the Troubles and later his involvement in the Scottish crime scene.

"About four years ago, we started doing a series of interviews and I was fascinated by the things he used to tell me – things such as how he had to put steel sheets on the bedroom floor of his house so that anyone trying to kill him wouldn't be able to shoot up through the living room ceiling while he was asleep.

"I was interested in two elements of his life – his time in Northern Ireland and also his involvement with the Glasgow crime scene.

"My interest in Manny's life as a republican paramilitary actually stems from the death of Robert Curtis in 1971. Bobby Curtis was the first British soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland. He died on a Friday and, on the Saturday morning, myself and a reporter from the Sunday People were the first journalists to go and speak to his parents and also his widow.

“We were very kindly received by both at what was a horrendous time for them. That experience kind of coloured my perception of people in Northern Ireland; that and the constant atrocities that were shown on the news.

“My reaction was probably the same as that of a lot of people in the rest of the UK, in that we became not very kindly disposed to Irish people.

“It was only once I started listening to Manny and researching what he told me that I realised that there was more to the situation and that there were two sides to the story.

“Originally, I was going to call this book The Terrorist, but Manny insisted that he wasn't a terrorist; he was fighting for the unity of his country.

“Maybe there were a lot of people who joined republican and loyalist paramilitary groups for the sheer hell of it, but Manny was involved because he genuinely believed — and still does — in a united Ireland.

“As far as he was concerned, his war was not against Protestants, or the UDA, or UVF; his war was against the people in uniform — the British Army, the UDR and, to a lesser extent, the RUC.”

Born in Northumberland, Leslie joined the News of the World in 1970 from the Newcastle Journal. In 1985, he moved to London as assistant news editor and then became acting news editor before taking on the job of covering the north of England and Scotland. In 1992, he moved to Scotland, where he still lives with his partner, Innes.

During four decades with the now-defunct paper, events during the Troubles brought him to Northern Ireland on many occasions.

“Whenever something happened, they would ask me because no one else would go,” says Leslie. “Despite being from England and working for an English newspaper, I never faced any hostility and was always treated very well.

“I particularly remember Warrenpoint and the Droppin’ Well bombing in 1982, when 11 soldiers and six civilians were killed in an

INLA bombing. I arrived on the day of the first funeral and, as an indication of how flippant and frivolous the media can be, I had been sent over to try and trace the owner of a blue dancing shoe that had been found in the rubble.

“So I began knocking on the doors of victims, which was an appallingly crass thing to do, but people were so polite and kind — even though you were intruding on tragedy.

“Even though it was always a horrible event that brought me over, I always enjoyed coming. I liked the people who were, without exception, very open and welcoming.”

Only once, says Leslie, did he feel fear when covering a story in Northern Ireland.

On March 19, 1988, two off-duty Army corporals, David Howes and Tony Wood, were murdered after accidentally driving their car into the funeral procession of IRA man, Caoimhín Mac Bradaigh, one of three people killed during Michael Stone's attack on mourners at Milltown Cemetery, three days earlier.

“Yes, that was very frightening, to be honest, and I just wanted to get out of there,” he says. “I had been sent to Belfast to cover what was, to me, a standard set of funerals and wasn't expecting anything like that to happen. It was brutality taken to the extreme and, on that occasion, I was glad when it was time to go home.”

However, even though he was covering tragic events, Leslie also has some amusing memories.

“On one occasion, I was sent to Londonderry and was booked into a hotel, where a group of guys from the Republic were also staying,” he recalls.

“I asked them what they were there for and they told me that their company was building a water tower, which they pointed out from the window. I asked them why it wasn't very big and how long they had been working on it. They replied, ‘Three years’. Apparently, every time they were nearly finished, it was blown up and they had to start all over again. It was the longest contract they had ever had.

“Another time, I was staying in the hotel and was using a hire car. It was very busy and I became very conscious that my every move was being watched and, each time I left the hotel in the hire car, I was being followed.

“I later discovered that my stay coincided with the local CID's annual dinner-dance and that a lone stranger pitching up in a hire car had aroused a lot of suspicion.

“In the book, there are also some funny anecdotes Manny told me, which some may say is frivolous, but I wanted to include them, because they are indicative of the black humour common to both the people of Belfast and Glasgow.”

However, Leslie admits that the fact that gangsters and paramilitaries — Scottish and Irish alike — can dehumanise people to such an extent that they have no problem murdering them, does disturb him.

“Of course it does. There is no compassion there,” he says. “With regard to Manny, I agree that, at the start, he had no conscience when it came to the violence of the Troubles.

“His outlook and a lot of his opinions were passed down from his mother, Nellie, who had very hardline republican views.

“As time went by, however, he started to wonder if the armed struggle was the right thing to do.

“This change in attitude stemmed from time spent in a Scottish jail, Shotts, in the late-1980s, after he had breached a banning order and travelled to Glasgow to watch a Celtic match.

“The real turning point for him was the second Warrington bombing on March 20, 1993, when two bombs exploded in litter bins outside shops, killing two children — Tim Parry, who was 12, and Jonathan Ball, who was just three. It affected him deeply.”

McDonnell still lights candles in their memory.

However, even though he objected to being called a terrorist and had abhorred the drug-dealing and racketeering that plagued the organisations he had been involved with in Northern Ireland, McDonnell had no qualms about overseeing a drug-running operation in Spain, or being a gangster's ‘muscle' in Glasgow.

Says Leslie: “When the Troubles were coming to an end, a lot of paramilitaries, republican and loyalist, started popping up as guns for hire in western Scotland.

“Manny needed a job, but he didn't have to go looking. People sought him out.

“There was a big demand for people like him from the hardliners in Glasgow. A guy with experience of guns could be very useful.

“The difference with Manny was that, by the time the Troubles were over, he had already become friendly with major players such as Tam McGraw, who hired him. They liked Manny — he's a very easy guy to like.

“And, when he was asked to ‘superintend' the drug-smuggling operation, I think the money was just too good to ignore.”

Lighting Candles: A Paramilitary's War with Death Drugs and Demons by David Leslie, is available now (Black and White Publishing, £9.99)

McDonnell in his own words

I was still a kid when I left prison, but I knew what I wanted for me and for Ireland. That was to fight the Brits.

In Long Kesh, the talk was increasingly about a ceasefire. There were about 150 young bucks like me, keen guys, raring to go and get at the Brits, and the attitude of most of us was, “F*** this ceasefire crap”.

We just didn't want to know about it. We wanted to go to war. I'd gone into prison a sectarian bigot, wanting to fight for the wrong reasons.

When I came out, I was no longer a bigot. I was absolutely against sectarianism. Now I felt I understood what the fight was all about. And it wasn't about killing somebody because they were Protestant. It was about killing those who invaded our country and who opposed a united Ireland.

When I had convinced officers of the IRA's 3rd battalion in Belfast that I was committed to becoming a volunteer, I went along to a safe house one evening to join up. I was given advice on matters such as security and how at some time it was probable I would be arrested by the police.

The advice was good. In summary, it was to keep a low profile, never discuss IRA business in public, especially in bars, where police and British Army spies were lurking and listening to conversations, and, if I was arrested, to say nothing. That was something I never forgot — no matter what the police tried.

So, I put on a beret, held the tricolour and read out the oath: “I do solemnly promise to uphold and have belief in the objectives of the IRA and obey all orders issued to me by the army council and all my superior officers.” And I was sworn in to be an IRA volunteer.

About an hour later, I had my first taste of combat, but it wasn't with soldiers, or the police. When I got home, there was still a mark on my head left by the beret and my da asked, “What's that mark? Have you been wearing a hat or something?”

When I didn't reply, he said, “Don't tell me you've gone and signed up?” And he gave me such a beating.

My ma wasn't happy about that. But I was a full-time volunteer. And my aim was eventually to have my own unit.”


Horror in the heart of Cheshire

IRA atrocity: the Warrington bombing

  • Shortly before midday on May 20, 1993, The Samaritans in Liverpool received a bomb warning by phone
  • Jonathan Bell, aged three, was in Warrington town centre with his babysitter, while Tim Parry (12) was with friends buying new football shirts as his parents, Colin and Wendy, had their car serviced
  • At 12.25pm, two bombs, approximately 100 yards apart, exploded at Bridge Street in Warrington. Jonathan was killed instantly
  • Hearing the blast, Colin and Wendy Parry (below) begin calling friends and neighbours, checking on the whereabouts of their three children, Tim, Dominic (11) and Abbi (14). Abbi and Dominic were safe, but Tim couldn’t be accounted for
  • Hours after the bomb, the Parrys arrived at a nearby hospital to be told that Tim had been caught in the blast
  • He spent three hours undergoing emergency surgery, but wasn't expected to survive the night
  • Tim clung to life for the next five days until, eventually, Colin and Wendy made the heartbreaking decision to turn off his life-support machine

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