Peadar Heffron's anger at GAA pals who shunned him for joining PSNI and the dissidents who ruined his life
Former PSNI officer Peadar Heffron has spoken publicly for the first time about his fury at the dissident republican terrorists who planted a bomb under his car that left him with life-changing injuries.
And he has also revealed his disappointment at his former GAA club for not standing by him. The Co Antrim man's life was turned upside down in a split second on a snowy morning in January 2010 when a booby-trap under-car device exploded as he drove to work at Grosvenor Road police station in Belfast.
Peadar, a powerful athlete who was passionate about being part of a new generation of policing in Northern Ireland, spent months bed-bound in hospital. His suffered multiple injuries, including the loss of his right leg, and is now in a wheelchair. He has endured years of painful medical treatment.
For years Peadar maintained his silence about the brutal attack but has now opened up to former Derry GAA star Joe Brolly in an interview with the Dublin-based Sunday Independent.
Describing the moment Fiona, his wife of just four months, found him amid the devastation metres from their home, Peadar admits he still feels angry about what happened to him and disappointed at Creggan GAA club for not supporting him.
"I'm a very bitter man. After the bomb, not even a letter from the club," he said.
"Two of the committee visited my parents' house when I was in a coma. My father Frank played for Creggan, he was the club referee and the treasurer.
"They said to him when they arrived: 'We are not here on behalf of the club, only in a personal capacity'."
Peadar, now in his early 40s, spent 11 months in hospital following the blast and was released in November 2010.
As a consequence of his life-changing injuries he was invalided out of the PSNI, and revealed that over the last seven years he is still suffering the after effects.
Pieces of foam from his car seat and other shrapnel have been making their way out of his body, most recently last December when a rusty lump of metal was removed from his pelvis by the surgeons.
The attack remains a vivid memory as he rebuilds his life and he remembers every painful detail.
"It was Friday, January 8, 2010. There was 10 inches of snow on the ground when I backed out of the driveway to go to work at Grosvenor Road station in Belfast," he said.
"A half-mile from the house I felt a bang and the car spun off the road. I looked down and my legs were on fire.
"I thought: 'I have to get out of the car'. I tried to climb out but for some reason my legs wouldn't work.
"I pulled myself out by my arms and rolled onto the ground on my back. I felt no pain.
"I just couldn't feel my legs. I kept thinking: 'Why can't I feel my legs?'
"When the ambulance men arrived they turned me over and it was then that they had the 'Oh f***' moment."
His wife was first on the scene and discovered her husband in the shocking aftermath of the blast.
After Peadar had been moved to the ambulance, she looked at his car and saw a hole in the driver's seat the size of a football and immediately knew what had happened.
She was the one to break the news that it was a bomb: "It was a bomb, Peadar. An under-car booby trap."
Brolly writes of how, in the ambulance, Peadar flew into a terrible rage, shouting: "The b******* got me, they got me."
He fought violently to break free of the straps, causing mayhem in the crowded ambulance. They got to Antrim Area Hospital within a few minutes where he was injected by the trauma team and went into a coma.
He received 140 units of blood as medics fought to save his life. They were forced to amputate his right leg, and then there were hours of reconstructive surgery.
He remained critically ill for three weeks before being brought out of the coma. He now has urostomy and colostomy bags. He also has a mobile seat cover which prevents him rolling over when he sits.
Seven years later Peadar says of living: "It's a life. But it's not my life."
Brolly interviews Peadar at a match involving the PSNI's Gaelic team. He describes him as a big, strong robust man - then notes he is in a wheelchair.
In a later in-depth interview with Brolly, Peadar describes making his decision to join the PSNI in 2002 as his contribution towards the peace-building effort.
"I joined the PSNI as soon as it was formed because deep down, naively, I thought this was the little bit I could do... you're not allowed to laugh when I say this Joe... to help this island become one again.
"I thought if policing here was normalised, we could in due course join with the Garda and then further down the line, who knows," he revealed.
He described the response to his decision to join the PSNI as ranging from disbelief to hostility within his local community.
He had played Gaelic games for Creggan Kickhams near Randalstown since he was a child and also loved the Irish language.
He was a rising star in the club. By 21 he was the full-back for the Creggan senior footballers and helped them to win the Antrim intermediate championship. Four years later, at the age of 25, he decided to join the PSNI.
Peadar said his parents initially laughed when he told them and assumed he was joking, but later gave him their full support when they realised that he was serious.
However, when he told his team-mates in 2002, he described them being "stunned into silence".
Some tried to talk him out of it, while he said that others stopped speaking to him.
Brolly wrote: "No one supported him. After the meeting, no one said a word to him. His boyhood friends never spoke to him again. He went to the first training session, and when he went into the changing room the chatter stopped.
"When teams were picked for training games, he was left standing. A stubborn b******, he simply joined in with one of the teams and played as a spare man. No one passed him the ball or acknowledged him."
Next thing posters went up around the parish warning young people against joining the PSNI, but Peadar continued going to his training sessions as usual, "never missing a session".
He claims that he spoke to one club official pleading with him for his support, emphasising the PSNI was "supposed to be a new beginning", only to be told: "I can't son. I can't do that."
The difficulties continued with another official approaching him to say that he was putting the club in a "very awkward position".
It came to a head a couple of months later when he described how four local republican activists approached him.
Peadar described them as "eye-balling him" before handing him a leaflet warning against "the dangers" of joining the PSNI.
"I got into my car, drove home and never came back. It had gotten too personal. Too serious.
"It was an awful wrench. I never recovered," he revealed.
Nevertheless he stood by his decision and went on to join the PSNI a month later and became one of the first wave of new recruits.
However, it was not an easy transition and he described initially feeling very isolated.
He said: "We had to introduce ourselves to everyone else in our class. All the others were RUC reservists, or ex-soldiers, or from bank or office jobs. There was no one from my background.
"Not a single other GAA man. I was a fish out of water. Even the accents were different. It was in a world I had never been exposed to before."
But he persisted with his dream and went on to help form the PSNI Gaelic football team, and became their full-back.
Their first game came against the Garda in 2002, but it was played behind closed doors in Dublin and the names of the PSNI team players were anonymised.
From those low-key beginnings the PSNI GAA team went on to grow and the side played their first game against a club team, St Brigid's, in 2006 amid heavy security.
Brolly wrote of having supported the PSNI team personally, and despite being targeted in graffiti for showing support, he added that it "seemed to herald a new era, where our lads in the PSNI would be able to enter a league and play as normal".
Despite all he had suffered, Peadar remained a fighter, with the Sunday Independent reporting that Damien Tucker, the first manager of the PSNI team, remarking: "I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes the first Gaelic footballer to take the field with a prosthetic. I never saw spirit like it."
Although that prosthetic was not possible, Peadar remains involved in sport, playing wheelchair basketball and tennis.
He also plays full-back for the Ulster wheelchair hurling team.
He now lives in north Down, a long way from the tight-knit community in Creggan where he assumed he would live his life.
"When I joined we were promised peace. A new beginning. I thought I'd remain part of my community, a community I loved. I thought I'd play football for Creggan and drink pints in O'Boyle's," he said.
"That we'd have children and I'd take the underage teams. Now I'm in a wheelchair. I live in north Down. It wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to happen."