Alan Simpson: Sinn Fein's Sean Bateson eulogises actions of IRA killers but he has less to say about innocent Catholic murdered in retaliation
Provo bombers took the life of mother-of-one Yvonne Dunlop (26), but they also caused the death of Sean McCrystal, who was beaten and set alight in a loyalist revenge attack. Alan Simpson reports
I joined the RUC in February 1970, just six months after the Battle of the Bogside, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the Troubles. I spent the following 25 years at the coal-face of anti-terror policing, mainly in CID, and ended my service as a detective superintendent.
I recently had cause to do some research into my police career and was staggered - almost to the point of incredulity - to discover that I had attended close to 100 murder scenes, in addition to bombings, shootings and all the other evil aspects of a terrorist campaign.
I was, therefore, looking forward with considerable trepidation to this year, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Troubles, not knowing what events had been prepared by terrorist sympathisers to mark the event.
The first major blow came last April when the journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in my home city of Londonderry. And, shortly afterwards, we learned that 'Soldier F' was to be charged with murder in relation to Bloody Sunday.
There has always been tension in certain communities during the marching season, with tribal areas clearly marked out with their respective flags.
But, this year, there has undoubtedly been more intensity, particularly with the addition of the flag of the Parachute Regiment in loyalist areas.
Bonfires were much higher and "decorated" with photos and emblems from the opposing camp. Dissident republicans tried hard to draw the PSNI into what could be long-term riots, but wiser heads in the Police Service prevailed and these were avoided.
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One of the most disturbing incidents, for me, was reading that Sean Bateson, Sinn Fein mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, tweeted the following rhyming quatrain:
Oh, gallant South Derry you are forever blessed,
In the struggle for freedom, you've given your best.
There's Hughes and there's Bateson, Sheridan and Lee,
and inscribed with their names now brave Tom
The persons mentioned in this poem were all active members of the IRA and this obviously gives us a glimpse of the inner thinking of Sean Bateson.
That's where his thoughts should have stayed, as he represents all sides of the community in his area, many of whom have lost loved ones to the guns and bombs of the IRA.
As the result of my police service, I'm able to add some first-hand knowledge of the contributions these five men made to the cause of freedom, as remembered by Sean Bateson.
First, John Bateson (19), Joseph Sheridan (20) and Martin Lee (19) were killed in 1971 when the IRA bomb they were carrying in their car in Magherafelt went off prematurely. A loaded revolved was found among the debris, so there can be little doubt they were on a murder mission of some sort.
Second, in 1976, I was a young detective sergeant in headquarters crime squad. Our job was to reinforce local CIDs when they were experiencing an upsurge in terrorism.
The squad had already cleared Carrickfergus and Ballyclare of the scourge of the UVF and returned these areas to normality, with no more murders, or racketeering.
On Saturday, October 9, 1976, I was relaxing at home when my phone rang. The caller was the duty officer in the crime squad offices and I was told to contact my investigation team and make our way immediately to Ballymena where the IRA had partially blitzed the town, killing a young woman.
On arrival we were fully briefed and learned that at least two IRA bombing teams had arrived in Ballymena late-morning and had begun planting blast incendiaries throughout shops in the town.
Several had gone off, including one in the Alley Katz boutique killing the owner Yvonne Dunlop (26). Her nine-year-old son Denis just escaped with his life. Witnesses saw him tumble out of the shop, which was by now ablaze. We also learned that four members of the bombing team had been caught in a premature explosion in Fairhill. They had been inside a Toyota car when a loud explosion occurred.
A nearby off-duty policeman ran to the scene and found the wreckage of a car. He saw a man lying on the ground with a leg blown off and three others standing around with blackened faces and bleeding eyes.
The police officer immediately summoned ambulances and all four were transferred to the local hospital and, later, as bombing suspects, moved to the secure wing of Musgrave Park Hospital. One of these was the aforementioned Thomas McElwee, who later died on hunger strike.
We also learned that a uniformed constable had detained a young woman as a suspected bomber and she was now in the cells. Her name was Ann Marie Bateson, from Ballymaguigan in south Derry.
A colleague and I were detailed to interview her. When I opened the cell door to take her to an interview room I half-expected to find something akin to an ogre, but instead I was presented with a quite attractive, well-dressed young woman.
She initially denied any involvement in the bombing, but bearing in mind that she had been isolated in the cellblock since around 1pm, she was probably unaware of the murder of Yvonne Dunlop and the premature explosion that had injured four of the bombers.
As we carefully unfolded these details to her, a sense of shock set in and she confessed to being one of the bombers.
She went on to to give us the full story of the bombing attack and all of those involved. She mentioned that Francis Hughes had been the brains behind it.
When I returned Ann Marie Bateson to the cellblock many hours later, I was quite taken by the sight of eight men standing facing the wall of the corridor, each under guard by a uniform constable. I immediately went to the CID office and discovered that, during our time with Ann Marie Bateson, a Catholic man named Sean McCrystal had been murdered in the town by loyalists, with whom he regularly drank. The men in the corridor were suspects and there were insufficient cells to house them.
I obtained more details of the murder and discovered that Mr McCrystal had been severely beaten by his erstwhile friends, who had then poured petrol on him and set him ablaze - all in apparent retaliation for the killing of Yvonne Dunlop.
At the trial stage nine of the Ballymena bombers were sentenced to life imprisonment and two of Mr McCrystal's killers also received life sentences. One of them later took his own life in prison.
My colleagues and I spent three hard weeks finishing off the investigation into the bombings and I was looking forward to a few days off. It was not to be.
Just when I was packing up I received a phone call from HQ telling me to make my way to Springfield Road in Belfast, as my close friend, Detective Constable Noel McCabe, had been shot dead by the IRA.
Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity And Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books, 2010)