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The RUC never bothered to investigate my son's death

(Sharon O'Neill, Irish News)

With over 1,800 murders spanning the troubles unsolved, Chief Reporter Sharon O'Neill uncovers disturbing new information as she speaks to families from both sides of the community desperate for 'closure'.

Joseph McIlwaine didn't want his son to join the UDR. But the 20-year-old signed up with his family oblivious to the decision that ultimately cost him his life.

Just over a year later the part-time soldier, also named Joseph, was shot dead by the IRA during his tea break at Aberdelgy Golf Club near Lisburn, where he worked as a greenkeeper.

His father had also been in the regiment but left 10 years earlier and was a supervisor in the cleansing department at Lis-burn Borough Council, which ran the golf course.

"I didn't know he was in the UDR until after he was in it," says the pensioner.

Asked if he was happy his son followed in his footsteps, he shakes his head: "No. It was a dangerous time and I felt with the government we had we weren't achieving anything."

Indeed, green-keeping was a job Joseph loved and he was hoping, after marrying his fiancee Sharon, to move to Eng-land where he had been offered a post at another course.

Shortly after 10.15am on June 12 1987, as he did every day, Joseph downed his tools for a cup of tea with his workmates.

Little did he know that outside the bricked-up windows of the hut, a three-man IRA team were about to callously single out their target.

The trio, armed with handguns, calmly walked in, with one asking if those inside were part of the work-experience scheme before shooting the greenkeeper 12 times at close range – hitting him in the head, chest and stomach.

As one of the gunmen was about to re-load, he dropped bullets pulled from a handkerchief and the trio fled in a white Vauxhall Cavalier, hijacked from the nearby Twinbrook estate the previous evening.

"Joseph hadn't been in the regiment long, and never did anything," says his father.

"There was nothing in our family to attract us, we hadn't done anything wrong.

"We weren't involved in paramilitary organisations or anything that would warrant anyone to say 'we'll get our own back here'."

Mr McIlwaine's wife, Annie, also worked for Lisburn Borough Council, and heard about the shooting on the radio.

"It came over the news that Joseph had been killed at Aberdelghy Golf Course. I ran out into the street and let out an almighty scream," says Annie.

"Two taxi drivers, one of them knew me and stood with his arms around me, and said 'Annie, calm down, calm down, we'll take you to Joe (her husband)'.

"At that time I didn't know whether it was my husband or son.

"That morning, I went upstairs and said to Joseph 'are you going to work or not?', she recalls. "I said 'it's Friday, you'll be off tomorrow'.

"He said 'mum, I could just lie here'. He was lying with his arms outstretched and I said "go to work, you can lie like that in the morning'.

"I wish I never told him to go to work."

It was several hours later that the RUC called to their home to tell them that Joseph was dead.

"We weren't allowed near the golf course. I asked the police to cover Joseph with a blanket because he would be cold lying on the ground," says Mr McIIwaine.

"We kept ringing the police but they kept telling us there was no news. We weren't officially told by police until 2.30pm.

"We had lost our first grandchild not long before, we were just getting over the trauma and shock of that when we lost Joseph.

"We felt it was happening to someone else. It's so hard to think back, you can't remember because you disbelieve it, you go numb. It is very difficult."

The Belfast 'brigade' of the IRA later admitted responsibility for "the execution of a member of the security forces".

For Mr McIlwaine there may have been another reason why his son was targeted.

"My job as cleansing superintendent for Lisburn Borough council, got me in contact with everybody. I went in and out of Twinbrook," says the 65-year-old.

"Before Joseph was killed there was a strike and the bins hadn't been lifted in Twinbrook for two months.

"Our chief technical officer had gone on holidays and I was given permission to work with whoever I wanted to and get the backlog cleared.

"I resolved the situation by getting – and it is a term I don't like to use, Catholic drivers. I had good relations with all the guys in the yard so I got a squad of Catholic drivers and Catholic binmen together.

"Just before I got to that stage I was contacted by the Prov-isionals and what they wanted to do was run two lorries and they would get them loaded and set them out at the end of the estate.

"I said 'no chance, no chance whatsoever'. He told me who he was, not by name, but said 'you are talking to the Provisionals, we run this estate'.

"I said it was not going to happen because in my mind they would charge the people nothing in the first week and then they would charge them 50p, a £1 the second week and £2 third week, etc.

"I was not going to hand two estates into the hands of the IRA and I said 'no'.

"Then we got a telephone call to the house and Annie answered it and a voice said 'right, now you'll suffer' and set the phone down. We imagined that (the bins situation) attracted attention to us."

Mr McIlwaine had been due to go into Twinbrook that morning but his plans changed at the last minute.

"Joseph was buried on the Sunday, that night the head of Lisburn police came to the house and said 'Mr McIlwaine, I have a bit of bad news for you'.

"I said 'what's happened now?' and he replied 'the IRA said they missed you on Friday morning, but they will have you within 24 hours.

"If I had taken that lorry into Twinbrook, I would have been killed.

"When one of my colleagues took the lorry into the estate, two men looked up into the cab and said 'that's not Joe McIlwaine' and they turned round and walked away."

Mr McIlwaine's son had expressed concern about his safety before his death and applied for a personal weapon but the UDR considered he was not under threat.

"Someone had put a suspicious object under a car near Joseph's vehicle. I told him later 'now Joseph, that was a trial run'," his father says.

"He went to the RUC in Lisburn, and their attitude was, if your company say you are not under threat, it must mean you are not.

"In my mind (a handgun) would have been a deterrent. The killers wouldn't have walked so confidently into a wee hut, ask for Joseph and put 12 bullets in him."

Advising his son not to take a shotgun used on the farm to work is a decision at times Mr McIlwaine still debates.

"I would have been a bit worried if it was lying in the car, and it is against the law. He would have kept within the law.

"Joseph wouldn't even let you hang his uniform out on the line. He joined the Belfast regiment so when he went out on duty at night he would be meeting people he knew. He was that security conscious."

Mr McIlwaine has only kind words for his former Catholic work colleagues, one of whom was one of the first to visit the couple after their son's killing.

"I got on better with them than my employers. The council kept the bullet holes and the marks in the wall of the hut for three years.

"Because of my work, I had to pass that hut. For three years we stuck it. My daughter had to go and putty them up. It was very hurtful, seeing it every day."

He is scathing in his criticism of the RUC investigation into his son's killing – so much so that the family contacted Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

"The RUC never bothered investigating it, that is my opinion. We were never informed about what was going on," he says.

"The single ones (murders) have been ignored. Even in the high-profile cases, they (the authorities) have to be pushed into it. Take Rosemary Nelson (the solicitor murdered in 1999), the government doesn't want an inquiry into her death.

"A terrorist is a terrorist. A terrorist is not a Protestant or Roman Catholic. He is as much of a terrorist on his own side as he would be to the other side."

The McIlwaines have been privately told that one handgun – which had also been used to kill a UDR sergeant and Workers Party member Emmanuel Wil-son – was destroyed by police.

The Irish News can further reveal the ombudsman's findings.

She says:"...I did draw to the attention of the Chief Constable the fact that, not withstanding that comment on investigation of this murder must be balanced against the security situation facing the RUC in 1987, the reluctance of witnesses, the culture and the method of deployment, it is nevertheless evident that there do appear to be some deficiencies in the investigation."

The words 'do appear' are underlined in the document obtained by the Irish News – pointing at possible failings in the investigation despite the mitigating factors of the period.

The 'deficiencies' related to:

  • pursuit of forensic opportunities in relation to the gunmen
  • pursuit of an individual identified through intelligence as having possible involvement in the murder
  • pursuit of intelligence in relation to an associated incident
  • investigation of a matter relating to the working arrangements under which Mr McIlwaine worked at the Aberdelgy Golf Course

The ombudsman concluded that in light of "those apparently outstanding investigative matters" a cold case review should be carried out.

The Irish News understands that last July the Chief Constable approved a review, the outcome of which is still unknown.

"We have been told the research has been finished. The ballistics couldn't be re-done because it was too old and the gun was actually destroyed by police," said Mr McIlwaine's daughter Janet.

"It is clear there were avenues of investigation not explored.

"We are now waiting for the Chief Constable to come back to us, it doesn't look favourable that we will be told very much."

Joseph, Annie and their daughters realise that no matter what they do, nothing will bring Joseph Jnr back and memories are precious.

"Years after, even yet people would say, God we miss Joseph. He was a typical teenager, a very good son," says Annie.

"He was very friendly with the young people out of Twinbrook at the golf course," says Joseph.

"He would cut the grass and gather up golf balls and the young fellas would come over in the afternoon to play golf and he would give them the balls. That's the kind of fella he was, very caring."

Life was brought to an abrupt halt for Joseph and Annie 16 years ago and answers from the police would go some way to ease their anguish.

"When Joseph died, it broke the family up. Two sisters left the country. It really, really destroyed us. We weren't given any support or any thought," says Janet who runs victims' group Fact based in Lisburn.

Mr McIlwaine, whose pain is as raw as if his son was murdered yesterday, says:"We have so many questions.

"It is not about knowing who did it but knowing they are free and have enjoyed life. It's an awful strain."

September 20, 2003

This article appeared first in the September 19, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News