Author Ian Cobain tells Editor-at-Large Gail Walker why he chose to write about the 1978 murder of Constable Millar McAllister and what we can learn from unravelling the past
The murder of RUC Constable Millar McAllister was brutal and pitiless. His killer Harry Murray, a Protestant who had joined the IRA, had dressed in his best suit to trick the off-duty officer into opening the back door of his neat bungalow in Lisburn one Saturday lunchtime in 1978.
When the officer's seven-year-old son suddenly appeared at his father's side and looked inquisitively at the visitor, Murray had to decide whether or not to shoot the policeman in front of his son.
Because he was pretending to Millar, a popular figure in pigeon racing circles, that he was there to inquire about some birds, he suggested the lad go to fetch a pencil and paper to jot down a telephone number.
As soon as the youngster raced back into the house, he pulled the gun out, took aim and stared into Millar's face. Afterwards, he remembered that in those last fleeting seconds of his life, the 36-year-old officer didn't seem frightened. Just a little disappointed, perhaps even irritated at being duped.
But the look on the face of the little boy who'd heard the shots, ran back into the kitchen and had now locked eyes once again with his father's murderer was very different. It was one of blind, confused horror. Then he screamed "Daddy", quickly followed by "Mummy".
It's the kind of horrific and heart-rending detail that should be seared into our collective consciousness in Northern Ireland, but instead is lost amid the vast Troubles wastelands of communal bloodshed and grief. Forty-two years later the only people who still remembered how dad-of-two Millar's short life ended were his family, a few pigeon men and former colleagues.
Until now, that is. In a powerful new book, Anatomy of a Killing, award-winning journalist Ian Cobain examines in astonishing detail the circumstances of the RUC man's murder, as well as the motivations and influences of those who killed him.
It's an outstanding piece of work that reads like a thriller yet is also part social history, part political analysis. The impact of the loss of a single life is brought home in all its magnitude but the stories of those who joined the IRA and carried out the killing are also compelling, driven by circumstance, anger and fear, and riven with irony.
It's a deeply unsettling read too. Decades later Murray and his fellow terrorists, long freed from prison and some now pensioners, some working in peace and reconciliation, express no regret or remorse for what they did, for what Millar lost.
The book also examines in detail allegations by suspects of beatings and water-boarding while under interrogation. One is found hanged in his cell, but the circumstances of his death remain disputed.
It's a panoramic view of a time when no-one can be trusted and people live on their nerves. Secretary of State Roy Mason is floundering. The security forces are at odds how to respond to the escalating terrorism that saw 12 people die in the La Mon bombing. Murray's IRA murder squad are undone by an informer. People are disappeared. The backdrop roams from the Peace People to punk rock.
The relentless beat of history seems to curse the place - fascinatingly, Cobain draws a link between the murder of RIC officer Oswald Swanzy in Lisburn in 1920 and Millar's murder, almost 60 years later. "That might seem extraordinary but it was the case. By 1978, there hadn't been a police officer killed in Lisburn since [Swanzy] and the IRA wanted to strike fear by showing they could kill a police officer in the garrison town. They also wanted to avoid mass casualties like La Mon House. And then there was also opportunity - Millar was identified through pigeon racing."
Northern Ireland has had a long-held fascination for Cobain (60), who first visited here as a curious tourist in 1985. His work has included investigating allegations of collusion following the Loughinisland massacre.
"I've always wanted to try and understand more about what happened and why," he says. "I've also grown to appreciate microhistories which take one small incident or event and try and take them apart in a way that helps the reader understand a far wider picture. I thought it would be interesting to do that with the Troubles - to take a small incident and try and place it in as wide as possible political, historical, economic and security context"
Of all the thousands of men, women and children killed during the Troubles, why choose the murder of Constable McAllister? "It could almost have been any of those 3,700 people who I could have lighted upon," says Cobain. "Every one of them had a story, every one of their families have stories, every one of their killers have stories…examining any one of them would have helped achieve a wider understanding.
"In Millar's case I was particularly interested in learning more about the people who turned to political violence. I was very struck by the background of his killer who was not the sort of person you'd ordinarily expect to join the IRA. Through looking at that one case you can discover more about why people do what they did."
The family of Millar McAllister declined to be interviewed for the book, though Cobain says they weren't hostile to the project. Some of those responsible for his murder did talk to him, but later withdrew their co-operation.
The sensitivities of tackling such subject matter weighed heavily on Cobain and his book is rigorously impartial. "I tried very hard to be open-minded, honest and fair," he says.
In one of many ironies, Millar and Murray both grew up in Protestant working class families and joined the forces. Millar was born in Cogry, a village near Ballyclare, in 1942 and joined the RUC, aged 19, in 1961. Murray, born in 1948, grew up in the Tiger's Bay area of Belfast and at 17 joined the RAF and served in Aden.
By the early 1970s, however, the two men's lives were on very different paths. Millar had joined the RUC Photography Branch, was married to Nita and had two boys, Mark and Alan. His spare time was spent breeding and racing pigeons and he was Northern Ireland correspondent for the Pigeon Racing News and Gazette. Initially his reports appeared under the byline 'The Copper' with his picture; later his own name was used. When he was spotted at Castlereagh, the dots were joined …
Murray, meanwhile, was kicked out of the RAF within a year. Sporting loyalist tattoos, he worked as a steeplejack, married Kathleen, a Catholic, and settled in Tigers Bay. After the UVF demanded to know if he was attending chapel, the couple fled to Lenadoon in the west of the city where they had four children. Murray felt welcomed and wanted to fit in. He joined a football team, through which he met senior Provos. Caught storing IRA weapons in his shed, he claimed to have been badly beaten during interrogation at Castlereagh. Handed a suspended sentence, he immediately joined the IRA.
The trajectory of both men's lives was now heading towards that fateful encounter at Millar McAllister's home in Woodland Park on April 22, 1978. Cobain writes how Murray puts on a blue pin-stripe suit and carefully brushes his shoulder length hair "to look respectable… above suspicion". He wrapped his .455 revolver in a blue scarf, put it in a string bag and caught the bus to Lisburn and a rendezvous with a yellow Fiat 127, hijacked hours earlier.
Millar was looking after their sons Mark (11) and Alan (7) while his wife was working at a nearby home. As he put his lunch dishes in the sink, through the patterned glass in the back door, he saw a figure moving in his back garden…
The killing is described in unsparing detail: "Harry held the revolver in both hands and pointed it at Millar's lower chest. Then he squeezed the trigger, felt the recoil, and watched, mesmerised, as a hole appeared in Millar's brown sweater. Millar appeared to fly backwards in slow motion. As he tumbled half in, half out of the kitchen, Harry fired again, aiming at his head. He leaned into the kitchen and fired another shot into Millar's chest. Years later, Harry would say that he was trying to make the sign of the cross, attempting to shoot Millar in the forehead, sternum, the left side of his chest and then his right. 'We used to try and bless 'em' he claimed, despite his Protestant background."
Murray fled the scene, but by mid-afternoon was back in Lisburn playing in a football match. He was arrested shortly afterwards and sentenced to life imprisonment. During the 1983 IRA breakout from the Maze, he shot a prison officer in the leg before he's shot and recaptured.
Released in 1993, Murray still lives in Lenadoon and expresses no regret. "I thought what I did was right," he says in the book. As for Millar's sons? "That boy would be about the age of my son now." Cobain notes that he "smiles slightly" before adding: "I don't know what effect it would have on him seeing his father lying there." And being fatherless? "It's not for me to say how he feels about that. He was the enemy. It had to be done."
Two other men, Gary Smyth and Michael Culbert, were also handed life sentences for their part in the murder.
Smyth, who'd hijacked the car used in the killing, grew up in a family with "a fear of the unionist state" and was terrified of the Shankill Butchers. But he also had a brother who joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and served in the Falklands War.
Released after more than 12 years, the 61-year-old says now: "There was a war on, and I played my part."
While he feels no guilt, he does feel shame. His conviction for murder as opposed to hijacking rankles. Committed to the peace process, he has helped run a men's health centre in a loyalist area.
Culbert, an IRA intelligence officer involved in setting up the murder, was a devout Catholic social worker whose family had fled Bombay Street in 1969 when a loyalist mob attacked it. Freed in 1993, he has sat on the Victims and Survivors Forum and works in peace-building. Of Millar's murder, Culbert (71) says: "I stand over it, and no apology has or will be offered for actions taken by personnel in the IRA."
Anne Laverty, then 21, was waiting by a roadside to take the gun from Murray minutes after the murder. She had a mental and physical breakdown when questioned. Charged with possession of the firearm used to kill Millar, assisting offenders and IRA membership, she was given a three-year sentence. After release she had nothing more to do with the IRA.
Now 63, she doesn't talk about the past.
The man she handed the weapon to, Brian Maguire (27), was found hanged in Castlereagh. None of those charged with Millar's murder accept he took his own life.
Cobain began interviews for the book in 2012 and trawled official records in the national archives at Kew and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, visited museums and sifted through old newspaper reports. But he almost didn't finish it. "I put it down and turned away from it, but then I decided that I would. I finished it in March this year. I wrote the last couple of sentences after falling ill with coronavirus and I thought I'd better finish this book before this virus finishes me. Fortunately, I recovered in a few weeks."
His working title was 'Why on earth did you do that' and he had a British readership in mind. "There was a belief in Britain during the Troubles that those who were involved in political violence were simply bad people - a very simplistic approach to very complex deep-rooted problems."
I say that I find the IRA men's lack of regret disturbing. "Harry doesn't flinch [from what he did]. But of course the fact that someone doesn't flinch when talking to a journalist doesn't mean they don't have moments of reflection and possibly - possibly - regret. I would say Belfast is a place where a lot of men like to appear quite hard on the outside and possibly have felt the need to have kept that up."
He declines to be drawn on how Northern Ireland deals with legacy issues beyond saying "journalists and historians have a role to play in giving accurate and faithful accounts of what happened and of who died".
Nita McAllister remarried and moved away. Mark McAllister, the man who as a boy looked into the eyes of the man who had just killed his father, remains very distressed.
Millar McAllister is buried in Blaris cemetery, outside Lisburn. "He was just a couple of paragraphs in [the book] Lost Lives," adds Cobain.
"His death was a single paragraph in the Guardian and the Times. It was on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph that night and then forgotten. The Lisburn paper didn't cover the trial.
"I think it's worth trying to resurrect one man's story and tell something about his life, telling the story about why he came to die otherwise as far as history is concerned it's as if the ground just opened up and swallowed him."
There is no RUC crest on Millar's headstone. Just a small etching of a racing pigeon.
Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island, Granta, £18.99