Gail Walker: Hazel Stewart doesn’t tug easily on our heartstrings, she has quite enough self-pity
Hazel Stewart is very good at keeping quiet. She was able to stay silent for almost 20 years following the murders of her husband and her lover’s wife.
No matter how ghastly the events of that bleak night in 1991, when those two hapless spouses were coldly done away with, no matter whatever inner workings of her conscience, she kept her silence.
During her trial too, she barely uttered a word, electing not to take the stand and give her version of the events surrounding a crime that shocked and scandalised the entire country.
Now after all this time — and facing an equally long time in prison — Stewart has suddenly felt the urge to speak.
There’s no mystery as to why that is. An appeal against her conviction is underway. There is always another die to cast.
Her decision to give an interview is certainly not because she has any time for the Press — after all, she states that the papers will “try to destroy” whatever life she might have upon release.
No, let’s be straight about this: she invited my colleague Liam Clarke to visit her in Hydebank Women’s Prison because she hopes her words will alter the image seared into the mind of the jury and the public of a calculating murderess, driven to kill by sexual desire.
Of a mother who could listen to the death-throes of the father of her two children, then bring them up to believe he had taken his own life.
Of a woman so steely, so utterly determined to get away with it, that she was still keeping her counsel on that heinous crime long after Colin Howell had combusted and let it all out.
So, what are we to make of Hazel in her own words?
For all the lurid details and inexplicable evil of her crimes, it would take a heart of stone not to have some pity for a wretch who made such dreadful decisions that she finds herself in Stewart’s predicament.
After all, here is a woman who once enjoyed a comfortable life on the north coast, tending to the garden of her plush home, hoping now to get a few hours in the prison garden because “it means you are getting in the fresh air”.
Yet even in this interview she does not emerge as a woman who tugs easily at the heartstrings.
Prison life does not appear to have taken too great a toll on her; she still takes care to use a little make-up and wear her favourite scent.
Despite the humdrum details of life inside — “she wants to learn the guitar and go to fitness courses” — Stewart only deepens the conundrum of how a woman apparently so ordinary can be capable of such extraordinary cruelty.
And even now, as she gives us a glimpse into her true feelings, she remains guarded, in denial — and still defiant.
She insists on her complete innocence of the crimes, in the teeth of her admitted entanglement with Howell, her presence during the murder of her husband, her subsequent persistent secrecy, her lies to police and the verdict of a jury of her peers.
She offers no more coherent an explanation than what was presented by her barristers in court.
However, she does insist that she is “not a stony cold person”; if she came across that way in court, she claims it was because she had to keep herself together for the sake of her children and her husband David.
Still, surely the point is that she was capable of holding it together?
Again, keeping the secret of the murders for 20 years was out of a desire to be there for her children at all costs.
“If I was someone who was crying or upset or depressed or on tablets I would be no use to them,” she says.
“I am glad that I was as strong as I was for them because to me they had turned out very well.”
That’s very true, Hazel. But many will be unable to read those words without also pondering upon what her son and daughter lost — the love of a good father.
They will also reflect on the fact that Stewart’s life over the past two decades was no dreary, stoic battle to stay brave for the little ones.
There is no sense of a fearful woman, constantly looking over her shoulder.
She continued to see Howell for five years after the murders, then dated other men and remarried.
There were fun nights out, holidays, work-outs at the gym. It wasn’t quite an existence steeped in regret, let alone remorse.
A crucial part of Stewart’s side of things is that she was frightened of Howell, under his control, and also that she apparently never believed he would go ahead with his plan to kill.
When he did, immediate fear for her own safety and that of her children would surely have prompted her to tell all when the police called to her door and she met them on her own?
Pressed on this point, however, Stewart can only tell us that, well, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
She regrets not speaking up but — again — she had to do what was best for her children.
The woman who cheated on her husband with another woman’s husband also strikes a prurient note, saying she doesn’t think the sexual details of her affair with Howell should have been raked over in the courtroom.
One can understand her unease — ordinary embarrassment, really — but given the crimes, it’s impossible that the driving motive which inspired them could not have been examined.
Perhaps most bothersome of all for Stewart is that recurring theme of conscience. She never considered telling her second husband David or her children the truth because “it was bad enough without dragging [them] into it”.
The appalling reality is that, though they didn’t know it, they were already mired in it. She wasn’t so stricken with angst that she couldn’t go ahead with marrying David, a former policeman, a closeness to the law which shows a bravado in itself.
And her children were helplessly caught up in it from the instant she decided not to try and save their father’s life.
Of all the pitiful details in this story of sex, betrayal and murder, it is those two young people who pull at the heartstrings. The son and daughter who, having lost a father, must cling to a mother no matter what her crime because she is the only parent they have left.
Most of all, though, we feel for Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell, the innocents who lost everything — their lives.
Oddly, Hazel Stewart has barely a word to say about them. Perhaps, though, that’s understandable.
“Trevor really loved me, he was quite a soft person,” she says.
She betrayed and then killed a man who, she admits, really loved her.
Sympathy for Hazel Stewart? Many will feel she has enough self-pity all of her own.