Belfast Telegraph

Ivan Little: Agonies of Willie Frazer's past shaped a life of protest that was never far from headlines

Willie Frazer
Willie Frazer
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The first time I ever met Willie Frazer he rescued me from an angry loyalist mob in Markethill and 10 years later I probably helped to save his life in Dublin.

In the intervening years I reported on Frazer handcuffing himself to the gates of Downing Street, protesting outside the home of Martin McGuinness in the Bogside and helping in a bid to serve a writ on double agent Freddie Scappaticci.

And that wasn't even half of what Frazer got up to in front of the TV cameras which he courted.

That first encounter came in July 1996 as loyalists blockaded Markethill during the Drumcree protests, sparking claims from local resident and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon that they had trapped him in their ring of hijacked lorries, vans, cars and fallen trees on every main road in and out of the village.

I turned up with a UTV crew but we were immediately subjected to threats from menacing loyalists who told us to leave.

But a man who arrived on the scene on the Newry Road took control and ordered the demonstrators to back off.

I later discovered that the man who assured us he would escort us safely through the village was Willie Frazer.

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Nobody challenged his authority and he set up an interview with a "spokesman" for the loyalists, Noel Little, a convicted gunrunner whose daughter Emma Little-Pengelly is now a DUP MP.

The Markethill encounter was the first of many I had with Frazer, whom I next saw among the Rev Ian Paisley's supporters on the eve of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at Stormont in 1998.

Frazer's incandescent fury over the peace deal made Paisley sound mildly irritated about the whole thing.

But while the DUP leader eventually came around to his long detested notion of sharing power with Sinn Fein, Frazer never softened his hatred for the accommodation.

And the man who once ran a nightclub in Tandragee found a new platform for his implacable enmity for making peace with republicans.

In 1998 he set up the Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR) organisation to campaign on behalf of terror victims.

Frazer invited me to cover the first meeting in a pub in Markethill and virtually every one of those around the table told a tragic story.

The group quickly gathered support from politicians and they took their campaign to Stormont, to London and to Bournemouth to lobby a Conservative Party conference.

It was there over a late night cup of tea that Frazer told me what drove him on in what he called his "quest for justice" - the death of his UDR father Bertie at the hands of the IRA.

He also said that four other members of his family had been killed in terrorist attacks.

The more he talked the more I said he sounded like a man whose life hadn't only been blighted by tragedy but also by bigotry.

But he was at pains, as he regularly was, to point out that he had attended a Catholic school and played Gaelic football.

I said that loyalist killer Billy Wright had once told me he had the very same upbringing.

Later, Frazer was to say that he had "a lot of time" for the man dubbed King Rat.

Initially Frazer insisted that FAIR represented all victims of violence but it soon became clear that their founder's focus was solely on families impacted by IRA terrorism.

From outside FAIR, republicans set about discrediting Frazer.

They claimed his father Bertie Frazer and several dozen other security force personnel were part of the UVF's notorious Glenanne Gang who were linked to scores of murders in south Armagh.

A MoD report appeared to back up the allegations but Frazer rejected them out of hand.

At one point Frazer was turned down for a licence to carry a personal protection firearm because police said he was a known associate of loyalist paramilitaries.

It didn't come as a surprise.

During the most tense stand-offs at Drumcree, Frazer held enough clout with Orangemen and paramilitaries on the hill to accompany selected news crews into the heart of the action - of which there was plenty.

By 2006 Frazer, who had failed miserably as a politician in elections, was attempting a new tack.

He helped establish the Love Ulster pressure group that claimed Northern Ireland was going to be "sold out" into a united Ireland.

They claimed to be victim-led but at their first public event in Larne, loyalist paramilitary leaders made no secret of their presence.

Frazer's next plan was to march through Dublin in February 2006 and, backed by a large number of politicians, they assembled in Parnell Square, not far from where hundreds of republicans and nationalists were waiting for them at a bottleneck at the start of O'Connell Street.

The Garda warned the Love Ulster marchers of the perils that awaited them in an ambush but Frazer wanted to go ahead.

Having seen the situation in O'Connell Street I told him that it was no exaggeration to say that someone would be killed if they pressed on and Frazer backed down, taking his followers on their buses to protest outside the Dail instead.

In the meantime, opponents of the march were involved in the worst riots that Dublin had seen in decades.

Frazer was becoming increasingly gung-ho about his own safety. He would drive unaccompanied around south Armagh gathering "evidence" about smuggling in the area.

Frazer, who handcuffed himself to the Downing Street during one protest in London, even claimed he had been outside the farm of leading republican Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.

Emboldened, he told me he was going to picket outside Martin McGuinness's home to call on Libya to compensate victims of IRA attacks. We were filming as Frazer sought directions to the Sinn Fein leader's house, but Bogside residents angrily sent him on his way.

He had earlier showed up at the home of the double agent Stakeknife, Freddie Scappaticci, as former spy Sam Rosenfield served a summons which was thrown to the ground by an unidentified pensioner.

My dealings with Frazer became less frequent in later years, but he was never far from the headlines.

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