Belfast Telegraph

How evil revenge cost Mary Travers her life

The 1984 killing of a prison governor may have started the sequence of events which ended in the murder of a magistrate's daughter, writes former detective Alan Simpson

As a retired detective superintendent and former deputy head of CID for Belfast, I am moved by the plight of Ann Travers, who is undergoing a most distressing episode in a greatly dignified manner.

This was brought on by the tactless appointment of Mary McArdle to a senior position with Sinn Fein at Stormont. Ms McArdle played a major role in destroying Ann Travers' family by being a principal participant in the murder of her sister, Mary, and the serious wounding of her father, the magistrate Tom Travers.

The squalid episode began for me on March 6, 1984, when I was called to the scene of the murder of assistant prison governor William McConnell outside his home in east Belfast.

He was in the process of checking his car for booby-traps before leaving for work at the Maze when two men ran across from the house opposite and shot him dead.

I led the investigation into William McConnell's murder and it transpired that the night before, a gang of two males and one female had taken over the house opposite, imprisoning the elderly couple who lived there.

When Mr McConnell emerged around 8am, the two male terrorists ran across the road and carried out the murder, while the female prepared to drive them away in the pensioners' car.

As the result of extremely hard work by my murder squad, a few days later I charged three men with the killing. They appeared before Tom Travers at Belfast Magistrates Court.

I gave evidence that I believed I could connect all three with the murder. Their solicitor, the late Oliver Kelly, then subjected me to an acrimonious 15-minute cross-examination in an effort to persuade the court that there was insufficient evidence to remand the accused in custody.

Tom Travers ruled in my favour and the three accused were duly remanded. None of us - except, perhaps, the three men in the dock - realised he had potentially signed his own death warrant.

When the three men had been arrested, a 1984 diary was found on one of them which was completely blank except for the five dates immediately preceding William McConnell's murder.

Whatever had been written on these dates had been heavily obliterated by ballpoint pen. But forensic scientists managed to remove the ink, revealing what appeared to be coded messages.

We painstakingly deciphered the codes, which led us to the east Belfast home of retired civil servant Owen Connolly, his wife Margaret and daughter Carmel.

Owen Connolly admitted operating an IRA safe-house and carrying out surveillance on William McConnell.

Margaret Connolly admitted washing wigs the killers used as disguises. Carmel Connolly admitted knowing her house was being used for a sinister purpose.

Within a month of William McConnell's murder, the Travers family were stalked on their way home from Mass by an IRA assassination gang. Mary was shot dead and her father seriously injured.

An RUC patrol scoured the surrounding area and found Mary McArdle, the epitome of a well-dressed, middle-class Malone Road resident, walking a small dog, but to her misfortune was found to have the murder weapons concealed on her person.

One of these was a Ruger .357 magnum revolver, which had fallen from a policeman's holster during a riot in Andersonstown and quickly found its way into the hands of the IRA.

They regarded it as something of a trophy and, in spite of having an extensive armoury of handguns at their disposal, used it to murder Judge William Doyle in January 1983 as he left Mass.

It was also used to murder three soldiers, two policemen and a civilian, as well as William McConnell and Mary Travers.

While she was being held at Castlereagh, I wondered if Mary McArdle could have been the female terrorist who assisted in the murder of William McConnell, so I went to have a look at her by positioning myself on a landing which she had to pass through when being moved by her jailers from her cell to an interview room.

Not surprisingly, she caught on that I was up to something and gave me the proverbial look that would kill. But she didn't seem to fit the description of the terrorist I was after. I have long since known whom that person is.

I am convinced that the attack on Tom Travers and his family was in direct retaliation for the firm stand he had taken on the first court appearance of the three men I had charged with the murder of William McConnell.

I had given evidence in Tom Travers' court many times and he struck me as a man of great principle and compassion whose sole aim was to serve the public.

When he had recovered sufficiently from his injuries, he identified a man whom he believed to be one of the gunmen who had attacked his family that fateful Sunday morning.

When the case came to trial, Tom Travers was subjected to a withering cross-examination and he broke down in tears several times in the witness box. The accused was later acquitted.

I am deeply touched by the great dignity being shown by Ann Travers. It is hard to believe that Sinn Fein are acting other than disingenuously by appointing Mary McArdle to a position carrying a taxpayer-funded salary of £78,000 - three times what a senior nurse in one of our hospitals would earn.

At a moment in our history when the visit to the Republic by the Queen seemed to go so far in healing old wounds on both sides, we all need to be that bit more thoughtful and tactful in our public actions to keep us on course for a more peaceful future.

Belfast Telegraph

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