Belfast Telegraph

Alan Simpson: If anyone is considering a return to violence, read the sorry trail of human misery that links the murders of Mary Travers and William McConnell

A stolen RUC revolver supplied the connection between two of the most notorious IRA killings of the Troubles, writes Alan Simpson

Police at the scene after William McConnell was shot dead by the IRA in 1984
Police at the scene after William McConnell was shot dead by the IRA in 1984
The scene in south Belfast where Mary Travers was murdered in 1984
Mary Travers
William McConnell

By Alan Simpson

I was greatly humbled to read of Beryl Quigley's sense of forgiveness towards the IRA gang who murdered her first husband, assistant prison governor William McConnell, in front of her and their three-year-old daughter Gail in March 1984.

I was the Detective Chief Inspector in charge of CID for that area and it was my responsibility to lead the investigation. As a result of my involvement in the case - and so many other murderous events during the Troubles - I have become somewhat inured to feelings of that nature. I'm not proud of that, but it's where I am and I can't aspire to Beryl's level of understanding.

A contributory factor to my state of mind is the fact that the investigation involved a much greater depth of evil than that which has been mentioned.

This particular IRA murder gang - consisting of two men and a woman - took over the house immediately across the street from where the McConnells lived on the evening before the murder. It was occupied by a genteel retired couple in their 80s and they were confined to their bedroom under guard throughout the night.

When Mr McConnell came out of his house at around 8am to go to work he routinely checked under his car for a booby-trap bomb and was in the act of saying goodbye to his wife and child when two gunmen ran across the road and shot him dead.

The female member of the gang had already started the car owned by the elderly couple and the killers got in and made good their escape.

The intelligence they held on the house they had taken over was, therefore, good, as they knew there would be little resistance and that a car was available to aid their getaway.

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A short time later the car was found abandoned on the Upper Newtownards Road; an eyewitness saw a lone female park it and walk off. The question was where the two gunmen had gone to between leaving the scene and the abandoning of the car.

I set up a major incident room at Strandtown RUC station and assembled a murder investigation team of approximately 20 officers who had served me well in the past and I knew they would put every effort into solving this murder.

The following morning I arrived into work at around 8am and read the Belfast incident reports for the previous 24 hours. I noticed with interest that, at around midnight, a car was stopped at an Army checkpoint on the Albert Bridge.

There were three male occupants - all heavily intoxicated - and they began to fight with the soldiers, resulting in the police being called. The three were arrested for assault and taken to Mountpottinger police station and lodged in the cells overnight.

I immediately recognised the names of the men, as they were listed as active members of the IRA. I wondered: could this be the McConnell murder gang making their way home to west Belfast after lying low all day in a drinking club in Short Strand?

It was too good an opportunity to miss, so I had them immediately rearrested under terrorism legislation and transferred to Castlereagh Detention Centre.

I had their outer clothes, including footwear, removed and they were issued with paper overalls. These seized items were immediately sent to the forensic science laboratory to be tested for firearms residue.

One of my junior detectives had a good look at the personal property taken from the suspects. He took a particular interest in a diary belonging to one of them: it was blank, except for some of the days immediately preceding the murder. Whatever had been written on these pages had been heavily obliterated with a black ballpoint pen. Very intriguing, I thought.

It, too, was delivered to the forensic laboratory and an expert was able to remove the black ink with a solvent and slowly some writings in blue ink began to appear.

Of the entry dated February 28, 1984, we could read: "10am Christines for scale map." The entry for March 1 was indecipherable, but thankfully some of the notes made for March 2 could be partly read: "9.00ETS Camels ... 5 ... Dene ... 20 CPA" (the dots representing words and letters which could not be read).

I sat down with some of my colleagues and tried to make sense of the writings. It seemed possible that "9.00amETS Camels" could mean estimated time of the shooting.

The "5 ... Dene" could be a misspelling of 5 Hawthornden (Drive), the scene of the shooting; "20 CPA" proved most interesting and Campbell Park Avenue lay midway between Hawthornden Drive and where the getaway car was found. There was more interesting news from the laboratory when a ballistics expert told me that the weapon used in the murder was a .38 Special Ruger revolver that had fallen from the holster of a police officer during a riot in west Belfast. It had now made its way into the armoury of the IRA.

By that stage we had established that the occupants of 20 Campbell Park Avenue were Owen and Margaret Connolly and their daughter Carmel. The "Camels" in the diary was most likely a misspelling of her name. It seemed highly probable that their address was an IRA safe house - right in the heart of middle-class east Belfast.

I immediately went to the house with other police and arrested the family. Under questioning at Castlereagh all three quickly confessed that their house had been used by the murder team and that, on occasions, they accommodated IRA fugitives.

Owen Connolly admitted carrying out the intelligence work on the movements of William McConnell and the occupants of the house opposite used by the killers.

Meanwhile, another team of forensic scientists was busy inside that house and they found a distinct shoe print on an area of vinyl floor tiling where one of the gang had sat throughout the night listening to the police radio network.

I went to the laboratory, where we examined the shoes belonging to the suspects and found one that seemed to match the photographed print. The scientist obtained a sheet of white card, ink-rolled the sole of the shoe and made an impression on the card. We could see almost immediately that it was a match.

It was clear that we had, indeed, netted the murder team and the evidence against them was steadily building. I charged all three with the murder and they appeared at Belfast Magistrates Court before Resident Magistrate Tom Travers.

I made my deposition and was then cross-examined by their solicitor (now deceased). I had known him for many years and the hatred he had for the RUC came from his eyes like laser beams.

He was extremely nasty towards me - almost to the extent of spitting at me in fury. I kept my dignity and Mr Travers cut short the hearing and remanded all men in custody.

I later charged Owen Connolly with the murder and his wife with assisting offenders. I had some sympathy for Carmel and believed she had, to a certain extent, been a victim of her parents.

Tragically, within a month Tom Travers, together with his wife Joan and daughter Mary, were attacked by the IRA as they made their way home on foot from the Catholic church at Derryvolgie Avenue in south Belfast.

Mary died almost instantly from a bullet wound to her back and her father was struck six times, but survived. They tried to kill Joan by putting a gun to her head, but it failed to go off and she was uninjured.

Most significantly, one of the weapons used by this gang was the Ruger revolver used to kill William McConnell. The IRA was making a venomous point by continuing to use the same gun and I believe part of the motive for this attack was to exact revenge for Mr Travers' strong response during my remand hearing.

After the attack Mary McArdle was arrested by a uniformed police patrol and found to be carrying the weapons used in the attack on the Travers' family.

She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein immediately awarded her a post as an adviser at Stormont on a salary of £75,000 a year to be funded by the taxpayer.

When the McConnell case came to trial the DPP decided to proceed against the man linked to the crime by the shoe print and the man whose diary had revealed so much.

Lord Justice Gibson, who was later killed in an explosion on the border with his wife Lady Cecily, sat on the trial, and he acquitted the man with the diary as he couldn't be satisfied that it alone was proof of involvement in the crime. He convicted the other man and sentenced him to life.

Later, Owen and Margaret Connolly were arraigned; he pleaded guilty to the murder, while she received a suspended sentence.

One of the reasons I write this after so many years is that, as a result of the current political deadlock at Stormont, combined with the border issues over Brexit, I worry that we are blindly edging towards another conflict.

Anyone considering reopening a terrorist campaign would do well to take into account the lengthy trail of human misery outlined above.

  • Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity And Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books, 2010)

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