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Why Hazel Stewart is the most brazen, shameless woman in Northern Ireland

By Fionola Meredith

Shame: that's a word you rarely hear these days. It's unfashionable, an outdated idea. Nobody, it seems, feels shame any more, no matter what they have done.

Experiencing shame would require you to admit you had made a mistake, done something wrong. It requires you to take responsibility for your actions, to own up to the harm you have caused, and perhaps take steps to atone for it.

And who in the world does that? Apologies, if they happen at all, come with a get-out clause nowadays: "I am very sorry, if I have offended anyone." It's official: we don't do shame.

Even murderers are immune to it. Hazel Stewart, who callously helped to dispatch her husband and her lover's wife, then covered it up for 20 years - and indeed may have done so forever had Colin Howell not confessed to the crime - is not sorry for what she did.

In her mind she's not even guilty. Just a poor, soft, weak woman, led astray by a charismatic psychopath. As much a victim in her own way as the pair who ended up gassed in a car.

That's why she keeps on trying to challenge the verdict: in October last year she lost her appeal, but she's not giving up, and has since applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

But amid all these protestations of innocence, what is particularly unpleasant is Hazel's tenacious hold on her murdered husband's money. Stewart, showing a very different side to her personality from the one she'd prefer us to believe, is determined to hang on to the police pension benefits that she inherited from Trevor Buchanan.

In fact she plans to take High Court action over being refused legal aid to defend a bid to reclaim the pension cash. Yes, she'd like to use more of our money to help her keep her money.

The National Crime Agency, reasonably enough, is seeking an order compelling her to give the benefits back. Because there's something not quite right about killing your husband then reaping the financial benefits, isn't there?

Having been unanimously convicted of both killings in 2011, and her extraordinary actions exposed to full public view, you might think Hazel would be a little wary of hanging on so desperately to her victim's cash. Just for the dirty look of the thing, if nothing else, because any kind of moral stance clearly went out the window 25 years ago.

Not she. And there's only one word for it - shameless.

Following The Secret, the recent ITV dramatisation of the Coleraine murders and their aftermath, there has been much renewed discussion about Stewart's culpability.

People have questioned whether such a drama, even if it is closely based on real-life events, can ever give a faithful or accurate picture of the characters involved and their true motivations.

But let's remember that Hazel's role in the crime had already been laid out in full detail in court, and a judge had pronounced most severely on her actions.

We have the factual account, and it is entirely uncompromising. Stewart and Howell were, without doubt, "in it together".

Justice Hart said that Stewart knew what Howell planned to do, yet she did nothing to prevent the murders. She knew she had to make sure Trevor was sedated. She opened the garage door to let Howell in. When Howell went into the bedroom, she was aware he had already murdered his wife Lesley and that he was going to murder Trevor, yet she did nothing to stop him. Afterwards, she gave Howell clothes to dress her husband's corpse, and she cleared up the crime scene, burning the hosepipe that had been used to channel the exhaust fumes, and washing the bedsheets.

The judge said: "She could have told someone else, she could have told the police. Even after Lesley Howell had been murdered she could have prevented Howell from entering her house and killing her husband by any one of a number of actions, such as not opening the garage door to him, locking the door against him, waking her husband, ringing the police or alerting her neighbour, to mention but a few.

"While she knew Howell was murdering her husband in another room she waited and did nothing to save his life. Had she had a spark of compassion for her husband even at that late stage she would have tried to prevent his murder."

There have been other times that I have been struck by brazen behaviour on the part of people who have carried out terrible crimes.

Last year I was revolted to hear that IRA man Seamus Kearney, who murdered RUC officer John Proctor as he visited his newborn son in hospital, had reported his victim's widow to the police.

Kearney was mortally offended by some comments that June McMullin had made about him, so he went running to the cops to whine about it. Which is a particularly twisted irony, coming from the convicted cop killer.

Sometimes it's the sheer pettiness that gets you. Mass murderer Anders Breivik apparently complained because he didn't like the lukewarm coffee and plastic cutlery he was forced to put up with in jail. Indeed, he considered his microwaved meals to be "worse than water-boarding".

Playing on archaic ideas about women's supposedly softer, kinder, more pliant and nurturing nature, Hazel Stewart would like us to believe that she was nothing more than the dupe of Colin Howell. That it was Howell and Howell alone who bears the real responsibility for the crimes.

But astute Judge Hart knew better. He saw through the passive exterior to the ruthlessness beneath.

"While she had expressed sorrow and regret during police interviews, that was more about the effect of these events on herself, her children and her present husband than about the effects of the murders on all the others whose lives had been ended and blighted by the events," he observed.

"I consider that she has expressed little real remorse for what she did, rather the sorrow and regret which she expressed to the police was largely because of the situation in which she found herself, and not for the events in which she played her part."

And now she wants to cling on to her murdered husband's money.

Like I say. Shameless.

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