Woman who fought for 37 years to get to truth of an IRA murder
When Terry Herdman was murdered by the IRA in June 1973, his girlfriend Libby had no photograph of him that she might be able to show their daughter Lisa when she was older. Now she has two.
One was taken by the British Army when they had detained Terry for questioning. It is a standard mugshot. A soldier gave it to her after learning that she had no picture of him.
The second was given to her recently by the Historical Enquiries (HET) team investigating the killing. It shows the body of Terry Herdman slumped at the side of the road where he was shot. HET investigators took her to the spot where Terry was shot so that she could lay flowers there.
Aside from that, she has only her memories.
Terry and Libby grew up in Andersonstown, in streets adjacent to Finaghy Road North. They started going out together when she was 14 and he was 15.
By the early 1970s the area they lived in had become one of the most energetic centres for IRA operations in the city.
Their relationship developed behind barricades, in a no-go area in which IRA men and women operated freely, carrying guns in the streets and imposing on neighbours for billets.
The IRA may have thought of itself as a disciplined army with a brigade structure. In fact, its operations were visible to the whole neighbourhood back then.
One day in 1972 a gunman stood yards from Libby’s front door firing an Armalite rifle into the air at a helicopter, with little regard for the possibility that he might hit it and bring it crashing down on them.
Libby and Terry were both familiar with the actions of the IRA locally.
The unit based in the area at the time included men who had escaped from the Maidstone prison ship, including Tucker Kane and Tommy Gorman, and other well-known figures like Bobby Storey.
It was Kane and Gorman who, in November 1971, sprang several men from Crumlin Road Prison — the Crumlin Kangaroos — by taking up armed positions on the perimeter wall and extending rope ladders to the prisoners below.
‘The Provos know that Terry was not an informer’
Shortly after Libby got pregnant, Terry’s parents sent him to live with his grandparents on the border at Belturbet for his own safety, at a time when Andersonstown had become too dangerous.
Terry continued to write to her and to his new friends in the IRA.
Then, one Sunday night in June 1973, Terry Herdman left his grandparents’ home to meet some of those friends.
Two days later his body was found with two gunshot wounds to the head near Clogher in Co Tyrone.
A piece of brown paper attached to him bore the message ‘tout’.
Libby Abrams now knows from republican representatives who visited her at home that whatever offence Terry Herdman gave to the Provos, he did not knowingly betray their secrets to the Army or the police. A Historical Enquiries Team report says the same thing. She wants that publicly acknowledged by Gerry Adams because of the stigma that attaches to the informer.
People make cruel remarks. She says that a brother of Terry’s was taunted in a club on the Falls Road by republicans who told him they had “put two bullets” into Terry and that they had offered him a cigarette, but he had declined it because he didn’t smoke.
“The Provos know that he was not an informer,” says Libby.
But why did they kill him?
Their own word is that he was a “liability”.
The messengers from the republican movement said that a decision to execute him “still stands”.
The Provisionals will not countenance, even 37 years later, that killing a teenager who was “a liability” was wrong.
“In that case we were all liabilities,” says Libby. “You could fill Milltown cemetery with liabilities. We all saw what they were doing.”
Terry Herdman was a teenager who was perhaps no better at keeping the secrets of the IRA than they were themselves.
For many years Libby felt that she could not demand answers from the IRA and that it might be dangerous to challenge them on the murder of Terry Herdman.
Now, in the changed political climate, she feels it is safer than it was to stand up to the IRA. And the recent shock of discovering that Lisa, the daughter she had by Terry, has cancer brought her mind to focus on the unfinished business of clearing her old boyfriend’s name.
Lisa herself says she feels cheated by the lack of detail in the message imparted to her by republican emissaries.
She says: “They were even a bit flippant about it, as if it was just cold facts.”
How does Lisa feel about having only two pictures of her father, one a mugshot and the other a picture of his dead body?
“My own son is now 19,” Lisa says.
“He is two years older than my daddy was when they killed him. And yet he is only a young boy.”
Cold case team will examine over 3,000 murders
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which investigated the murder of Terry Herdman, is a unit of the PSNI set up in September 2005 to investigate 3,269 Troubles-related murders between 1968 and 1998.
The team aims to bring closure to many bereaved families who still have unanswered questions about the death or disappearance of their loved ones.
It has already reported on several of the most controversial Troubles killings.
- Damien Walsh (17) was shot dead as he worked at a coal supply business in Twinbrook in 1993. This year the HET reported that undercover British soldiers were watching as loyalists murdered the Catholic teenager.
- William McGreanery (41) was shot by a soldier in Londonderry in 1971 when he was walking past an observation point. An investigation by the HET into Mr MrGreanery's death found that he was not carrying a firearm and he posed no threat to the soldiers.
- Majella O'Hare from Whitecross was on her way to church on August 14, 1976, when she was hit in the back by a bullet. A HET report backed an earlier RUC investigation which found that the private who shot her was not returning fire, as he had claimed.
- A HET report into the loyalist murders of three south Armagh brothers in 1976 exonerated them and their family of any links to paramilitarism. Catholic brothers John Martin, Brian and Anthony Reavey were shot dead by six masked men who burst into their home in Whitecross in January 1976.
- Five Catholics were killed when the UDA opened fire on the Sean Graham bookmaker’s shop on the Ormeau Road in 1992. The HET report confirmed one of the guns used by the UDA gang had previously been returned to them by RUC officers.