Suzanne Breen: Willie Frazer spoke his mind, no matter how much trouble it got him into. He’ll be missed
On paper, Willie Frazer and I should not have got on. We disagreed on countless political issues but from the moment we first met, we hit it off.
Nobody could ever accuse Willie of being fake or lacking guts. He said what he believed, no matter how much trouble it got him into.
Willie didn't make his arguments from a safe distance away. He took them right to his opponents' front doors. Despite all their rhetoric, what unionist politicians would have the courage to arrive at the home of Slab Murphy or Border Fox Dessie O'Hare?
Willie would show up at events, even if he ran the risk of a dig in the mouth. He once phoned the offices of a dissident group to find out the time of a white-line picket. The woman answering the phone recognised his voice from a previous encounter. 'Hello Willie!' she said.
At one public victims' meeting I covered last year, Willie stood up, said his bit, and departed. He was attacked by all and sundry after he left. "I suppose they were all ripping the back out of me, girl?" he said later.
Willie was not just someone who talked about helping those who lost loved ones in the Troubles. Time and time again, victims I interviewed told me how he was the person they could ring at 3am when they were feeling low, and he would rise out of bed, get into the car, and stay to chat for as long as it took. It wasn't always words of comfort either. Those robbed of the breadwinner in the family, often had very real financial needs. Willie was always the first to put his hand in his pocket.
In 2009, I found myself at the centre of a source protection case when the PSNI wanted my mobile phone and laptop. Willie didn't hesitate to sign the petition against the police action.
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"Much as I loathe the Real IRA, I want to know what they're saying, not what Huge Orde wants me to hear," he said.
It was perhaps the only time his name appeared next to Christy Moore's. Willie always had a sense of humour. Well, he had to, given his own mishaps like confusing an Italian flag flown outside a school for the Tricolour.
Willie's tenacity was remarkable. It didn't matter how many setbacks he, or the various groups he formed, experienced, he'd always bounce back, larger than life, with more ideas and plans.
He stood for election enough times, often losing his deposit, but it never deterred or disheartened him.
From the causes of the Troubles to the flying of the Union flag at City Hall, Willie and I were poles apart.
But I respected his views because they were from the heart and I knew the pain that was there too.
Thirteen years ago, he took me on his south Armagh tour.
We met at his museum of security force memorabilia in Markethill. Willie pointed to the old holsters and riot gear. "We'd need these with us today, and bullet-proof vests too. I hope you're prepared for this, girl!" he quipped.
There followed tales of the welcome he'd received on previous trips. A stop at the home of former IRA chief-of-staff Thomas 'Slab' Murphy was on the itinerary.
Before we set off, Willie phoned Crossmaglen police station. "Is that you, Charlie? This is Willie Frazer. I'm heading into your part of the world. We'll be taking a trip to Larkin's Road - you know, where Mr Murphy lives. We might be following the odd oil tanker too," he said.
Charlie, who probably thought the trip was mad, mumbled something, and off we set. It was a beautiful October afternoon and Willie pointed to the soft rolling hillside, majestic in its autumn gold.
"These were the killing fields where my friends and family were butchered ... the grass is dripping in blood. I lost my da, two uncles, two cousins and six friends," he said.
Our first stop was at the site of the old Glennane barracks where UDR members - Robert Crozier, Paul Blakely, and Sydney Hamilton - were killed, and 40 people injured in 1991.
A 2,500lb IRA lorry bomb was rolled into the base.
We stopped at Kingsmill where 10 Protestant workers were taken off a mini-bus and shot dead in retaliation for loyalist murders.
A mile on was Whitecross, the Catholic village where Willie grew up. "That was our house," he said, pointing to a small terrace. "It was more like a prison than a home, we'd that much barbed wire round it. There were countless attacks. They left a bomb on the kitchen window.
"Once, my father came home to find a sledge-hammer stuck in the door where the IRA had tried to break in. My mother put a rifle out the window. She would have shot them, but she didn't know how to get the safety catch off."
Another mile away, we stopped again. "I got the biggest hiding of my life in that thorn hedge," he said. "They ordered me to say 'Up the Provies' and I wouldn't. I'd gone to school with these fellows, played Gaelic with them."
We crossed the road. "That's where the IRA murdered my oul' boy," Willie said. Robert Frazer (49), UDR man and a father-of-nine, was shot dead leaving a friend's farm. 'Peace, perfect peace,' said the roadside memorial. "Nobody was ever charged," Willie explained. "Over 98% of republican murders in south Armagh remain unsolved. I bring visitors here because it's important not to forget."
Willie expressed no sympathy for IRA dead, but we stopped where Majella O'Hare, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, was shot dead by the British Army in 1976. "My older brother and her older brother ran about together. Of course, I feel sorry for her family," he said.
Next was Tullyvallen Orange Hall where five Protestants were killed in 1975. "Masked IRA men machine-gunned the hall. I was 15 but, even now, I can remember the awful stench of burning flesh," Willie said.
On the road to Cullyhanna, we passed where UDR man Joe McCullough had his throat cut and was hung upside down from a tree, his body booby-trapped, in 1976.
Of course, it was a completely one-sided tour, and there was a colossal amount of death and destruction inflicted on the nationalist community too.
But it was an insight into the backstory that had shaped Willie, and which never left him. We drove through Crossmaglen, passing an IRA monument and Paddy Short's pub. "We'll hardly bother going in today," Willie joked.
Near the border, we passed numerous flashy villas, but Slab's place was less ostentatious. "I'll say one thing for him - he's as happy in an old van as he is in a new Merc," said Willie.
He stopped for a photograph outside. I asked him if he ever feared for his safety. "I know the risks, but I'm walking with the Lord ... and I've learned to drive fast!" he quipped.
My last conversation with Willie was when, although seriously ill himself, he rang after my friend Lyra McKee was shot dead by dissident republicans in Derry two months ago.
She had interviewed Willie and they had instantly warmed to each other. "I don't know how welcome or not they'll be, but pass on my deepest condolences to Lyra's family," he said. "And tell them if there's anything I can do, just to ask."
It was a pleasure knowing you, Willie. How boring the world would be if we all agreed on everything. Thanks for the memories.